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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

The concept of compassion

October 4, 2010

Casey McGlasson
Indiana Student Daily (IDS)
Septeber 30, 2010

There is a well-known quote from the Dalai Lama
on a poster on my wall. It reads:  “World peace
must develop from inner peace. Peace is not the
absence of violence. Peace is the manifestation of human compassion."

I have woken up to that quote every morning for
months and wondered whether or not I agree with
it. The first sentence I find adequate, if
conventional. Certainly, there is an individual
role in peace that is not frequently treated in
politics. The second sentence I find likewise
agreeable. Dichotomies such as that of peace and violence are rarely useful.

It is the third sentence that I find myself
coming back to. "Peace is the manifestation of
human compassion." It is that word, "compassion," that I wonder about.

Precisely what is compassion?

Etymology tells me it has something to do with
the Latin roots ‘com’ and ‘pati,’ which imply a
definition of compassion as togetherness in
suffering. The popular understanding of the word
adds in an element of individual, first-person
concern — of worry for the other’s condition --
that the Latin stems leave out. However, I doubt
anyone would argue with this definition of compassion at first glance.

This leaves me wondering: If compassion requires
an element of suffering, does the Dalai Lama mean
that in a world without suffering there can inherently be no peace?

When I think of the core concept, "passion," it
does not immediately conjure up images of disease
and torture and horror. It conjures up something
more representative, something more holistically
human. It conjures up all powerful emotions and
actions -- both suffering and ecstasy.

And yet, why do we then limit the definition of compassion to suffering?

Passion has grown etymologically to include both
concepts of intense good and intense ill. Why not compassion also?

Think of the quote again with this new
understanding in mind. Peace is the manifestation
of the capacity of human beings to feel together,
in tragedy and in triumph. The effort for peace
is then no longer the duty of some sad-sap
conscience, but the ability of a biologically
granted consciousness of the states of minds of others.

In fact, the closer we get to a science of
compassion, the more the evidence points away
from the popular notion of suffering producing an
emotional response in the viewer.

Take, for example, a subset of neurons in the
primate brain known as mirror neurons. Discovered
only a few decades ago, these neurons fire (to
put it very simply) both during action and during
observation of that same action being performed by another.

Such synchronicity is far more profound than mere pity.

We in the Western world, in our plastic castles
and our shiny cars, sometimes forget how little
pity means and how ridiculous it is for us to
cling to our consciences out of discomfort rather
than understanding. The kind of compassion that
really matters -- that finds itself embodied in
whatever peace we have -- is not merely a
compassion of suffering, but a compassion of the
entire spectrum of human experience, including joy.

And that is an idea that I can agree with, an
idea that the Dalai Lama eloquently expressed:
Peace is the manifestation of our connections to
each other and our ability to intuit what it means to be "other."
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