Several years ago, I started asking myself: Why do I care for my children more than other children?
Shouldn’t my attention extend beyond my immediate family to include all children?
I bring this question to my classes, which at times feels a bit dramatic and rebellious, and I am heartened by the number of people who nod in agreement, admitting that they too have contemplated this question.
Over the years, I have searched for perspective, reading the words of philosophers, scientists and poets.
The Dalai Lama, who writes and speaks extensively about love and compassion for all, offers that some individuals may consider "this idea of cultivating thoughts of cherishing the well being of all sentient beings … unrealistic and too idealistic.”
However, rather than agreeing that this effort is futile, he presents another perspective:
“ What is important here is to understand the impact of cultivating such altruistic sentiments.
The point is to try to develop the scope of one's empathy in such a way that it can extend to any form of life that has the capacity to feel pain and experience happiness.
It is a matter of defining a living organism as a sentient being.
This kind of sentiment is very powerful, and there is no need to be able to identify, in specific terms, with every single living being in order for it to be effective.”
Some people may feel that The Dalai Lama provides a valuable spiritual perspective, but may question its relevance to people who do not study and practice Buddhism.
Yet, Albert Einstein, who viewed the world through the lens of a scientist, with rigorous inquiry based on empirical evidence, echoed The Dalai Lama’s perspective when he wrote:
“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness.
This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.
Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Einstein went on to emphasize that this way of thinking is integral to the survival of humanity:
“The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.”
Einstein’s reference to our survival compelled me to explore Darwin’s writings, and what I learned surprised me.
Rather than suggesting that we bring our attention to the strongest members of our species, Darwin proposed that in order to ensure our survival, we need to develop and extend our capacity for sympathy to “all sentient beings.”
In fact, he included individuals with injuries or illness, and wrote that we cannot “check our sympathy … without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.”
In Darwin's words:
“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him.
This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. [If they appear different] experience unfortunately shews us how long it is before we look at them as our fellow creatures.
Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is humanity to the lower animals, seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions…
This virtue [concern for lower animals], one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they extend to all sentient beings.”
A Buddhist monk, a physicist and a naturalist, highly respected in their individual fields, present remarkably similar views, each suggesting that the development of our capacity to bring our attention to the well being of all beings is a measure of our advancement as a species and essential to our survival.
But can the cultivation of an expanded perspective lead to any significant changes in ourselves and our world?
Current scientific studies provide several important insights.
- When participants focus their attention on the health and happiness of all beings, they often experience an increase in positive emotions, self-acceptance and improved health.
- A focus on kindness towards all people, may lead to alteration of telomere length, a biomarker for longevity, and support a longer life.
- As we bring extend our attention to the well being of more individuals, gray matter in brain structure in regions important for regulation of emotions is increased, depression decreases and empathy increases.
The Dalai Lama adds:
“the development of this attitude gives rise to a sense of openness and trust that provides the basis for peace.”
For me, when I practice cultivating this state of mind, my relationship with my inner world and with our shared outer world changes and equanimity is transformed into an experience rather than a concept.
In fact, research reveals that when individuals practice meditation focused on bringing loving kindness to a greater number of people, their implicit attitudes toward stigmatized groups such as blacks and homeless people improve, and feelings of positivity toward strangers increase.
While we cannot personally care for all beings, as we practice extending the reach of our attention, we take active steps toward health and peace.