The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
That is the opening paragraph of the Charter for Compassion. The charter was developed in 2008 under the leadership of Karen Armstrong, a former nun. She used the proceeds of her prize for the best TED talk in 2008 to establish an international working group to develop the charter.
In 2010, the Australian parliament became the first parliament in the world to recognise the Charter for Compassion.
Given the policy approach developed by successive Australian governments to people seeking asylum in this country, it would seem it is easier to sign such documents than to enact the principles underpinning them.
In the United States, Seattle, as a charter signatory, has committed itself to being a city that works to ensure that:
… the homeless have shelter, the shelves of emergency food pantries are filled, people are making a fair and equitable wage, and children are receiving the best possible education. It is one collective heart working to solve seemingly insurmountable problems with conviction, determination and compassion.
Today, more than 270 cities and communities across Asia, Europe, Canada, United States and Africa (including Melbourne and Sydney) are using the charter to build a fresh vision for their societies. Motivated by the ancient and universal “golden rule” to treat others as you would like to be treated, communities of people across the globe are committing to making compassion a driving force with a measurable impact on community life and on the well-being of all members of a community.
Born with a capacity for compassion
Neuroscientific and psychological research suggests that human compassion is a product of multiple processes. These include the generation of affective feelings, inferences about others’ mental states and assessment of the meaning of another’s suffering in relation to oneself. These processes are supported by distinct brain systems in the form of unique spatio-temporal patterns of neural activity.
Neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists are now working with psychologists to better understand how intervention can be developed to enhance compassionate behaviours. Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) was developed by Paul Gilbert, a British psychologist. He argues that humans have evolved three distinct systems that help to drive our behaviour.
These three systems comprise:
one that focuses on survival and self-protection – “Threat”;
one that helps us with doing and achieving – “Drive”; and
one that focuses on contentment and feeling safe – “Soothing/Affiliation”.
Separate parts of the nervous system mediate these responses. The recent evidence of neuroplasticity suggests that we could evolve more compassionate human societies. We can do this deliberately by practising compassion and devising new methods to move the cultural emphasis from “threat” and “drive” to “soothing, contentment and improved connections with others”.
Gilbert argues that in order to be able to soothe oneself when negative emotions are highly aroused, one needs to learn how to activate the soothing system. This system evolved with caring in mammals. From the very first days of life infants are calmed down through mother care. Caring behaviour calms the threat system.
Therapy works for individuals and communities
The main thrust of CFT is to promote in stressed individuals the capacity for self-compassion and self-kindness. Therapy for individuals includes practices and exercises that help to develop compassionate attention, compassionate thinking, compassionate behaviour and compassionate feeling.
Each of the authors recently contributed to an Australia21 volume of essays, Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia? In this book, 39 essayists from diverse disciplines collectively argue that the public interest (defined as the welfare and well-being of the whole population) is under real threat from special interests and their networks of lobbyists.
Our polity is heavily influenced by a culture of “threat” and “drive”. We need new structures and processes to counterbalance a preoccupation with the needs of business and the economy and a lack of recognition that the economy is not an end in itself, but rather a means to a better life for all.
We think Australia needs an infusion of compassion-focused therapy. It is time for our federal parliamentarians to make good on their 2010 commitment to the Charter for Compassion. They should heed its closing words:
We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarised world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.
The authors are directors of Australia21. Bob Douglas is co-editor of the essay volume on public interest, which is available here.