When we lived in Cambodia, one of our favorite places to visit was the Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Center. And although people sometimes called it the zoo, its mission focuses on addressing the illegal hunting and wildlife trade in Southeast Asia. Phnom Tamao is something more like a hospital and rehabilitation center, caring for injured, orphaned, or ill wild animals that were often rescued from wildlife trafficking. (As you might guess, many of these animals are critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable species.) Animals that can be fully rehabilitated are released back into their natural habitat (more than 8,000 animals were released from 2013 to 2018). Those that are no longer able to survive in the wild and need continued care remain at the Rescue Center. We had the good luck to know one of the folks who coordinated the Free the Bears program there, a program that not only works to rescue and care for endangered sun bears, but also to transform cultural attitudes about sun bears, giving the bears, and their ecosystems, the best chance to thrive.
This reflection isn’t about this important work (work that was put at risk last year by the deforestation and planned development around the Rescue Center that was halted after public outcry). But it was during one of our visits to the Rescue Center when I had an experience I cannot forget. Looking for a break from the sunshine and heat, we wandered into a small gift shop. The woman working inside struck up a conversation and was delighted to know we could speak some Khmer. The conversation quickly shifted away from caring for animals, though, when she asked what we were doing in Cambodia. We explained our work, which fell into three broad categories: 1) understanding and healing family conflict and violence; 2) offering mediation, conflict coaching, and other peacebuilding services to English-speakers; and 3) supporting human rights and community development workers to integrate peace and conflict tools into their organizations and activities. She asked us some more questions, and then hugged us tightly, tears streaming down her face.
We talked for quite a while, hearing her stories of surviving the Khmer Rouge, the civil war, and years of often violent chaos as Cambodia began to recover from decades of both systemic and random violence. She described how the violence had become just a way of life, a way to survive, and it was just habit for many people. It was, for me, a powerful reminder of how violence can become part of us – a possibility, an exception, a habit, a culture. That possibility exists within us, and we must deal honestly with that potential if we don’t want to be ruled by it. And that can be difficult, but the flipside is that healing and compassion can also become a part of us. Healing, compassion, and joy remain a possibility, even in the most desperate situations. When we act on that possibility, that choice may be exceptional at first, but, choosing it again and again, it can become a habit. And, when chosen together, as a community, it can become a culture.
These experiences and lessons were very fresh on my mind when, near the end of our time in Cambodia, in 2010, a study by researchers at the University of Valencia investigated which brain structures were at work during experiences of empathy and violence. They found that the neural pathways associated with empathy had a substantial “overlap ‘in a surprising way’ with those that regulate aggression and violence”. The lead author of the study, Dr. Luis Moya Albiol, explained:
"We all know that encouraging empathy has an inhibiting effect on violence, but this may not only be a social question but also a biological one -- stimulation of these neuronal circuits in one direction reduces their activity in the other, … . Educating people to be empathetic could be an education for peace, bringing about a reduction in conflict and belligerent acts”.
This immediately made sense to me. At least, from my experience with both meditation practices (e.g., mindfulness and metta) and empathetic practices (e.g., transformative mediation and nonviolent communication), I have found myself encountering the scared, angry, and aggressive aspects within and finding them settling down, released in the embrace of compassionate awareness. But the study said something more than this, potentially helping us answer that nagging question, "How can we humans be so wonderful and horrible at the same time? So generous and compassionate on the one hand and so cruel and violent on the other?" It could even be that the possibility of violence is part of the price we pay for the beautiful opportunity to connect with each other with compassion, care, empathy and respect.
A further example comes from a 2016 “comprehensive review of the neurobiology of empathy” in comparison “with the neurobiology of psychopathic predatory violence by Doriana Chialant, Judith Edersheim, and Bruce H. Price (“The Dialectic Between Empathy and Violence: An Opportunity for Intervention?”). Although we typically think of violence in connection with self-defense and self-preservation, the authors point out that our capacity for empathy evolved “in the service of attachment for self-preservation.” If you think of the most foundational of mammalian social bonds, that of mother and infant, this makes sense. Empathy and a healthy bond are the most important protections for a newborn against predators and other dangers. These same capacities support all our social relationships. Empathy and healthy social bonds reduce personal distress and reduce avoidance behaviors. Healthy attachment supports healthy emotional regulation, which, in turn, supports our ability to experience and express empathy for others.
At the chemical level, the authors point out that oxytocin is “released in the context of supportive relationships.” This is part of our brain’s reward systems. For example, hormonal shifts during pregnancy “predispose the brain reward system to form mother-infant bonds at birth,” and interactions between a securely attached mother and child “increase the production of oxytocin, activating the brain reward regions.” This modulates the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis, “enabling greater trust, attachment, and empathy.” They also noted:
“Both secure attachment and higher degrees of empathic capacity hormonally activate the brain reward system, which, in turn, sustains attachment and nurturance. Because empathy and attachment are linked to the same hormonal events, they are both behaviorally and physiologically interdependent. … Even when empathic behaviors are extended to nonkin, these behaviors activate the reward system, inducing feelings of well-being. Thus, empathic behaviors are physiologically rewarding, if not addictive.”
The reverse is also true. The literature demonstrates that violent traits and psychopathic behaviors (including predatory and callous-unemotional violence) “are tightly linked to these same structures” activated during empathic processing. A “functional imbalance” of these pathways “leads to the cognitive and interpersonal/affective aspects of psychopathy.” However and hopefully, “A corollary of this,” the authors wrote, “is that strengthening empathy, which enhances bonding, might result in diminished P[redatory]V[iolence].”
Our understanding of the human brain continues to deepen, and this topic is still one where we have a lot to learn. However, research like this points to something very hopeful. Namely, cultivating empathy and compassion, a wonderful practice for so many reasons, may also help heal and protect us (though not make us immune) from the potential for violence that has devastated so much of human history. It is another piece of evidence that may help us understand what practices and values (be they direct, structural and/or cultural) support a peaceful, just and happy place to live.
This is not an absolute decision; humans and human society are more complicated than that. But it is a question about the overall shape of our lives and our society. Will they be characterized by violence, relying on our capacities for coercion and aggression? Or will they be characterized by healthy social bonds, relying on our capacities for wisdom and compassion? Which action will be exceptional, violence or empathy? Which action will be normal, violence or empathy? We can understand both paths as strategies to protect ourselves, and recognize that both possibilities live within us. But the research also points out that these are diverging paths. We nourish one path at the expense of the other. As Dr. Albiol put it, “stimulation of these neuronal circuits in one direction reduces their activity in the other”. Each decision we make is something of a crossroads. Collectively and personally, our decisions answer the question: which direction do we choose?
As I’ve noted in the past, I am asked from time to time about why
I have embraced the path of cultivating wisdom and compassion. Perhaps unsurprisingly in a society so often oriented around violence and coercion, the greatest anxiety is whether this path "works." I have also been told with some frequency about how naive I am to embrace wisdom and compassion and how, in doing so, I am endangering the whole planet. Most of these conversations come out of a moral view of violence, which rather pushes us into conversations about when violence is justified. But this can very easily camouflage the issue that violence always includes suffering: to victor and victim, to perpetrator and bystander, and to the earth itself.
Another of my memorable conversations in Cambodia came about when a very sincere man was struggling with these kinds of questions. He was just visiting Cambodia as part of a cultural exchange, learning about the types of peace and development work going on there. In Cambodia, he came face to face with horrible memories of still open wounds, many of the same tragedies our new friend talked about in that wildlife rescue center gift shop. He had grieved the cruelty, brutality, and death recorded within the walls of S-21, the Khmer Rouge's torture machine. He had wept at the tower of skulls memorializing the killing fields. And he had listened to desperate stories of people facing violent eviction and land-grabbing, suffering violence in real time. He was overwhelmed and confused and found himself asking, over and over again, how can someone choose compassion and wisdom in the face of something like the Khmer Rouge? Won’t they inevitably fail?
But if we visit these terrible places - the Killing Fields of Cambodia or the gas chambers of Germany or the mass graves of any one of the 20th century's genocides - we need to remember what it is that we are witnessing. These are not testaments to the inherent weaknesses of wisdom and compassion, though they are testaments to our collective failure to cultivate wisdom and compassion. Instead, these places are monuments of violence, of the horrors humans are capable of inflicting and suffering when they do not learn the art of living with wisdom, compassion, joy and equanimity. We could similarly look at the ongoing violence endemic to our own society reflects the ultimate failure of violence as a long-term strategy for creating collective and personal wellbeing.
Arguments about when violence is necessary, justified, or unavoidable often distract us from the real issue at hand. And that issue is that it is unwise to wait to remove the greed, hatred and delusion from our lives until circumstances are at their worst. We should not wait to cultivate empathy and healthy social bonds until we are caught up in the terrors of war or when we are facing a great injustice. This practice is for every single day. It is about how you think about yourself, how you treat your children or work colleagues, and even how you express disappointment or respond to criticism. All violence is a form a suffering. We cannot wait until a crisis to begin the transformation. It really is like Thich Nhat Hanh said,
“When you have peace within yourself, you can bring peace to another person; when you both have peace you can bring peace to a third person. This is the only way.”
It’s challenging to bring up this point without oversimplifying things. Cultivating authentic wisdom and compassion cannot be a retreat into unrealistic idealism. It's not pretending that pain and difficulty are never a part of our experience. And it's certainly not about coercing ourselves, resisting the present moment in favor of forcing positive or pleasant emotions onto ourselves or others. Instead, it's about being able to accept and engage that pain and difficulty with curiosity, openness, and love. "This is what it feels like when there is conflict, violence, suffering; this is what it feels like when there is anger, fear, grief; this is what it feels like when there is greed, aversion, and ignorance.”
The practice is to hold both the potential and mechanisms for violence together with the potential and mechanisms for wisdom and compassion. We have known for decades now, for example, that witnessing violence impacts the neurological development of children. Published in 1997, Bruce Perry’s “Incubated in Terror: Neurodevelopmental Factors in the ‘Cycle of Violence’” remains a powerful exploration of how childhood experiences may condition us for life in a violent world (and thus perpetuate violence), as well as highlighting factors for breaking that cycle of violence. He wrote:
"It is in the nature of humankind to be violent, but it may not be the nature of humankind. Without major transformation of our culture, without putting action behind our 'love' of children, we may never learn the truth."
So how do we get there? How do we put into action our love for children, for one another, and even and especially for the Other and the enemy? One tool at our disposal is the Buddhist practice of metta, or lovingkindness, meditation, which I am planning to describe more fully next month. Very briefly, it is a simple technique for cultivating kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity for oneself and others.
One of foundational studies on this practice is detailed in “Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources.” A research team led by Barbara Fredrickson (with Michael Cohn, Kimberly Coffey, Jolynn Pek, and Sandra Finkel) described the empirically supported broaden-and-build theory. It “holds that positive emotions broaden people’s attention and thinking” by training the mind to: 1 ) “widen the scope of people’s visual attention”; 2) “broaden their repertoires of desired actions”; and 3) “increase their openness to new experiences”. The broadening increases our “sense of ‘oneness’” with others, our “trust in acquaintances,” and even our ability to recognize people “of another race.” The second part of the theory is that we can “build consequential personal resources.” The authors called this a growth trajectory, where cultivating positive emotions lead to growth over time in our capacity for: optimism, tranquility, the ability to adapt to change (ego-resilience), mental well-being, and healthy relationships.
This broadening-and-building has obvious overlaps with and impacts our capacity to choose empathy, and to intentionally cultivate wisdom and compassion, over the shortcuts of violence and coercion. It helps us notice possibilities that we would otherwise overlook and to be open to strategies that we would otherwise be too inflexible to consider. It helps us understand how we are connected and recognize the potential to know and trust those who we might otherwise think of as too different and maybe even too dangerous. It keeps us adaptable, even when the circumstances might be screaming for us to dig in and make demands. It helps keep a path open, when otherwise we might see no other option but hate.
In the 9-week study conducted by Fredrickson’s team, they found that loving-kindness meditation increased participants’ daily experiences of “love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope, pride, interest, amusement, and awe.” These were slow and small changes, spread out incrementally over the nine weeks. And they were linked with real increases in intra- and inter-personal skills, such as mindful attention and self-acceptance. Satisfaction in life increased, while depression decreased. These were “long-term gains that made genuine differences in people’s lives.” Significantly, these impacts were not so much direct effects. Instead, participants were building resources “that make their lives more fulfilling and help keep their depressive symptoms at bay.” The authors concluded that:
“people judge their lives to be more satisfying and fulfilling, not because they feel more positive emotions per se, but because their greater positive emotions help them build resources for living successfully.”
Building those resources is key, because we are on a path to make wellbeing, in ourselves and in community, available to all. And that takes moving away from a culture where fear, anger, greed, scarcity, and ignorance is normal. It takes choosing a path where wisdom and compassion become the norm, so that we are building resources, personally and collectively, where we can thrive. As the Buddhist monk and scholar Nyanaponika Thera wrote:
“The world suffers. But most [people] have their eyes and ears closed. They do not see the unbroken stream of tears flowing through life; they do not hear the cry of distress continually pervading the world. Their own little grief or joy bars their sight, deafens their ears. Bound by selfishness, their hearts turn stiff and narrow. Being stiff and narrow, how should they be able to strive for any higher goal, to realize that only release from selfish craving will effect their own freedom from suffering? / It is compassion that removes the heavy bar, opens the door to freedom, makes the narrow heart as wide as the world.”
Thank you for being part of a community and movement that seeks to make that transformation real, taking our narrow hearts and opening them, “as wide as the world.”