The dictionary defines altruism as, “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” Some add the criterion “at one’s own expense,” but this is problematic because altruism always has personal and social benefits: personal, because it helps to expand the “self” concept, and social, because it increases social cohesion. In the Old Story true altruism does not exist in nature or human beings for another reason: all persons, as F.Y. Edgeworth maintains in his famous statement on economics, are motivated purely by self interest. As Scientific American points out, however, “In recent years the tide has swung dramatically against such a bleak view of human nature.” For that matter, “Chimps of both sexes also demonstrate a fair amount of reciprocal altruism, as in mutual grooming and coalition formation, and show considerable concern for the plight of other chimps.” Over a hundred years ago a scientifically-minded representative of the Wisdom Tradition, Swami Vivekananda, made this bold statement: “Western civilization has in vain endeavored to find a reason for altruism. Here it is. I am my brother, and his pain is mine. I cannot injure him without injuring myself, or do ill to other beings without bringing that ill upon my own soul.”
Psychologists use the term “priming” to describe the effect of various experiences to which they subject persons just before conducting a given experiment with them. The effects of priming reveal the malleability of human behavior and suggest strategies for supporting cooperative, empathetic behaviors. For example: infants as young as 18 mos. are observed to be more cooperative and helpful if they are shown wooden dolls facing each other vs. facing apart; students give more optimistic responses after seeing the picture of an inspiring figure like Mother Teresa, etc. Perhaps the most striking example of priming is the Wheeler & Fiske study (2005) showing that ‘fight-or-fight’ responses deep in the brain are not inevitably triggered when a person encounters another of a different racial group. Rather, racially biased responses are suppressed if the subject is asked a humanizing, personalizing question about the person before them, even something trivial like “does this person like coffee or tea.” Conversely, priming can encourage negative behaviors, as it regularly does by exposing us to mass media violence.
Empathy means simply the ability to feel what another is feeling: to share in their mental state. Lack of empathy is clearly an enabling factor in all violence. Beyond that, emerging research confirms—as the wisdom traditions have always maintained—that a lack of empathy is harmful to one’s own health. Most of us spontaneously feel empathy for some persons – our own family, people who are like us, people who see things our way. As Einstein says, we can and should learn to expand this circle to include everyone and “the whole of Nature in its beauty.” A nonviolent actor will often seek to awaken empathy in an unresponsive opponent, e.g. by self-suffering. Offering the other person respect and understanding for their position will facilitate this awakening.
While the prevailing scientific and popular opinion holds that competition is a central operating principle of life and evolution,, a great deal of scientific evidence now shows that cooperation is fundamental to life on this planet. While animals do contend for resources, chiefly food and mates, they also cooperate towards the same ends. Shifts from competition to cooperation marked major breakthroughs in every stage of evolution, beginning with single-celled organisms. The carbon dioxide and oxygen cycle between plants and animals is one example of cooperation that is fundamental to life as we know it, not to mention the roughly 37 trillion cells in the human body – by far the majority of which are not even human cells but a vast cooperating world of other microorganisms. Archaeology reveals mounting evidence that human groups lived peacefully for millennia in economic equality, and apparently without fortifications or weapons of war. Marija Gimbutas, for example, has shown that from approximately 6500 – 2800 BC there existed in Eastern Europe a remarkably advanced, widespread and cohesive woman-centered culture that was highly creative, with striking art works and a pre-alphabetic language. There is no trace of fortifications and weaponry until the disruptive arrival of other groups from the steppes of Russia, whom she identifies with the Indo-Europeans. In another field, game theory has shown mathematically that cooperation is inherently a more robust strategy than competition.
While it is not necessary to hold any particular religious belief to practice nonviolence with some success, and holding such a belief is by no means a guarantee that one will think or behave nonviolently, it does seem to be the case that most of the highly successful nonviolence practitioners, famous or otherwise, have drawn upon the awareness, or at least faith in greater dimensions to the human being than that accounted for in the old paradigm, namely the body. Gandhi called nonviolence or ahiṃsā “soul-force,” after all, and pointed out that if we are called upon to make the final sacrifice some belief in a continued existence after physical death is helpful. More importantly, the ability to “reach” another person non-physically plays a key role in nonviolent change. That we are “body, mind, and spirit” is often axiomatic among the nonviolent (note King’s reference to the well-off who have “material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits.” While science, as we understand it, is not particularly well equipped to study spirit or consciousness, it became a topic of crucial interest with the advent of quantum theory. Studies of near-death experiences (NDE’s) and more importantly the Grynberg-Zylberbaum et al. discovery of non-physical communication are two examples of a growing scientific awareness of the untold potential of consciousness in human being and experience.
Biologist Eirene Eibl-Eibesfeld coined the term “pseudo speciation” for the well known phenomenon that under certain circumstances human beings can deny the human status, the humanity, of others. To be violent toward another virtually requires this. Thus the reawakening of that awareness, or rehumanization, is a critical tool for nonviolence. Indeed, Gandhi and many others have found that the capacity for nonviolence ⎯ to offer it and to respond to it when offered ⎯ is the hallmark of being human. Palestinian nonviolent activist Ali Abu Awad has called nonviolence simply “the art of being human,” and therefore being nonviolent toward others can often (or always, to some degree) awaken the recognition of one’s own humanity in one who had lost it. Another mechanism for rehumanization was demonstrated by Wheeler and Fiske, namely the recognition of the other as an individual rather than a stereotyped category.
While overlapping broadly with the topic of Empathy, compassion, in its literal, or etymological sense means the ability to or state of not just “feeling with” but even “experiencing with” another and has become a separate topic for scientific research. Compassion for opponents is a first requirement of principled (Gandhian) nonviolence and a powerful way to diffuse hostility and tension. Needless to say, compassion makes violence toward another human being (or any creature) impossible. The Center for Compassion And Altruism Research And Education at Stanford University, supported by the Dalai Lama and others, has carried out innumerable studies and kept track of this expanding field. These studies document irrefutably that compassion has a positive impact on the immune system, generates feelings of happiness, and when organized into social programs becomes an extremely cost-effective way to reduce suffering and violence.
Since the arresting publication by Thomas Kuhn of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) the world has become aware that not only science but culture generally operates on a more-or-less implicit set of fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality, and that this model, or worldview, or “story” periodically goes through a rather sudden “shift” to a more satisfactory replacement. Kuhn explored the dynamics of this process, which he called “paradigm shift,” showing that “counter instances” pile up until they begin to be recognized as “anomalies” that call into question the validity of the prevailing model. The latter cannot be relinquished, however, until a new model is available.
All these rules apply to cultural shift as well, and it is obvious that we are now passing through a rather turbulent phase of “paradigm breakdown.” A network of social thinkers, including Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy, who calls this shift the “Great Turning,” are trying hard to formulate a new story and get it accepted. Briefly, principled nonviolence could not be accounted for by the old or prevailing story, which holds that the world is made of matter and therefore everything and everyone is separate; it is, however not only at home in but arguably a key feature of the emerging worldview
That all life, indeed all that exists is an interconnected whole was axiomatic in the wisdom traditions of every civilization. Contemporary science, especially where it has seen consciousness rather than inert matter as the underlying substrate of the universe, has begun to see evidences of this interconnectedness, or unity, in many areas. One fundamental example (as far as the outer world is concerned) is the phenomenon of “quantum inseparability” or “quantum entanglement:” in the quantum world when two quantum entities, e.g. photons, interact in any way, e.g. are projected in a beam together, their characteristics are strangely coordinated even though restrictions on the speed of light disallow for any transmission from one to the other of any known signal. On a much higher level, human beings who meditate together have been shown to have coordinated brain activities even when widely separated in space or even in what’s called a “Farraday chamber” through which no electromagnetic radiation can exit.
The unity of life is of course a central tenet of principled nonviolence and begins to furnish some explanation of its effectiveness.
The Metta Center for Nonviolence, PO Box 98, Petaluma, California 94953 707-774-6299 firstname.lastname@example.org