July 2019 Newsletter

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 Mindfulness and Contemplative Education Newsletter:

“Who Are the Leaders of the Future?”

The Dalai Lama was recently asked what message he had for Gen Xers. His answer was, “in the West people are not educated in the values of the heart, of compassion.” He explained, “Compassion lives in the heart, beyond religion. . . all you need is the compassion of the heart. Women know this because peace is implicit in women. You put boys together, they make war. You put women together, they make peace. Women are the leaders of the future.” The Dalai Lama: Women are the Leaders of the Future

Certainly, we can all think of important exceptions to his generalization; both history and current events show us peaceful men and aggressive women. But as a generalization there seems to be a great deal of truth to it. But is this a necessary truth? Are those peaceful men and aggressive women simply anomalies? Are the differences we now see between the majority of men and women just natural and therefore the current state of social and political affairs is inevitable? And what about compassion? What is it? How might it lead to peace?

These are big questions and their full resolution will take much more space and time than we can give them here. At this point I will propose that these aspects of male and female natures are not written in our DNA, but rather depend on cultural and social circumstances which can over-ride our DNA. In what follows I will propose that we consider that both males and females are naturally empathic. In consequence, both sexes can identify with the suffering of others and feel an impulse to respond in order to alleviate that suffering. This is the compassion that the Dalai Lama spoke of.

Empathy was not a widely employed or studied concept until quite recently. Years ago, when I was teaching Orwell’s 1984 I was struck by Winston Smith, the lead character, ‘feeling in his own arm’ the pain of a woman who, he believed, was his enemy when she fell and landed on her arm which was in a cast. Although empathy was not referred to, Smith’s experience illustrates the defining aspect of empathy; it is an entirely spontaneous and experiential process of identifying with another and is not based on cognitive input.

Empathy is an experience we all have, and it frequently occurs when something dramatic suddenly happens, e.g. seeing a person or some other animal suddenly be endangered, hurt or killed. It also happens when we see injustice imposed on others, for example the pictures of migrant children held in appalling conditions on the southern U.S. border, or a father and his young daughter who drowned together. In such cases we can have a physical and emotional reaction and that reaction can quickly include thoughts about responding to the situation.

There is currently a great deal of research being done on empathy and compassion. This includes not only humans but also research on empathy and emotion in other animals, from elephants to orcas, in whom both empathy and emotions are strong. The primatologist Frans De Waal has made some major contributions to this research. Humans are closely related to Bonobos and Chimps with whom research shows we share around 98 to 98.5% of our DNA. De Waal’s extensive body of research publications shows conclusively the role of empathy and compassion in these primates as well as their ability to understand the behavior of others and to assist or intervene in it. A widely publicized example where we can see empathy and responsive action is Harambe, a gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo, who was shot and killed when he attempted to rescue a 3-year old child who fell into the mote surrounding his habitat. The very fact that he got into the water, comparable to a human jumping in who cannot swim, attests to the empathic nature of his actions. De Waal’s work is influential and very accessible. The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society and Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves provide a good introduction to his findings.

We’ve all heard of the entire neonatal unit breaking out in tears when one of the babies there begins to cry. This is now recognized as empathy and shows that it is available at birth and not something that is acquired. The philosopher Wittgenstein, although he did not use the term, relied on empathy to understand the acquisition of language having to do with the subjective experience of oneself and others.

It is a primitive reaction to tend, to treat, the part that hurts when

someone else is in pain; and not merely when oneself is – and so

to pay attention to other people’s pain-behavior, as one does not pay

attention to one’s own pain behavior.

But what is the word “primitive” meant to say here? Presumably

that this sort of behavior is pre-linguistic: that a language-game is

based on it, that it is the prototype of a way of thinking and not

the result of thought. (Zettle, §540 – 541).

Thus, empathy is essential to language acquisition and now recognized as essential to pro-social behavior generally. As the work of psychologist Harry Harlow with infant rhesus monkeys showed, when they were deprived of social contact at the beginning of their lives and thus the opportunity to use and develop empathy, they were incapable of social behavior later, even to the point of being unable to have sexual relationships.

Compassion, or karuna, is at the heart of Buddhist moral action, or more accurately skillful action/upaya kasula (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-319-76538-9_7), and the English word ‘compassion’ captures its meaning well. It is derived from the Latin words ‘cum’ i.e. with, together or in union, and ‘patior’, to undergo or to suffer in the sense of allow or permit (“suffer the little children to come unto me.”) While compassion is often used in the sense of ‘to feel sorry for’, its Latin roots bring out the sense of ‘undergoing together as one’ and that is the meaning of empathy. From empathy springs the impulse to help or assist the sufferer, an experience which I’m sure we have all had. This brings in the cognitive element which De Waal calls sympathy and which is distinct from but dependent upon empathy.

The role of empathy in the socialization of boys and girls is equal in the very early stages of life. However, in many cultures, predominately in the West, boys are soon taught to suppress empathy and caring behavior and girls are encouraged to enhance these. Boys, as the Dalai Lama has indicated, become agentic warriors and girls passive caregivers. But this is not a necessary outcome. There is also the possibility of either gender moderating their development and moving toward more androgynous personalities where boys are strong but caring and girls are caring through strength. I will only propose at this point that education in mindfulness and other contemplative practices which fosters a greater self-understanding can enhance this development.

In conclusion I agree to a degree with the Dalai Lama that in the West boys, and men, become warriors and girls, and women, peacemakers. Exploring the causes of this is an undertaking for another time as are the many other topics that this gives rise to. For instance, what is the extent of our compassion? Is it only toward humans? Or to other beings? To the earth? How do such key Buddhist concepts of shunyata and pratitya samutpada fit in? These and many other pertinent topics must await another day.

Question: What do you think?

Welcome to New Members!

Dr. Chris Glass is an Associate Professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. His interests are in international students, internationalization, and higher education. He is also the Senior Editor for the Journal of International Students. You can access his calls for submissions to both chapters for books and for journal manuscripts under “Calls for Papers” and Calls for Positions in Higher Education under “News and Events.” You can contact him at crglass@odu.edu

Harris Ambush teaches in the College of Education at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg and also manages community programs for underserved youth. He teaches Yoga, health education and mindfulness. In addition, he is an educator, author, artist, spiritualist, observer, activator, cyclist and curious human being. As well, he has a range of degrees and has studied and taught in multiple places. You can read more about Harris on the members list and contact him at ambush09@hotmail.com

Micah Faidley is a first-year graduate student in Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research aims to understand individual, family and social/environmental factors that prevent health disparities and promote well-being across the life course, particularly among underserved communities. He is also interested in using human-centered design and community-based participatory research approaches to adapt early interventions for children, adolescents, and young adults that integrate contemplative practices such as compassion and mindfulness. The ultimate goal of his work is to develop scalable prevention interventions and programs as a way of increasing access and contributing to health equity. Micah is a member of Dr. Larissa Duncan’s Awareness, Well-being and Resilience for Equity (AWARE) Lab at UW-Madison. Micah can be contacted at faidley@wisc.edu

Questionnaire Update

We are still welcoming your responses to the Mindfulness and Contemplative Education Questionnaire so kindly send them in to mindful@yorku.ca. But we realize that it’s summer and folks have a lot of things to do besides filling in questionnaires! So, we will be resending the questionnaire in the fall. We are also working on putting it in a different format which will make it quicker and easier to answer. There will be multiple choice answers with space for comments if you wish. The topics will be the same so you can do the current form or wait for the new format in the fall. Your responses, and those of your students, will be of great value in contributing to the development and dissemination of contemplative education so please do respond either now or in the fall.

Anthology Call and Format

We have extended the call for new submissions for the anthology of students’ writing on contemplative education until November 2019. We have some excellent work and, since we are in the process of reviewing these and requesting editorial changes, we have some time and so are open to accepting additional work. Make your submissions to dorr@yorku.ca or msafadieh@hotmail.com

Your submission should be in MLA format. You can access a MLA Formatting and Style Guide.

Please use :1 ½ line spacing, Times New Roman 14. 10 – 12 pages would be ideal although we are flexible with this. Do not submit as PDF file.

We wish you all a happy and productive summer – and get some down time, too!

We welcome any comments or ideas you have regarding the website, Newsletters, Contemplative Education, and more.

Deborah and Mustapha

Mindfulness and Contemplative Education Questionnaire
Fill out the Online Questionnaire | Download the Questionnaire (DOCX)

Consent Form
Informed Consent Form (PDF) | Informed Consent Form (DOCX)

Please return forms to mindful@yorku.ca

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