Widening Circles of Compassion
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
As one who is passionate about human growth and development, I am forever grateful to American philosopher, Ken Wilber who, among his many contributions, mapped the myriad of development theories such that they can be compared to each other. Until Wilber’s amazing synthesis, it was difficult to make accurate comparisons since each theorist uses differing terminology. And here’s the great news, mapped together it is clear that human development has a trajectory. True, we humans meander forward rather than move in a straight line, to paraphrase Michael Murphy, but the evidence of development theorists is very clear . . . we are going somewhere!
One way to describe this trajectory is as widening circles of compassion. Merriam-Webster defines compassion as a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress, together with a desire to alleviate it. It is the capacity to really see another perspective and appreciate difference. Compassionate acts are those that take into account the suffering of others and attempt to alleviate that suffering as if it were one’s own. In this sense, the various forms of the Golden Rule are clearly based on the concept of compassion. As we develop, say theorists who study ego, moral, cultural, spiritual, cognitive development, to name but a few, the circle of those for whom we have compassion widens.
Clearly we don’t start life this way, nor should we. Children have an egocentric perspective on the world, which gradually expands over time. It is not helpful to expect more than what a child is developmentally able to do. What researchers have shown is that the move from egocentric to ethnocentric, which generally begins between age seven and twelve, is just the beginning of human’s capacity to widen the circle of compassion. Ethnocentric means one has moved from care only for oneself to compassion for others who are like us. This may mean my tribe, my country, or my religious group .The key is an appreciation of the perspective and suffering of those who are like me. Adults whose perspective is at this level adhere to conformist roles and rules. Religiously they are comfortable with traditional doctrines of their religious tradition, generally seeing theirs as the “only way.”
People often point to religion as the culprit for much of the world’s troubles. However it is not the religions per se that are the cause, rather it is the level of development of those who are wrecking havoc in the world. It is almost impossible at this stage to see another perspective, therefore one’s own is viewed as correct. This justifies any action against those who are unlike us.
Moving beyond an ethnocentric perspective the circle of compassion expands to include all people, regardless of difference from oneself. Here we question rigid belief systems and conventional rules and roles. This stage is called worldcentric because people here concern themselves with the plight of the earth and all those who live on it. Social activism generally begins at this level of consciousness.
For hundreds of years we have viewed the perspectives and actions of worldcentric people as extraordinary. Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King to name just a few, seem super human. They are the ones we look up to and don’t think we can emulate. This kind of compassion seems extraordinary because it calls us to bear witness to life, everywhere. It asks us to make sacrifices and stand for issues that may cause great personal discomfort. Einstein said it much better than I:
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. 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 of humanity is to survive.”
Today we know that this perspective is the next step in adult development and that an even wider perspective, called kosmocentric, is available as we continue to grow. Those whose perspective has widened this far identify with all life and feel a deep responsibility for the evolutionary process as a whole. They see themselves as containers of the evolutionary impulse that are literally laying down the tracks for the future of the world.
These days we no longer need to be held back by the idea that only a few are extraordinary. All of us are capable of the expansion of consciousness that throws the circle of compassion wide. May these words by Adrienne Rich inspire us to keep growing.
My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.
About the Author
Barbara Alexander is a change agent whose passion is human growth and development. She has a M.A. in Counseling Psychology, with a post graduate certificate in Gestalt Therapy and practiced as a licensed psychotherapist for 20 years. During this time she consulted and provided training in the private and non-profit sectors. She also taught Gestalt Therapy. Learn more about Barbara here.