Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Noticing the "Other"

I recently visited the Navajo Nation in Arizona as part of a trip organized by Save the Children. The areas we visited were extremely poor and remote. We were told the average family income there was well below $20,000 annually, and the unemployment rate was currently 56%. One of the Save the Children staffers traveling with us told me the landscape in some of the dusty towns we visited reminded her of trips she'd taken to the poorest regions of Africa.

This was a trip connected to my work as a manager; I was traveling with a client who's involved with Save the Children as a supporter and spokesperson. So, naturally, I started to think about what I experienced there and how it related to compassion in the arts.

Of course, having a celebrity publicly bring attention to a cause is a powerful way to make a difference for that cause. And I'm thrilled that we were able to bring attention to the amazing work Save the Children is doing in the Navajo Nation and worldwide.

But how did this visit directly inform what we've been discussing here: compassion, as it relates to work in the arts, and how it helps to create the most extraordinary work possible, the work with the greatest impact, and how it helps to give one the happiest life possible?

In that respect, I was particularly struck by two observations. The first was very simple:

• The families we visited were fundamentally no different from my own. I was profoundly and immediately present to the fact that the parents we visited wanted their children to thrive, the same way I want my children to thrive.

I found this quote from the Dalai Lama:
“Whether people are beautiful and friendly or unattractive and disruptive, ultimately they are human beings, just like oneself. Like oneself, they want happiness and do not want suffering. Furthermore, their right to overcome suffering and be happy is equal to one's own. Now, when you recognize that all beings are equal in both their desire for happiness and their right to obtain it, you automatically feel empathy and closeness for them. Through accustoming your mind to this sense of universal altruism, you develop a feeling of responsibility for others: the wish to help them actively overcome their problems. Nor is this wish selective; it applies equally to all. As long as they are human beings experiencing pleasure and pain just as you do, there is no logical basis to discriminate between them or to alter your concern for them if they behave negatively..... Because we all share an identical need for love, it is possible to feel that anybody we meet, in whatever circumstances, is a brother or sister. No matter how new the face or how different the dress and behavior, there is no significant division between us and other people. It is foolish to dwell on external differences, because our basic natures are the same."
These people we encountered were beautiful and friendly, but the lives they live are very different from the life I live, and the life I share with my family. And what was clear to me, and present in an extraordinary was was just that: they want what I want. We are the same.

This may seem obvious, but for me, personally, I'm not always 100% aware of this fact. I would venture to guess that's how most of us exist, with occasional flashes of awareness. Here's author and psychologist Daniel Goleman from a recent TED talk:
“The new thinking about compassion from social neuroscience is that our default wiring is to help, that is to say, if we attend the other person we automatically empathize, we automatically feel with them. They're these newly identified neurons, mirror neurons, that act like a neural WiFi, activating in our brain exactly the areas activated in theirs. We feel with automatically. And if that person is in need, if that person is suffering, we're automatically prepared to help.... but then the question is, why don't we? The simple fact is that if we're focused on ourselves, if we're preoccupied as we so often are throughout the day, we don't really fully notice the other.”

We don't really fully notice the other. So by being present to the fact that the people I was meeting were fundamentally no different from my own family, no different from me, I was momentarily shaken out of my fog, and I briefly understood the necessity for compassion. I am often and ordinarily preoccupied, but being in this unique circumstance shifted my awareness. Context is decisive.

Shantideva said, in The Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life:
"When happiness is equally dear to others and myself, then what is so special about me that I strive after happiness for myself alone?"
So how do we create this awareness in our day-to-day lives? This sense of compassion for every living being we encounter? As Goleman says, we're preoccupied, we don't notice it when it's right in front of our faces. How many times has each of us stepped past a homeless person on the street, someone stricken with tears on the subway?

This awareness is exactly what the arts can provide. That each of us is fundamentally the same as each and every human being on the planet, each wanting happiness, each wanting to avoid suffering. And, as Goleman says, this is our natural way of being; we're hardwired to be compassionate. Maybe that's why it feels good, maybe it's a product of evolution, the same way we naturally think puppies and children are cute and we instinctively want to take care of them.

And it's our natural inclination to compassion, to connectedness, to humanity, that attracts us to this work in the arts. When we see work that comes from a place of compassion, we're naturally brought to that awareness, of our essential human "sameness," and it feels good.

To clarify:

  1. The arts can break through our usual fog and provide access to our natural tendency towards compassion,
  2. We are attracted to work with a foundation in compassion, because it feels right. We share our inherent needs with everyone else on the planet, and seeing that recognized on screen, on stage, or on paper makes us feel with automatically.
The second observation I had on this trip was this:

• There is a cost to inaction.

There have been plenty of times when I've thought, I don't have the time, I'm tired, I'm busy, someone else will do it. And on this trip I saw the direct impact of the work Save the Children was doing, on real kids. Just like my own kids. And this relates to the arts in the same way. We can choose to remain in a fog, and rob the world of the real impact we have to offer. Or we can take on compassion in our lives and careers and make a difference.

This is what I said in an earlier posting, talking about work that was mercenary, uninspired, and bereft of compassion:
"There's a deep cost to the world that comes from this kind of behavior. We're suffering, and we're being deprived of the things that bind us, that show us what we have in common, that give us hope.

And where does that lead us? To a world full of entertainment created by the uninspired. Sure, there are exceptions, but in a world where artists are being told to focus on business strategy, those exceptions are sure to become rarer and rarer."
So here it is, the call to action. Taking on compassion in your work, in the arts or in your daily life, is the key to the most extraordinary career possible, the most extraordinary life possible, it allows you to make the most extraordinary impact possible, and it's the key to the happiest life possible.

Be compassion. Take it on.

Thich Nhat Hanh

"When you begin to understand the suffering of the other person, compassion will arise in you, and the language you use will have the power of healing. Compassion is the only energy that can help us connect with another person."
H. H. The Dalai Lama:
"Ultimately, the reason why love and compassion bring the greatest happiness is simply that our nature cherishes them above all else. The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence. It results from the profound interdependence we all share with one another. However capable and skillful an individual may be, left alone, he or she will not survive. However vigorous and independent one may feel during the most prosperous periods of life, when one is sick or very young or very old, one must depend on the support of others...

...It is because our own human existence is so dependent on the help of others that our need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence. Therefore we need a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others."


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