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Marc Ian Barasch: The Compassionate Life

Marc Ian Barasch: Survival Of The Kindest

“Our problem is less a shortage of resources than a shortchanging of our imagination, compassion is just the ability to see the connections between everyone and everything everywhere and to act on it. Compassion grows out of a willingness to share the human condition, not just the pursuit of happiness.” (Marc Ian Barasch)

Are human beings meant to be a compassionate species? Marc Ian Barasch, author of “Field Notes for a Compassionate Life”, asks, “What if the great driving force of our evolution were actually "survival of the kindest?" In a world faced with so many jarring paradoxes and increasing inequities, what role does compassion have to play?

When you examine the actual word, the Latin root of compassion, “compati”, means “to suffer with”. In Saturday’s Forest Call, Marc not only described poignant stories of human compassion, but he also shared deep knowledge from years and years of research on the science of compassion. In this interview with Shwetha and Rahul, we learned how individuals have increased their capacity for being compassionate and understood more clearly how the ability to suffer with others inspires humans to become givers and proactive agents of change.

Shwetha: In an article about your beginnings and how “Field Notes for a Compassionate Life” came about, you talk about your mother as a strong figure. What did your mom mean to you and how did your relationship evolve as an adult?

Marc: Well for most of my life, my mom actually annoyed me! She was so “other” centered, and in a way, she was a very classic Jewish mother. She did things like lay out my clothes for me to wear to school everyday all the way up to junior high. While my dad was a writer with a very strong personality, my mother was a traditional housewife and growing up, I remember thinking to myself, “I wish mom would assert herself more as a person and pursue that career that she wanted and all the rest.”

I didn’t quite get who she was until she was dying of leukemia and we got to spend a lot more time together. I began to see all these little kindnesses that she did for people and how many people were really touched by her in very small ways. After she died, so many people would approach me and say, “Well she did this for me or she did that for me and she sent exactly the book that my son loved because she happened to hear from him in passing that he loved this book.”

It’s stuff that most people don’t notice and most people don’t ever get to that point of specificity, of being so “other” centered that they’re in a state of radical empathy. In my mother, there was a very deep ability to enter into other people’s space and understand them from the inside out, which is the hallmark of compassion.

S: Because you went through thyroid cancer, did you feel that you were able to connect with your mother more when she was going through cancer?

M: Definitely. Through my suffering, I had learned how to get inside the heart and soul of illness and healing. After I healed. I spent 7 years researching the art of the healing journey.

When you’re ill, you are basically crossing a threshold and entering the underworld. It’s a place where as much as I wanted other people to be there, I learned that in a certain sense, we’re all alone in these journeys. We can have social support and people can do the best they can to understand but the interior space of illness is very profound and you just go through this experience that is unprecedented and if it’s undertaken in a certain way, you come out of it as a different person.

There is a breakdown of the ego-self and the persona and all the things we think we are and that we identify with in our bodies. Suddenly there is a sort of shamanic descent into dismemberment and I saw that happen to my mom and I was really able to be there with her and share that space. That was when all of the experiences of our lifetime came to a moment of kairos and we really understood each other.

S: What are the seeds for compassion? Does it come from an inner place within each of us?

M: The evolutionary neurobiological root of compassion is the mirror neuron. These are neurons in the brain that don’t distinguish between the self and other. If something happens to you and you see the same thing happen in someone else later, your prior experience makes you feel what the other person is feeling. For example, when you see someone stub their toe, you immediately feel an “ouch” even though it’s not your toe. The point is that you’ve felt the pain before.

S: When you first became a Buddhist monk and you had to take a universal vow of compassion, was this something that came easily to you or was it something that you had to practice?

M: It was a sort of ridiculous vow that asked us to save all sentient beings even though beings are innumerable. It haunted me and though I tried to live up to it, I don’t think I was doing a great job of it in my life. My motivation for writing the book was to develop deeper and learn from exemplars what it takes to be compassionate and to prove to myself that it can be learned.

There are people who are extraordinarily compassionate; you just feel it when you come into their radar. But whatever that dynamo is that’s creating this wonderful aura of kindness, not all of us have that. But through training you can create new neurological pathways in your brain, this is what’s known as neuroplasticity.

S: In chapter 7 of your book you talk about this concept of the “give away” and you tell a story about a man named Harold who gives away his kidney. Harold described his action as stemming from this unseen force that compelled him to take that decision. Do you think compassion has levels? Would you consider this act as extreme compassion and do you consider this act as “more socially valuable” than perhaps walking an old lady down the street?

M: It’s all coming from the same source of oneness. This is an example of a man who believed that he wasn’t compassionate and felt that he just did what was right. Although he claimed that he wasn’t that innately compassionate, he wanted to be so he deliberately steered himself in that direction and it came about incrementally. He reasoned his way towards this decision in response to an ad where someone was desperately looking for a kidney. A film he saw in which a grandson gave away his kidney to his grandmother had also impacted him. Finally, Harold was best friends with Tom Shadyac and was influenced by Tom’s movie on compassion and interconnectedness, “I Am”.

Harold had been married to a Native American and noticed on reservations the presence of a “give away” box where you take out what you need and you put something in that you don’t need. So he decided to put in his extra kidney.

Rahul: I want to go back to the period of your illness. You described the feeling of being very alone in going through that process and yet you talk about compassion as being that force that understands our deep interconnection and acting from that place of understanding that deep interconnection. How do reconcile those two polar opposites, this idea that we’re all alone and that we’re also deeply connected?

M: There is a sociological answer and an existential one. The sociological answer, at least in the 1980s when I was ill, is that our society does not deal well with suffering. We have this ethos of the pursuit of happiness and for someone who is down and out, it’s sort of their problem because they must have done something wrong. But in other cultures, for example in the Bushmen tribe, if one person is ill, the whole tribe considers it their problem and there is a collective effort to heal that person.

As far as the existential perspective, there is oneness but we’re each very specific iterations of that oneness. There are the waves and then there’s the ocean and you can shift your lens back and forth between the two but if you’re really evolved, then you’re able to see the unity in the diversity. Remembering the whole is important but also remembering the extreme specificity in each of our own journeys is also important because the devil and the angel are in the details.

R: Can you talk more about how people you met while writing your book, and also during the book tour, changed you?

M: The writing of the book changed me profoundly; meeting people that were exemplars of compassion made me want to emulate them. While I was on this tour in 2005, the issue of compassion hadn’t surfaced in the public conversation the way it subsequently has, and people would come up to me and say, “I feel the way you feel but I feel alone. I don’t know if anyone else feels this way but my friends think I’m stupid because I’m always giving the shirt off my back. Can I join your movement?” Then I had to explain, “I don’t have a movement.” And they would respond, “Well, make one!”

After my mother passed away and in the aftermath of the book tour, I knew that I wanted to follow in my mom’s footsteps and do something that she would have appreciated, while at the same time, do something to honor the people that had approached me to express their isolation.

I didn’t know what to do, but I wanted to create something that I could invite them into. I just left the door open and decided I would depend on synchronicity, which has always helped me in my life. Also, I decided to say “yes” to all invitations. Those were the two rules of the game.

As I was trying to figure stuff out, I came across tree planting and agro-forestry, which restores land, alleviates poverty, provides food, shelter, animal fodder, and has tremendous implications for the climate, especially when you look at new data that shows there are 5 billion new acres in the world of degraded land capable of being regenerated. We can do this together as a planet and it would have enormous effect on a lot of problems we’re facing right now including climate change.

So I’ve devoted the last 7 years to making the public aware of this regenerative option through my organization, the Green World Campaign. I try to approach environmentalism as a spiritual practitioner. Things have unfolded rather mysteriously, simply by trying to hold true to this impulse and deepen it into a practice for making your life into something that serves the whole and that serves to heal.

For all of us, you never know if you try to live a congruent life of truth and you try to bring the inner to the outer and the outer to the inner, something might resonate and you might be a tool to change something in some way.

For those of you that were intrigued by Marc's journey of healing from his cancer, and the overall healing framework he touched upon on the call, it is captured in his book The Healing Path: A Soul Approach To Illness and is available online.

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