Altruism / Moral Courage
July 2015 Graduate Meeting

Video for this meeting:
Cultivating Altruism by Matthieu Ricard [18 min]

Printed material:
We Are All Bystanders by Jason Marsh & Dacher Keltner

Matthieu Ricard, in this month's video, Cultivating Altruism, addresses two primary themes: (1) altruism, acting to promote someone else's welfare, is actually a deep part of our most basic nature, and (2) this capacity, natural as it is, can be cultivated through meditative practice. The article, We Are All Bystanders, explores the "bystander effect" - why some people step forward to help someone in distress and some don't. The answer is not a simple matter of who is a "good" or "bad" person and the authors explain "why we sometimes shackle our moral instincts, and how we can set them free".

Here are some additional readings and quotes having to do with this month's theme:

    Altruism is when we act to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves. Though some believe that humans are fundamentally self-interested, recent research suggests otherwise: Studies have found that people’s first impulse is to cooperate rather than compete; that toddlers spontaneously help people in need out of a genuine concern for their welfare; and that even non-human primates display altruism.
    Evolutionary scientists speculate that altruism has such deep roots in human nature because helping and cooperation promote the survival of our species. Indeed, Darwin himself argued that altruism, which he called “sympathy” or “benevolence,” is “an essential part of the social instincts.” Darwin’s claim is supported by recent neuroscience studies, which have shown that when people behave altruistically, their brains activate in regions that signal pleasure and reward, similar to when they eat chocolate (or have sex).
    This does not mean that humans are more altruistic than selfish; instead, evidence suggests we have deeply ingrained tendencies to act in either direction. Our challenge lies in finding ways to evoke the better angels of our nature.
           - from What Is Altruism (Greater Good Science Center)

    Goodness leaves us gasping, for we refuse to recognize it as a natural human attribute. So off we go on a long search for some hidden motivation, some extraordinary explanation, for such peculiar behavior. […] Instead of attempting to distance ourselves politely from them while at the same time lauding their deeds, would it not be better to rediscover the altruistic potential within us?
    Let us not search for mysterious explanations of goodness in others, but rather rediscover the mystery of goodness in ourselves.
           - Mordecai Paldiel, Jerusualem Post

    What is this feeling of metta and why is it so honored in the teachings of early Buddhism? Sometimes in our lives we meet people who seem to radiate feelings of genuine love and kindness, people who seem to regard the whole world with loving care. They may be well-known people like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Or they may be ordinary people we know who somehow have this great gift and capacity. When we're with people like this, they make us feel that at that moment we are the most important person in the world, not because of who we are or what we've done, but simply because we are a fellow living being.
    This special quality of lovingkindness is the generosity and openness of heart that simply wishes all beings to be happy. Metta doesn't seek self benefit; it's not offered with the expectation of getting something back. And because it's not dependent on external conditions, on people being or behaving in a certain way, it is not easily disappointed. As metta grows stronger, we feel more open to others, more open to ourselves, with benevolence and good humor. The poet W. H. Auden expressed it well: "Love your crooked neighbor with all your crooked heart."
           - from One Dharma by Joseph Goldstein

    "People often confuse happiness with pleasure," Ricard tells the Shambhala Sun. "Yet happiness is not eating ice cream. It's a way of being, and a way of being is not just one thing. It's a cluster of basic human qualities, among which inner freedom is central. If you're happy, you are not the slave of your rumination. You have freedom from hatred, obsessive craving, jealousy, arrogance, etc.
    "That freedom gives you inner peace and, therefore, a confidence that's very different from narcissistic self-esteem. Because you have the inner resources to deal with life's ups and downs, you are less preoccupied with yourself. You know that whatever happens you'll be fine. So not feeling vulnerable, you are not trying to overprotect yourself and you are naturally open to others.
    "Selfish happiness doesn't exist," Ricard continues. "When you're completely self-centered - me, me, me all day long - you push away anything that could threaten your ego, threaten your comfort. This makes life miserable. You're constantly under threat, because the world is simply not a mail-order catalogue for all your desires.”
    Altruism, according to Ricard, does not require that we sacrifice our own happiness. In fact, a benevolent frame of mind, which is based on a correct understanding of interdependent reality, leads to a win-win situation. We flourish, and at the same time we are of benefit to all those around us.
           - from Journey to Compassion by Andrea Miller, Shambhala Sun, July 2015