Last week I began looking at compassion and the opposite human position: narcissism. I have had several significant experiences since then that I would like to reflect on. One of the fruits of teaching for three days last weekend on compassion and narcissism, followed by two days of excellent professional development training on working with couples in difficulty, has been to further clarify the fundamental need for an open, compassionate heart if we wish to be happy.
Again and again, I found that the examples of unhappy relationships that we looked at, both when I was in the teaching seat and the student seat, illustrated how the strongly conditioned habit of prioritizing one's self interest and projecting one's own negative behaviors and thoughts onto others causes conflict and pain for all parties concerned. Open, compassionate, curiosity is missing from such an interaction. The attention and energy tends to be focussed on proving that my position is right and yours is wrong. When caught in such conflict, would it not be wonderful if we could form a habit of switching the focus of our attention from justification of the reasons for our own pain to genuine interest in what is causing the pain of the other?
The personal is political and politics shape the personal
Against this background of heightened reflection on compassionate and narcissistic interactions, two nights ago I found myself deeply moved - and pained - as I watched the movie, "Earth". Briefly, "Earth" is the story of how the friendship of a group of young Hindu, Muslim and Sheikh Indian men and women is gradually but fatally undermined by the fear and hatred evoked by the 1947 granting of independence and division by the British of the Indian continent into two separate countries. The story is situated in the predominantly Muslim area that is designated to become Pakistan, thus necessitating the exodus of Hindus and Sheikhs. We, the viewers, are introduced to this friendship group through the eyes of a young, lame, Parsee girl (whose Parsee family has taken a position of declared neutrality). The little girl is accepted into the group as the young charge of her Hindu nanny who is the desired jewel of the predominantly male group. On the micro scale, the vying for the favor of the beautiful Hindu woman by two Muslim men, provides additional supporting conditions for jealousy to take hold and join with the more widely experienced flames of hatred and suspicion dividing the community.
Sadly, the division of the country, associated with the granting of independence, sets in motion a mass movement of people disenfranchised of home, community and livelihood, solely on grounds of religion. The forced movement of people on religious grounds fans the flames of bigotry, fear, betrayal and hatred. The film shows us how the early smouldering of these emotions gradually build into a fire of distrust and eventual hatred, setting off an unofficial civil war, along religious lines, resulting in a terrible series of retaliatory massacres by vigilante mobs of Hindus, Sheikhs and Muslims, taking turns to torment and kill each other. We see how the propoganda of division and dehumanisation of the "enemy" group filters into the friendship group, setting one against the other and eventually, when linked with the poison of jealousy, culminates in violent betrayal and death.
This was a difficult film to watch. The play of destructive emotions, leading to extreme violence, on both micro and macro scales was, however, balanced by beautiful photography and expressions of genuine love, courage, generosity and loyalty. The interweaving of the personal and political was powerfully illustrated. We were shown a clear example of individual narcissism feeding on religious group narcissism and, in turn, fueling the growth of narcissistic self righteousness at the community level. As a counterpoint, the play of compassion, love and loyalty demonstrated by some members of the friendship group and their immediate community, were shown as the antidote to violence, hatred and horrendous suffering.
Next week, I shall continue the Dalai Lama's teaching on appropriate responses to war and terrorism, explaining why, as he says, " the role of compassion on the international level is vital". In the meantime, if you have any comments, questions or observations that you would like to add on the topics of narcissism, compassion and conflict, please join in below.