Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Welcome to the 'Board's corner' reserved KaosPilot International Board - the word and theme being free, absolutely free to write about the things they have in mind - as inspiration, provocation etc. for the KaosPilot students, staff and network or whoever interested in our website.
First contributor is Michael Doneman, Australia, writing about one of the KaosPilot core values: Compassion.
Not long ago in Aarhus, as part of the first gathering of the Kaospilot’s International Advisory Board, members of the Board were sectioned off in pairs to spend time with a group of KP students over lunch. For me, this was one of the most memorable parts of the visit; the students, after all, are our raison d'être and I’m always invigorated by the energy and openness of such conversations and the vitality and confidence of these young people.
But here I detected a slight hesitation in that confidence. What, I asked them, was their understanding of the value of compassion, as an element of practice within the school and in their work outside the school?
The question generated a certain amount of interest and conversation within the group and again later on, and became my motivation to begin this reflection. For the students, I’m guessing there was a general interest in the abstract, but also the kind of curiosity inspired when any of us wonders how something that seems commonplace and ordinary actually works, when we question what normally we take for granted. Why is the sky blue?
In the short time we had together, the nearest we come to understanding the concept of compassion was really a kind of dance around the quality of empathy, which I understand as the capacity to identify and subjectively experience the emotional state of another, or some approximation of such. But is this the same as compassion?
Most people with an awareness of the school’s conceptual scaffolding will know of the claim to operate through an ‘organizational DNA’ comprised of six core values: Playful, Balance, Streetwise, Real World, Risk Taking, and Compassion. For a student of Zen Buddhism like me, this last word comes with considerable baggage, which is why I brought it up with the KP students in the first place. For my teachers it’s foundational, a value which constitutes, along with the conception of wisdom, the two wings with which a practice (and a life) might take flight. Together, wisdom and compassion allow us to know and to love: how can we love someone, for example, without understanding them, and how can we understand them without loving them?
But please (please!) don’t read this as a Buddhist tract. One of the attractions of the teachings for me is that there is no requirement to hang ‘isms’ from them. I use them here because they’re coherent and they’re practical. Other frameworks would do the job; this happens to be a good one for the subject.
So I asked the students about compassion, and I ask you now. What is compassion? What does it mean to you, conceptually and practically? Why do we include it as a core value of our process, our pedagogy, our organizational DNA? What does it look like in the air and on the ground?
What if I were to propose that, of the Kaospilots’ six core values, the value of compassion actually underpins and conditions the other five? What if I were to agree with the Tibetan hermit Shabkar that ‘with compassion, one has all the teachings; without compassion, one has none of them’? How might I make that argument?
Compassion literally means ‘shared suffering’. This seems like empathy, except that the desire to share the burden, not just feel it in common, seems to me like a desire to do something about it, a call to action. A burden shared, as they say, is a burden halved.
Perhaps we can think of compassion as a lightening of the load, a freeing-up of energy. Perhaps compassion provides some space for experimentation. For play.
How can I be ‘playful’ without having some degree of lightness, of the consciousness of a child, of not-knowing and curiosity, a reprieve from the responsibilities of adulthood, of freedom from my burden, however temporary? And to take on part of someone else’s burden, can’t that also be an invitation to play?
Buddhism and quantum physics agree that the act of measuring phenomena, of bringing our attention to them, actually influences the way they manifest in the world. Light manifests as a particle or a wave depending on our instrumentation, the design we bring to the experiment. The same goes for electrons and other sub-atomic entities. And the same for us: aren’t we physically composed of these?
Aboriginal people travelling the songlines of Australia talk of ‘singing up’ the country as they walk through it. No song, no country. No song, no singer.
Our engagement with the world calls forth its reality, and our engagement with the world also calls forth compassion. We are wired for reality, and we are wired for load-sharing.
The sharing of suffering, the lightening of a common load, arises as we call forth the reality of things, as we create maps within which features can be recognized and read, within which action is possible. The Dalai Lama says: ‘Compassion makes one see the picture clearly.’ Without compassion, then, our picture of the world is cloudy, maybe it’s not there at all.
How can I be ‘streetwise’ if I can’t recognize the street?
Perhaps this reads a bit literally; perhaps ‘streetwise’ just means being hip to trends, to fluctuations in the fashion meters. But even so, how do I orientate and engage with these if I have no map, no social-cultural GPS? If the drive to compassion is at one with the drive to call forth the world of things, surely a map-maker without compassion is a bad map-maker?
The drive at the foundation of compassion to share a burden, to share and in sharing, lighten suffering, need not be entirely altruistic. If I help someone who clearly needs help, whether or not that help is acknowledged or even recognized, I construct an image of myself and my agency in the world which is strong, positive and able. I construct myself as one who has control, who can make choices.
And it may be that I don’t even have to actually enact the help in order to benefit: it may be that just in cultivating a compassionate awareness of others and the world, that I construct myself, in a similar way, as strong, positive and able. Compassion helps me become the best I can be. As such it can be understood as a self-actualisation skill, a competency that can be learned, developed, nurtured. I come to a place of ease with myself, I rest in the moment, l am at a point of balance, I have the capacity to tip this way or that way at will.
How can I seek ‘balance’ in the world without first understanding – and balancing - who I am?
When we begin to understand the suffering of others, we tacitly recognize our connection with them. Thich Nhat Hanh has a lovely teaching which begins with a meditation on the hand. Look deeply into your hand. Is it not possible to see there the hand of your mother, your father, maybe both of them? This isn’t so surprising; we know how genetics works. So it’s also possible to know that the hands of our mother’s mother, and father’s father, also contained their children’s hands, that is, our parents’ hands, and so on, as far back in history as we would like to go. And so also for our children, and their children, as far forward as we choose to project.
Backwards, forwards, and sideways as well! Isn’t your hand composed of cells, and aren’t at least some of these cells the output of your digestion of breakfast this morning? And wasn’t the wheat that made the toast or the rice that made the congee grown by a farmer, in collaboration with the sun, water and various minerals? Nothing so very spiritual about this; it’s about the transfer and recombination of atoms, after all.
And your hand is pretty real, right?
We are wired for reality because we’re wired into reality. In fact, we’re not only connected to all these things, we depend on them. No song, no singer … No breakfast, no singer. So reality is defined by interconnectivity and interdependence.
The Kaospilots education proposes to ground itself in the real world; its value is determined experientially and empirically, experiences and outcomes as real as our hand. Hands are practical, they’re tools, they caress and they build, but they are connected to and depend on everything else. They are simultaneously the reflection of compassion and the instruments of compassion.
How do I relate to the ‘real world’ without an understanding of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things?
The Kaospilots is a platform for action, as distinct from, say, reflection, though of course they’re entwined. We set out to be the best school ‘for’ the world. To frame this goal is itself an act of compassion: we want what is best for something greater than ourselves. To engage in action ‘for’ the world we locate such action in the moral-ethical domain. If we set out to act in an ethical way, not as an expression of sentiment, we have to relate our action to a moral standpoint.
Risk taking is about action, a leap into the unknown, a departure from convention. It’s about throwing away our anchors, at least for a moment, but I suggest its value is realized best, and our evaluation of its outcome is most skillfully measured, when we hold onto a compass when we leap. It requires us to understand what is at stake in the field of our actions and interactions, what there is to be lost and gained and how, in the end, our risk taking might result in benefit for others. A thought experiment proposed in Aarhus by my fellow Board member and friend Ketan Lakhani begins with the provocation: what am I prepared to die for? Another way of putting that might be: for what purpose and from what position am I prepared to take the ultimate risk?
As our school takes steps to internationalise its practice, and our friends and advisors cast and recast the school’s work in a variety of contexts, the risks involved (not least the business risks) can be benchmarked with the value of compassion in mind. It’s a bottom line.
How can I ‘take risks’, how do I even know what a ‘risk’ is, without some perspective on the causes and effects of my actions, without the moral-ethical yardstick of compassion?
Perhaps I have tortured some definitions here. But even so, if we as a school propose to operate with a set of values underpinning our practice, isn’t it worthwhile to consider, and reconsider, not just how to define these values but what the implications are for action?
I’ve asked a lot more questions than I’ve suggested answers. I do so to reflect the ongoing debates in my own practice and the kinds of issues that arise (when things are working well) among my colleagues and fellow-travellers at Edgeware. Just today I’ve been exchanging email with an Edgie about an ethical dilemna involving the sub-contracting of work to another Edgie. In the process she proposed that her ethical orientation, a Christian one, involved a pursuit of the so-called Golden Rule (‘do what you would have done to you’) which she contrasted with her understanding of a Buddhist orientation (‘don’t do what you wouldn’t have done to you’). This is a fine and wonderful point, pregnant with implications for her practice and mine. Together, they make for a vigorous and open discourse and a richer, more useful intervention in the world. Both are about compassion.
I would love this to work as a provocation, a ground for dialogue, tacit or explicit, which might serve the Kaospilots students with whom I first discussed the matter of compassion. Because the quality of the answers we find, and the quality of the dialogue itself, is conditioned by the quality of our questions. And what will proceed from that is compassion on the wing, understanding tempered by love and love by understanding.
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