3.2 Two Pillars of Happiness

Thus, the Rig Veda revealed two of the main pillars of happiness, Compassion and Detachment, through this profound story. The Upanishads, which are commentaries on the Vedas, goes on to expound that both the wishing child, or the Participant (the Caterpillar), and the watching child, or the Witness (the Butterfly), are within each one of us. They are the built-in opposites within the make-up of any human being, and it is up to each of us to empower one over the other in our daily lives.

A note of clarification: while compassion is at the root of most religious traditions, both east and west, the English word, "Compassion," has slowly accumulated the connotations of "Tolerance" and "Pity," which results from a judgment of superiority on the part of the one feeling compassionate. Likewise, the English word "Detachment," has become conflated with "Aloofness" and "Apathy." This corruption of language stems from the corruption of our culture and it has proceeded to the point where I find that there are no appropriate words left to convey the original meanings. But part of the healing process requires us to reclaim the original meanings of these words.

I consider compassion to be the capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering and to recognize that the suffering is not separate from ourselves, regardless of where it is occurring. There is absolutely no judgement involved in true compassion. But far too often, in organized religions, the circle of compassion is interpreted to be confined to just other human beings. The assumption seems to be that the circle of compassion needs to be enlarged step by step and humanity hasn't yet achieved the first step encircling fellow human beings. But as Albert Einstein said,

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of Nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

True compassion is all-encompassing.

Compassion goes beyond empathy. Jeremy Rifkin, in his book, "The Empathic Civilization[3]," argues that an upsurge in empathy will help humans overcome the resource bottlenecks that lie ahead in our civilizational endeavors. However, empathy is a natural trait common to all social species. It is customary for a dog to feel empathic suffering at the discomfort of another dog, or to feel empathic joy when the other dog is at play. However, it is not clear that any upsurge in empathy is in the offing for human beings, nor is it clear that any such upsurge will do humans much good. It is empathy that leads to the African concept of Ubuntu or instant Karma: when we hurt someone, we hurt ourselves; when we help someone, we help ourselves. It is because of Ubuntu that a good deed is its own reward and a bad deed, its own punishment.

Compassion occurs when we not only empathize with the suffering of ourselves or another, but also feel compelled to act to alleviate that suffering.

Detachment, on the other hand, is about the attainment of freedom or liberty. When neither praise nor criticism affects us, then we are truly detached and are free to pursue our autonomous path, to act without fear or favor, to dance our dance. It is boundless compassion accompanied by detachment that is at the root of true happiness or "Ananda" (Bliss) as the Rig Veda revealed in the Cosmic Fig Tree story. Such true happiness results from the absence of suffering within us while the kind of "happiness" that modern commercial interests promote is really pleasure, the opposite of pain.

Pleasure is fleeting, while happiness endures.

As Einstein noted, Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary, individual being as well as a social being[4]. Detachment, or true freedom. meets the individual needs of Man, while compassion meets the social needs.

Compassion without detachment will only lead to empathic torture as we take on our suffering and the suffering of others without the barrier of detachment. And compassion cannot be compartmentalized. It must shine on all creation without discrimination. For Ubuntu makes it next to impossible for a human being to wring the neck of a chicken and then turn around and be compassionate to another being.

Buddhism emphasizes detachment as the source of happiness. The Buddha famously observed that, "the world is full of suffering; the root of suffering is attachments; and the uprooting of suffering is through the dropping of attachments." But detachment without compassion may lead to solitary enlightenment, with not much benefit for the world at large.

How do we cultivate compassion with detachment? The Cosmic Fig Tree story tells us that in order to become compassionate and detached, we must learn to empower the lame child, the Witness, within us over the wishing child, or the Participant. As Anthony DeMello[5] and numerous authors before him have pointed out, mindfulness is the only tool we need to achieve that. But mindfulness is just a tool. It can be wielded by a brain surgeon as well as a burglar. Mindfulness does not promote happiness or well-being by itself, as the burglar has to be truly mindful to carry out his act, but he is most likely experiencing much trepidation as he goes about collecting his loot. The burglar certainly isn't happy when every little noise makes him jumpy. Therefore, while we must practice mindfulness to actively cultivate compassion and detachment and thus become happy, we won't automatically become detached, compassionate and happy, if we are simply mindful and in the moment as the example of the burglar illustrates.

Right action or Dharma is that which originates from such a state of boundless compassion with detachment. It is what the Witness within us, the Butterfly, would do if she were empowered. But our modern industrial culture is all about the wishing under the Cosmic Fig Tree. It is entirely geared for the Participant, the Caterpillar, who is wishing under the delusion that he is pursuing happiness through the fulfillment of desires but suffering through the bitter after-taste of disillusionment, while billions of people, animals and all of Nature become collateral damage.

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[3] Jeremy Rifkin, "The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis," Tarcher, Dec. 2009. http://www.amazon.com/Empathic-Civilization-Global-Consciousness-Crisis/dp/1585427659

[4] Albert Einstein, "Why Socialism?" Monthly Review, May 1949. http://monthlyreview.org/2009/05/01/why-socialism

[5] Anthony DeMello, "Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality," Image Publishers, June 1990. http://www.amazon.com/Awareness-Opportunities-Reality-Anthony-Mello/dp/0385249373