An interview with Matthieu Ricard by Maria Shriver
1) How do you feel that compassion can change the world we live in today? Do we need compassion now more than ever?
One of the main problems in this current era is how to reconcile the demands of the economy, the search for happiness, and respecting the environment. These imperatives correspond to three time scales: the short, middle, and long-term.
Compassion, the intention to remove the sufferings of others and the causes of their suffering, linked with altruism, the wish to bring well-being to others, is the only unifying concept that allows us to find our way in this maze of complex preoccupations. If we have more consideration for others, we will move towards a “caring economics.” We will be more concerned with improving working conditions, family and social life, and many other aspects of existence, and we will care more about the fate of future generations.
For things truly to change, we must dare to embrace altruism. Dare to say that real altruism exists, that it can be cultivated by every one of us, and that the evolution of cultures can favor its expansion. Dare, too, to teach it in schools as a precious tool helping children to realize their natural potential for kindness and cooperation. Dare to assert that the economy cannot be content with just the voice of rationality and personal interest, but that it must also listen to the voice of caring and make it heard. Dare to take the fate of future generations seriously, and dare to change the way we are exploiting the planet today that will be their home tomorrow. Dare, finally, to proclaim that altruism is not a luxury, but a necessity!
2) Your book “A Plea For the Animals” argues that compassion for all beings is a moral obligation. How can having such compassion improve a person’s relationship with themselves and with the world around them?
Compassion is not a commodity that should be distributed sparingly like food. It is a way of being, an attitude, an intention to do good for those who enter our sphere of attention and the wish to alleviate their suffering. So, naturally, it follows that loving animals does not mean loving humans less. In fact, by also loving animals we love people better, because our benevolence has become vaster. Someone who loves only a selection of humanity is the possessor of only fragmentary and impoverished benevolence.
It is interesting to note that a study in which neuroscientists scanned the brains of omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans watching images of suffering humans and suffering animals showed that the areas of the brain associated with empathy were more highly activated in vegetarians and vegans than in omnivores. It was more activated not only when confronted with the images of animal suffering, but also when confronted by images of human suffering.
We have made immense progress in terms of civilization. We don’t torture people on the public plaza any more as was common in Europe in the 18th century. We have abolished slavery and torture — at least according to international laws. Yet, there is still a huge gap to bridge in our ethical system. We give, rightly so, infinite value to human life, but animals are seen to have zero intrinsic value, unless used commercially or as instruments to accomplish a goal. We are everything; they are nothing. Our ethical system will not be coherent until we consider the members of the eight million other species as our co-citizen on this earth.
3) You say that happiness is life’s most important skill. What is the first step people should take towards increasing their happiness?
Happiness is a not just a succession of pleasant experiences. It is a way of being that comes from cultivating a cluster of basic human qualities, such as compassion, inner freedom, inner peace, resilience, and so on. Each of these qualities is a skill that can be cultivated through mind training and through good actions and intentions. Among all the qualities that develop happiness, I am deeply convinced that altruistic love is the most powerful one.
4) Why is it so important that we wish for other people’s happiness in addition to our own?
It is essential to wish for others’ happiness because the pursuit of selfish happiness is bound to fail. It is a lose-lose situation. By thinking “me, me, me” all day long, we make ourselves miserable and we make everyone around miserable as well. In addition, to perceive ourselves as separate entities that can build our own happiness in a little bubble, is to be at odds with reality, and it will not work.
Conversely, altruistic love and compassion are beneficial to others and they are also the most satisfactory mental states that we can experience. So, it is a win-win situation, and compassion works since it is attuned to the interdependent nature of reality.
5) What are you hopeful for in 2017?
My wish is that we transform ourselves to better serve others. Despite all the challenges, mental confusion, and other troubles that affect our world, it is clear that most of the time, the majority of the seven billion human beings on this planet behaves decently towards each other and aspires to a better world. We could call that the “banality of goodness”.
So, rather then getting discouraged by the deluded views and harmful behavior around us, we need to endeavor to increase cooperation, solidarity, and the sense of universal responsibility. Despite all the terrible things happening, we know that violence has steadily declined over the century.
I especially wish that we all do everything that is possible to tackle environmental issues, as the fate of billions and billions of beings, now and in the future, are at stake. This is the most pressing issue of the 21st century. So let’s work together on it with diligence and enthusiasm.
To learn more about Matthieu Ricard, visit his website. To learn more about his organization Karuna Schechen, which provides healthcare, education and social services for the underserved people of India, Nepal and Tibet, go here.
This interview was originally published in Maria’s newsletter publication The Sunday Paper on April 15, 2017.