The Path from Personal Transformation to Societal Change - Part 1
Is human nature inherently egoistic or altruistic?
Despite the violence and conflict that we constantly see in the media, studies show that violence has diminished continually over the past few centuries. Our everyday existence, too, is often filled with cooperation, friendship, affection and care.
Scientific investigation over the last 30 years has increasingly shifted the distorted view of human nature as motivated wholly by selfishness, a belief that long-dominated Western psychology and theories of evolution and economics.
I myself am deeply convinced that love and compassion--the two faces of altruism--are the cardinal virtues of human existence and the heart of the spiritual path. Loving kindness is the wish that all beings experience happiness, while compassion focuses on eradicating their suffering.
My experiences with spiritual masters of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition over more than 45 years spent in Asia have influenced me profoundly. Particularly inspiring is the Buddhist conviction that every human being possesses an indestructible potential for goodness and wisdom. I have also learned valuable lessons by participating in humanitarian service, including some 140 medical and education projects in the Himalayan regions through Karuna-Shechen, the organization I founded.
Our era is confronted with many challenges, among them the imperative of reconciling the demands of three time scales--short, middle and long-term, on which three types of interests are superimposed: ours, the interests of those close to us, and those of all sentient beings. In the short term, we must respond to the immediate demands of the present economy; in the middle term, the search for happiness; and in the long term, the future health of the environment.
As for the environment, until recently its evolution has been measured in terms of geological and climatic eras, over millions of years. In our day, the rhythm of change keeps accelerating because of ecological upheavals provoked by human activities. In particular, the "Great Acceleration" that has occurred since 1950 has defined a new era, called the Anthropocene ("era of humans"), in which, for the first time in history, human activities are profoundly modifying (and currently degrading) the entire system that maintains life on earth.
This completely new challenge has taken us by surprise. If our obsession with achieving quantitative growth continues, with consumption of natural resources increasing at its current exponential rate, we will need three planets by 2050. We don't have them.
What can we do about this predicament? Only a revolutionary, unifying concept will lead us out of this complex maze of preoccupations. Over decades, my meetings with spiritual leaders, philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, and environmentalists have convinced me that altruism is the Ariadne's thread allowing us to connect harmoniously the challenges of the economy in the short term, quality of life in the mid-term, and our future environment in the long term.
Photo by Matthieu Ricard