By Joe Loizzo
Editor’s Note: In this post Nalanda Institute’s Founder and Director, Dr. Joe Loizzo reviews two books written and edited by Dr. Emma Seppälä, this year’s Guest of Honor at our 10th Annual Benefit (June 12, 2019). As you’ll see, her writing, research, and position as Science Director of the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research aligns perfectly with Nalanda Institute’s mission. Read on to find out more about compassion in action.
Review: The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success (HarperOne, 2016), by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D.
For most of the modern age, our scientific view of human nature and our understanding of the social emotion of compassion have been drifting further and further apart. This is no accident. It reflects the widening gulf between modern science and religious ethics that has caused such a troubling divide in human culture and consciousness in our age. Specifically it reflects an intentional distortion of Darwin’s view of human “fitness” to mean that the traditional ethical values of love and compassion conflict with our natural strengths, and that such emotions are in fact sentimental weaknesses. Quietly over the last five decades, biology has begun to heal the modern divide and expose this distortion, helping us rediscover the wisdom in Darwin’s observation that “communities with the greatest number of sympathetic members would flourish best.”
This paradigm shift has slowly been leading to a radical new take on natural selection— as “survival of the most cooperative”—one that is revolutionizing our view of human nature and our individual and collective pursuit of happiness, prompting a surprising reconciliation between modern science and humanity’s ancient spiritual traditions. Contemporary psychology and psychotherapy have been a big part of the paradigm shift, recognizing empathy, love and compassion as the natural basis of human development, healing and thriving. But only in the last few years has current neuroscience revealed the missing link between positive social emotions, compassion training, mind/body health and well-being.
In The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success, our 10th annual benefit guest of honor Dr. Emma Seppälä offers an accessible introduction to the new positive psychology of presence that leads us ever so artfully into the new science of self-acceptance and compassion, the gateway to her kinder, gentler path to well-being. Like the Compassion Cultivation Training she helped develop at Stanford, Emma’s Happiness Track first grounds us in the basic science of mindful presence and open awareness, and then guides us through the crucial steps of cultivating compassion. With engaging stories and a generous sprinkling of breakthrough research, she helps us see the why and how of calming reactivity, tapping into resilience, and unleashing creativity. Then her two final chapters prescribe the secret medicine of self-compassion, and explain the hidden power of bringing positive emotions like empathy and compassion into all our interactions at home and at work.
If you’re new to the world of contemplative science or curious about the power of contemplative practice, or if you’re looking for a way to help your friends and family shift out of overdrive and get on the real path to thriving, I guarantee you’ll find what you’re seeking in The Happiness Track.
Review: The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science (Oxford, 2017) edited by E. Seppälä, E. Simon-Thomas, S.L. Brown, M.C. Worline, C.D. Cameron, & J.R. Doty
In this groundbreaking collection of essays from pioneering compassion researchers, clinicians, and educators, edited by Emma Seppälä and her colleagues, we see the emerging new field of compassion science finally coming of age. As Emma’s partner in the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research, neurosurgeon James Doty mentions in his introduction, the new neuropsychology of compassion stems in no small part from a dialogue neuroscientist Richard Davidson and other researchers have had with the exemplary Buddhist contemplative scientist H.H. the Dalai Lama. This dialogue has borne fruit in what I call a second wave of contemplative research in the West, a wave of compassion studies that comes as the first, the revolution of mindfulness, seems to still be on the rise.
The handbook assembled by Seppälä and Doty’s team is the first comprehensive survey of the new science, the culmination of an incredible first decade of laboratory and clinical research on the brain mechanisms and healing benefits of compassion. It stands as a textbook for future researchers and practitioners—as well as the public at large—about how and why the science and practice of compassion can and must revolutionize our understanding of well-being in our increasing interdependent age. The key themes that come out of the work and the book are three. First, compassion is not a cultural sentiment or luxury but a basic human social capacity and bare necessity if we are to survive, much less thrive together on this earth. Second is the powerful proof that compassion is not a rare trait or personality quirk, but a common human potential that can be readily cultivated and installed in the way our brains work. Third and most importantly, compassion is not just vital at home or in the clinic, but in every context and institution that make up our lives, including education, business, and mainstream culture.
The next to last chapter in the book, co-written by Emma, is one that deserves mention in terms of the future of civilization in general and of our Nalanda Institute community in particular. The title of that chapter—“Heroism: Social Transformation Through Compassion in Action”—says it all. The key point is, compassion is not just an inner mental state of empathy and benevolence, but a deep and unlimited wellspring of transformative action. Whether we’re practicing compassion at home or work, in the clinic, business, school, public service or faith community, the new science converges surprisingly with the Nalanda tradition, as well as with our modern traditions of social justice and social change. All these point to compassion as the strong force we must learn to tap and harness if we want our ability as individuals and communities to make waves of change that shift the tides of our life today in ways that align with the needs of all beings. Tapping into that strong force is the rate-limiting step in empowering each and every one’s potential for the heroic spirit of altruism that we need to shift our life and work, our local community and our global community towards a sustainable future of thriving together in interdependence.
Find out more about our 10th Annual Benefit on June 12th at The New York Academy of Medicine in New York City.
Find out more about Emma Seppälä on her website.
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