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“ Our knowledge of science has clearly outstripped our capacity to control it. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. We have achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.”
—Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
In a recent article for Medium, Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, a brain expert at the University of California, San Francisco, brilliantly outlined the current state of the human condition: We’re in a cognition crisis, he wrote, one wrought in part by the proliferation of technology. He notes the stark rise in depression, anxiety, and attention disorders and calls for the development of new cognitive capacities — capacities we will need in order to navigate the complexities of modern life.
Etymologically, cognition is derived from the Latin cognosco, a compound of com, meaning together with, and gnosco, which means to recognize or comprehend. True cognition must connect: It must bring us together. This requires the mind — and the heart.
Writing from the perspective of a Buddhist teacher and a psychologist with a strong connection with the world of technology, I know this much: No marvelous technological developments alone — computers and the internet, nanotechnology, space technology, biotechnology, VR, AR, A.I. — will stop continuing warfare, racism, environmental destruction, and global injustice. The source of these sufferings is in the human heart.
Actions based on greed, hatred, disrespect, and ignorance inevitably lead to suffering.
When we consider creating the best future for humanity, the principles for a wise society and a wise life are simple and universal: Actions based on greed, hatred, disrespect, and ignorance inevitably lead to suffering. And actions based on their opposites — generosity, love, respect, and wisdom — lead to happiness and well-being.
That is true for us humans, and it applies to all the technologies we develop and employ.
The United States is the largest producer and supplier of weapons, arms spread across the world, yet we do not feel safe. We have grain elevators full of food, yet millions of children are hungry or starving across the globe. Our heart feels their plight and whispers to us: What can we do? The reality is we have enough food but not enough love. We know this truth as surely as we know our own name.
How can we reengage the heart? As Gazzaley explains, the increasing complexity, speed, and multitasking of our modern environment has overtaken our capacities, and we live disconnected from our own self and from one another.
Technology has given us so much, yet it also can distance us from the mystery of love. As Einstein reportedly once said, “If you can drive safely while kissing a girl, you are simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.”
Part of the solution, Gazzaley articulates, is the deliberate and conscious development of our cognitive capacities. What is important to recognize is that these are capacities of heart as well as mind.
There are tools and strategies for awakening and strengthening the human heart — and for applying those principles to our technology.
These “heart” tools — trainings and ways to enhance joy, compassion, peace, gratitude, forgiveness — are part of our human heritage. Many of these practices, such as those from Buddhist psychology, have been rigorously researched, and their benefits have been replicated in countless scientific studies. Over the past 20 years, neuroscientists have published thousands of papers showing the benefits of mindfulness and compassion.
What’s more, the two appear to work best together. The work of Richard Davidson, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has provided initial evidence that when mindfulness and compassion are practiced in concert, the measurable changes to our nervous system occur 10 times faster than they do with mindful attention alone.
Neuroscientists have published thousands of papers showing the benefits mindfulness and compassion.
The benefits may go all the way down to our chromosomes. In recent research, Nobel Prize–winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn and her colleague Elissa Epel found that after eight weeks of mindfulness and compassion training, subjects saw a lengthening of their telomeres, which are often described as protective caps on our chromosomes that get shorter as we age.
Their research also shows that our telomeres are changed by the health and emotional balance of our environment. Those living in areas of poverty or conflict, for instance, have shorter telomeres than those who live in comfort and peace. There is even evidence that the same shortening happens in those who simply live near poverty and distress.
We are interconnected in profound ways: our environment, our community. Our heart knows this. Every breath we take has dusted Hawaiian waterfalls and the Fukushima nuclear reactor. We come most alive in the times when our sense of separateness drops away. We remember the times walking in the high mountains, making love, losing ourselves in music, witnessing the birth of a new child, or sitting at someone’s bedside at the moment of death, when the gates to mystery open.
Whether we admit it or not, we are vulnerable beings, and the work of an open heart is demanding. But our crisis of heart requires it. To curtail violence and hate and to foster human well-being, we need to spread widely, in person and online, the trainings and tools of compassion, forgiveness, trauma healing, and nonviolent communication.
By growing empathy and inner courage, we expand what neuroscientists call our window of tolerance. Without this wisdom, we blame society’s ills on others, whether the immigrants, the Muslims, the Communists — it’s always someone else. Back in 1955, the author James Baldwin wrote, “I imagine one of the reasons that people cling to their hate and prejudice so stubbornly is because they sense that once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with their own pain.”
His words ring true, even today. Our hate is a mechanism so that we don’t have to blame ourselves, face our insecurities, our difficulties, loneliness, and our upset at the losses and injustice around us. But we must.
In our hyperwired world, heart work is an urgent task.
The crisis of our times requires individuals and our culture to engage in a growing ability and willingness to see, to speak out, and to feel our grief and regrets, our fears, longing, and confusion. As part of this, like South Africa, we need a national Truth and Reconciliation process to come to terms with our denial of the Native genocide and African American slavery, so we are not continuing to refight the Civil War. On the other side, some of us are so loyal to our suffering that we also need heart wisdom to honor and express our love, our creative hopes, our delight and joy.
As heart wisdom and love matures, we discover we can hold together all of the opposites, the unbearable beauty, and the ocean of tears that make up human life. We feel our common humanity, the shared longings and fears, love and loss, tenderness and triumphs, and our compassion become universal toward all life. We learn to judge less, to let go, to hold things lightly, to forgive and start anew.
In our hyperwired world, heart work is an urgent task. Over the past few years, our fight-or-flight-or-freeze response has been triggered by politicians, pundits, and search algorithms alike — they all aim to grab our attention by sparking our anxiety. And it’s taking a toll. Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general, has suggested that that half of all the medical problems in the United States are related to problems with emotions. The good news is that humans can also learn to shift from the primitive brain’s fight-or-flight circuit and engage in considered responses from the neocortex — and wisdom from the heart.
Buddhist psychology is built upon this positive human capacity for change. By contrast, most of Western psychiatry and psychology is built on a medical-disease-oriented model that focuses on what’s wrong, as opposed to what is right. But positive psychology reminds us that for each racist act, each killing, or unkindness, there are a million acts of respect and goodness. The heart knows we are more than our worst actions.
In the time it will take you to read this essay, millions of people in cities across the earth will stop at red lights so that others may be safe. People will stand in lines out of respect for who arrived before them. People will help and move among one another with care.
Half of all medical problems in the United States are related to problems with emotions.
With heart work, we learn to love more fully. We imbue our days with meaning. And we create community and society, not as a false collection of atomized individuals, but as a home we build and tend together. Only when we are linked together, connected as a group devoted to the common good, can we create a wise society.
Though they can be problematic, technology and business can help with this. There are encouraging signs. Take the B Corps, with thousands of companies around the globe that pledge to not cause harm. And the 85 British parliamentarians who make up Mindful UK, which advocates for mindful and humane legislation in education and health care. The past two decades have seen the similar spread of programs in mindfulness, empathy, and social and emotional learning to thousands of American schools, and research shows powerful scientific evidence of increasing well-being, effectiveness, collaboration, and empathy among our children. We need to build this into tech as well.
The capacities of modern technology are among the most potent of human creations.
Together with technology leaders, neuroscientists, and contemplatives, I have helped co-found something called the Open Source Compassion to bring principles of heart and compassion into all levels of technological development. We acknowledge that the capacities of modern technology are among the most potent of human creations. We are collaborating with companies and institutions around the world and beginning to formulate a kind of Hippocratic Oath for tech, which reads:
We will not create technology that causes harm to humans and to life.
If later we learn that it inadvertently does so, we will change it.
We will strive to create technology that fosters human well-being and respect.
We can create technology for profit, but not if it contravenes the first three principles.
Working at all levels, we will act with professionalism and take these responsibilities as paramount.
What this suggests is that there are things we can do. We are not powerless. Modern public discourse is almost designed to leave us overwhelmed and disheartened and, frankly, resigned to the state of the world. Don’t fall for this.
Neuroscience has shown that human beings are born with innate compassion and care for self and others. It also shows that human beings are born with survival circuits, which, when activated, operate from fear, aggression, selfishness, and hate. It’s up to us which one we let create our future.
As Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explains:
The quality of our life depends on the seeds we water. If you plant tomato seeds in your gardens, tomatoes will grow. Just so, if we water the seeds of fear and hate, they will grow. If we water the seeds of peace in your heart, peace will grow. When the seeds of love, respect, and peace are watered, we will become happy.
Intention is the key. Like an inner compass, we can set the direction of our life with the deepest intentions of the heart. But the secret is to act without attachment to the results. We get to plant seeds based on our best intentions, but we do not control how or when they will sprout. They will, in their own time.
So, plant good seeds. Trust in renewal.
And you who read this: Let these words be a reminder, a call. Find your way to quiet yourself and tend your heart. Promote love and spread the power of compassion in your work, in your community. Have hope.
I remain hopeful despite the many painful current events, because we know how to do this. It’s in us to help one another and create a better world.
In Zen, they say there are only two things: You sit, and you tend the garden. You quiet your mind and open your heart. And then, naturally, you get up and tend the garden of the world.
Jack Kornfield trained as a Buddhist monk and psychologist. A teacher and activist he has been key to introducing mindfulness to the west. Jackkornfield.com
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