Matthieu Ricard has lived many lives.
As a young student in Paris during the late 1960s, he was writing his dissertation in biochemistry at the prestigious Institute Pasteur. Five years later, guided by an inner stirring to explore a deeper side of life, he was living Darjeeling, India, where he had moved to study under a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader.
After his initial departure to India in 1972, Ricard spent many years living in silent contemplation in the Himalayas. This period of retreat ended when he published The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Live, a book based on a series of conversations with his father, philosopher Jean-Francois Revel.
Those father-son conversations were to become the first of many dialogues between East and West that have defined Ricard’s illustrious career. The beloved monk and humanitarian continues to bridge many worlds: those of spirituality and science, East and West, ancient beliefs and modern times. He has spoken at Dharamsala and the World Economic Forum at Davos; has worked with leaders ranging from the Dalai Lama to LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner to neuroscientist Richard Davidson; and has connected with millions of people through popular TED Talks while also living a quiet life his home country of Nepal.
With his many titles — including humanitarian, best-selling author, scientist and photographer — Ricard is uniquely poised to succeed at his current project: inspiring us all to act for the benefit of others.
His latest book, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, runs over 600 pages and has more than 1,600 scientific references. The tour de force brings together science, religion and history to explore the nature of compassion. For Ricard, exploring altruism — the selfless concern for the well-being of others — was a natural next step after last book on happiness.
“It’s a natural effect: You are open and kind to others, and without even noticing, you are happy,” Ricard told The Huffington Post over the phone from his mother’s home in France. “If you’re only preoccupied with yourself, even though you’re trying to be happy, you turn your back to happiness and you make yourself miserable. Either you get a win-win situation or a lose-lose situation.”
Ricard argues that altruism is hard-wired into the human brain, and he describes this innate capacity to care for others as the answer to the greatest challenges facing our world today.
The book suggests that cultivating altruism on both an individual and societal level is the only way to bridge the “schizophrenic dialogue” between society’s immediate needs and its long-term interests. Where we’ve gone wrong, Ricard says, is in sacrificing the well-being of future generations and the environment in order to satisfy our present desires.
Acting with altruism is the only way to address the short-term, mid-term and long-term needs of society, Ricard told HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington during a recent conversation at the publication’s New York City headquarters. “The simple notion of having more consideration for others can reconcile those three time scales,” he said.
In a competitive, individualistic culture, it’s easy to dismiss altruism as a pie-in-the-sky utopian ideal. But, Ricard argues, the ability to care about others may be the very thing that keeps our species alive.
Altruism As An Evolutionary Advantage
Scientists and philosophers have long debated whether humans are fundamentally good, or driven solely by selfishness. Academics have often struggled to find a place for altruism within the theory of Darwinian evolution — you know, the idea that individuals ruthlessly compete against each other for scarce resources, with only the strongest going on to thrive and reproduce — largely because it often implies a cost to the individual.
But the story isn’t that simple.
“Altruists should logically be the eternal losers in the struggle for life. However, that is far from the reality,” Ricard writes, noting that in our long history of living as hunter-gatherers in small cooperative tribes, mutual aid was indeed beneficial to the survival of each individual as well as the group.
He points to a large body of evidence, including the influential work of Harvard evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, that suggests reciprocal aid is vital to the survival of a species, and that those who help others rather than fighting against them may turn out to be the evolutionary winners.
Although academics continue to argue about whether humans are naturally egoistic or altruistic, modern research has suggested that the tendency to care for others is indeed innate to human nature.
Case in point: A 2007 brain-scanning study by neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health asked volunteers to think about a scenario in which they would either give money away to a good cause or keep it for themselves. The researchers were stunned to find that imagining giving the money away activated a primal part of the brain that normally lights up in response to food or sex — suggesting that morality is not only natural to us, but deeply pleasurable.
Your Brain On Compassion
Even if altruism is in some way hard-wired in the brain, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy for us to exercise compassion in our daily lives. Scientists are showing that through a systematic training of the mind, we can boost our capacity for empathy and compassionate behavior — and by extension, our own happiness and mental well-being.
Ricard tends to laugh off the infamous title he earned several years ago in a neuroscience study: the “happiest man in the world.” It’s not completely off-base, though. When University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson hooked up EEG sensors to Ricard’s brain while the monk meditated on “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion,” he recorded levels of gamma waves (which may be associated with compassion and calm attention) “never before reported in the neuroscience literature.”
It seems like the decades Ricard has spent meditating on compassion have led to measurable, and indeed extraordinary, changes in his brain.
That fact that meditation can create significant neural changes is now well-known, and a growing body of research shedding light on the benefits of compassion meditation in particular. Known as lovingkindness (“metta”) meditation, the practice that has been touted by Buddhists for over 2,500 years involves reflecting on the suffering of all living beings and wishing to relieve that suffering.
In a 2008 study conducted by positive psychologist Barbara Frederickson, 140 healthy adults who had little to no previous experience with meditation were given training in lovingkindness meditation and asked to practice 20 minutes daily for seven weeks. Compared to a control group, the new meditators reported feeling more love, serenity and joy in their daily lives. They also showed improvements in physical health, including vagal tone, a measurement of heart rate and fight-or-flight response.
At Stanford, research being conducted at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) is showing that compassion training, which includes lovingkindess meditation, to be effective in boosting altruism as well as improving physical and emotional well-being.
“Connecting with others in a meaningful way helps us enjoy better mental and physical health and speeds up recovery from disease,” Emma Seppala, a psychologist at Stanford and scientific director of CCARE, said. “It can even lengthen our lives.”
Citing recent brain imaging studies, Seppala added, “The reason a compassionate lifestyle leads to greater psychological well-being may be explained by the fact that the act of giving appears to be as pleasurable, if not more so, as the act of receiving.”
Based on both this modern research and ancient Buddhist wisdom, Ricard sees altruism as an important antidote to unhappiness. As the eighth-century Buddhist monk Shantideva famously said, all suffering comes from the wish for ourselves to be happy, and all happiness comes from the wish for others to be happy. Indeed, psychiatry research has shown negative self-focus to be at the root of some mental illnesses.
But selfishness is also at the core of many of the most pressing social issues of our times, Ricard argues.
“Selfishness is at the heart of most of the problems we face today: the growing gap between rich and poor, the attitude of ‘everybody for himself’ which is only increasing, and indifference about generations to come,” he writes.
By cultivating compassion, we can improve our own well-being, while also mediating not only humanitarian but also environmental crises.
“If we care for others, and for future generations, we are not going to destroy the planet we’ve been given,” Ricard says.
The Altruism Revolution
While meditation is a good first step toward cultivating compassion on a personal and social level, Ricard stresses it shouldn’t be the end goal.
“Meditation gives you more inner strength and confidence, and if you don’t feel vulnerable, you can put that to the service of others,” he said. “So it’s not just about sitting and cultivating caring mindfulness. It’s building up a way of being and then using it for the service of others.”
Ricard himself doesn’t just meditate on compassion — he’s long been putting it in action. For the past 15 years, his humanitarian foundation, Karuna Shechen, has built schools and hospitals across India, Nepal and Tibet. The organization has managed over 140 humanitarian projects in the Himalayas, and most recently focused its attention on bringing relief to thousands of Nepalis displaced by the earthquake.
Though a relatively small operation, Karuna Shechen has managed to help 220,000 people in 550 villages in Nepal, providing up to 30 days’ worth of food rations for each individual, medical assistance when needed, basic weather protection, seeds so that they can grow crops again, and offering protection to women and children who may be at risk for trafficking.
Despite the grave challenges facing the world today, Ricard remains optimistic about the influence of the ongoing “altruism revolution.”
While researching for his book, Ricard says, he noticed a widespread change in attitudes.
“I saw this shift happening in basically every discipline I encountered, from psychology to economics, through evolutionary theories,” Ricard said. “You see the revolution of the [nongovernmental organizations], that has already happened. You see vibrant sectors of the economy, like crowdfunding, impact investing, socially and environmentally responsible farming, cooperative banking, micro credit, social business. And you see more and more books on empathy and compassion. The big picture is emerging in that direction.”
More and more everyday people, too, are committing to finding small ways to make a difference in their communities, Ricard says — starting with practicing kindness.
“You can always have an impact, there are so many ways to do so,” he said. “Everyone has skills that they can put to the service of some NGOs or volunteer work. It doesn’t have to be in Sudan or the Himalayas, it can be right here in your neighborhood.”
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