Cultivating Compassion and Altruism

From I to We: The Role of Consciousness Transformation in Compassion and Altruism by Cassandra Vieten, Tina Amorok, and Sofia University’s chair of the PhD programs, Marilyn Schlitz

Religious and spiritual leaders, sociologists, psychologists, educators, and neuroscientists are all interested in how compassion, altruism, and other prosocial emotions and behaviors can be cultivated.Indeed, learning more about how other-regarding virtues can be fostered is a goal with personal,societal, and perhaps global implications. What factors are involved in the cultivation of compassion and altruism? What experiences and practices support the development of compassion and altruism that extends beyond one’s immediate kinship circle? What contexts support experiences of compassion and empathy and facilitate the translation of those emotions into altruistic behavior? How can dispositional tendencies toward compassion and altruistic behavior be fostered? Religious, spiritual, and transformative practice traditions have developed specific methods that are directed toward cultivation of these virtues, and we may have something to learn from their approaches about how compassion and altruism are developed.


screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-12-43-24-pmMost religious and spiritual traditions include prescriptions for living that involve the cultivation of compassion and altruism. In Sikh and Hindu-derived traditions, the Sanskrit seva refers to being of selfless service to the needs of others. In Christian and other Western spiritual traditions, the Greek word agape (or in Latin, caritas) refers to human beings manifesting God’s pure love, or an intentional and unconditional love for others, including enemies. In Buddhist traditions metta in Pali or maitri in Sanskrit is used to refer to both a quality and a practice of unconditional and unattached loving kindness, or the strong intention for the happiness of all beings. The Tibetan Buddhist practice of
tonglen refers to the practice of taking in suffering and giving out love or blessings.
Stephen G. Post points out that while “one finds rough equivalents of the ideal of divine Unlimited Love across the major spiritual and religious traditions…the consensus among religions about the various ways human beings can connect with this source of love needs to be better understood” (2003, 140).


Over the past several years, our group has been engaged in a study of the factors that initiate, mediate, and sustain positive transformations in consciousness. To learn more about how consciousness is transformed, we sought to identify common elements of the transformative process in religions, spiritual traditions, and modern transformative movements. We have employed a qualitative research method with the goals of generating hypotheses and informing definition, selection, and operationalization of relevant predictor, mediator, and outcome variables. Through this process, we are developing a theoretical model of the transformative process that is not specific to any one tradition but is informed by common elements of the transformational process across traditions, without excluding unique contributions from specific traditions. Our thematic analysis suggests that increased compassion and altruism is a common goal of trans-formative traditions and that there are experiences and practices across traditions that foster increased compassion and altruism through a number of potential pathways.

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