The Golden Rule, which invokes us to treat others as we would like to be treated, is the cornerstone of social order and the foundation of civilization. Fortunately, we usually make some effort to abide by it. Unfortunately, though, the Golden Rule gets broken on a regular basis. A hidden conflict in human nature explains, in part, why this is so.
We do indeed, on a conscious level, want to be treated kindly, yet we often expect unconsciously to be refused, controlled, or dominated—or to be criticized, rejected, disrespected, betrayed, and abandoned. Not only do we expect such treatment, we often go about provoking it.
Note that children sometimes provoke their parents to punish them. In subtle ways, adults can also provoke others, often through unconscious passive-aggressive behaviors and tit-for-tat emotional reactions. Addictive personalities, codependents, people with guilt and shame issues, and people prone to career and relationship failure induce criticism, disapproval, and punishment from others. They act out with others what is unresolved in themselves.
Our negative emotions and self-defeating behaviors, which derive from unconscious inner conflicts, make it more difficult for us to feel compassion. In light of these conflicts, the Golden Rule might need an addendum: “Best applied under the supervision of depth psychology.” We usually need some degree of resolution of our inner conflicts in order to become truly open-hearted.
Compassion and love are the mainstays of the Golden Rule. But often people don’t know what it means to be compassionate. Codependents or enablers, for instance, feel “compassion” for the dysfunctional person who is being enabled, and they allow this misguided sense of caring to lead them into painful experiences and self-defeat. Pro-life individuals can claim to feel compassion for the fetus, but it may be that they’re mostly feeling emotions aroused by their projection on to the fetus of their own issues with feeling rejected or devalued; a person can feel sorry for others because he or she is resonating with their self-pity; a person’s “compassion” for stray animals or homeless people might be partly aroused by his or her own unresolved issues with rejection, abandonment, and feelings of unworthiness.
Karen Armstrong, author of books on comparative religion, says compassion is the single attribute common to all religions. (See her TED talk, “Let’s Revive the Golden Rule.”) The Golden Rule requires self-knowledge, and “it is not easy to love ourselves,” she says in her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (Knopf Doubleday, New York. 2010).
In Twelve Steps, Armstrong writes that, “We are so often the cause of our own misery.” She notes the phenomenon of projection through which we dislike or detest in others a character flaw that we unconsciously decline to address in ourselves. Indeed, many people, as one example of this, despise the poor because they project their own unconscious self-doubt and shame upon the poor, rather than see in their own psyche their emotional attachment to these negative emotions. This judgmental attitude obviously impinges upon compassion.
Armstrong also writes, “Instead of reviling ourselves for our chronic pettiness and selfishness, it is better to accept calmly the fact that the cause of such behavior is our old brain.” The problem, as I see it, is not the brain in itself but the level of our consciousness. We can’t replace our reptilian brain, but we can become more conscious of how our perceptions and feelings are influenced by unresolved negative emotions that we first experienced in childhood. This deeper insight activates a healing process as we reveal (instead of trying to cover up or defend against) our unconscious determination to know and experience ourselves through unresolved negative emotions such as self-doubt and passivity.
Genuine compassion is a manifestation of strength and power. To be compassionate toward all life requires not only that we have a solid foundation in a sense of our goodness and worthiness but that we also feel the power and magnanimity, through the quality of our consciousness, to share spontaneously that inner wealth with others.
Imagine strolling through a mall and encountering a little girl who, while standing beside an adult, looks forlorn and dejected. If you identify with what you think she’s feeling, you’re more likely to feel pity for her than to feel compassion. She might feel scorn toward you if you look at her with pity. But if you look at her with compassion, she will accept it and be strengthened by it.
When compassion is activated, you’re able to look at that girl and really see her for the precious little being that she is. You’re not projecting your own issues on to her. If the child at that moment is looking back at you, she can, in seeing how you observe her so kindly, feel comforted and strengthened by your generous attention, indeed your moment of loving her. This compassion or love is real and can be felt like a current of energy. It has no agenda and it’s not influenced by unconscious issues. It’s the ability in a fleeting moment to experience and to convey connection and oneness, and it cannot arise out of self-doubt or low self-esteem. Impeded by self-doubt, we’re unlikely to make any connection with this girl in the first place. Or, if we do, we’re more likely to identify with what we imagine to be the girl’s sense of helplessness, rejection, or unworthiness. Such negativity, as mentioned, will squash all compassion.
A refined sense of self is the foundation for compassion. Our self (or Self) makes us understand as it emerges in our consciousness that we’re part of a greater whole, that we’re no better or worse than anyone else. Armstrong recommends Buddhist knowledge and practices throughout her book as a way to develop compassion through our sense of oneness with all life. This is all commendable, yet the Buddhist concept of no-self may be too esoteric to be useful to most Westerners. It refers, in part, to the ability to experience the quiet inner space of nothingness or emptiness, to discard all attachments and reference points, and to find solace and connection through one’s consciousness and simple existence. Westerners, in my opinion, need an emerging Self, the refinement of our being that transcends ego, if we’re going to find the power to make compassion the guiding principle for ourselves and the world. We need in these complex, turbulent times to believe in our Self as a tangible agent of destiny. This Self is an energetic and perhaps spiritual manifestation of the quality of our consciousness (just as ego identification is a manifestation of a less-refined consciousness). The Self represents our transcendence into compassionate beings.
Armstrong says that our greedy, needy selfishness was inherited from our ancient ancestors. She quotes Buddha saying, as a way to detach from our negativity, “This [negativity] is not what I really am; this is not my real self.” Again, to apply the tenets of depth psychology, this negativity, while not intrinsic to our essential Self, is nonetheless a part of our psychological self. The negativity can’t simply be wished away. The healing process, from the perspective of depth psychology, involves “owning” these negative emotions, meaning we recognize them and take responsibility for generating them from within ourselves. We might say, “This negativity is a component of my psychological self. I can see that more clearly. And I wish to learn how to transcend this negativity.”
Now we can see, in psychological terms, what has been causing us to be lacking in compassion.
Armstrong writes that through mindfulness practice, we learn over time “how often the real cause of our suffering is the anger that resides within us.” This statement is imprecise. Many other negative emotions—our entanglement in helplessness, deprivation, and unworthiness, for instance—can cause our suffering. Moreover, the anger is not the problem in itself. The anger is a symptom of deeper conflict. The anger is also a defense against acknowledging that we have a hidden vested interest in maintaining, rather than resolving, that conflict.
No one is to blame for our lack of compassion or our inability to master the Golden Rule. Human nature is a work in progress. We’re trying to evolve toward greater wisdom, integrity, and compassion. We’ll get there faster when we muster the courage to see ourselves more objectively. The Golden Rule can guide us even better when it incorporates more understanding of the critical dynamics that govern human nature.