Can Our Universe Teach Us Compassion?

The stronger the ego, the stronger the sense of separateness between people.
The only actions that do not cause opposing reactions are those
that are aimed at the good of all. They are inclusive, not exclusive.
They join: they don’t separate.
– Eckhart Tolle
Compassionate love is the natural response to the human
predicament of suffering and the human truth of interdependence.
-David Richo[i]
Humans display an innate responsiveness to other people’s pain.
– Evelyn and James Whitehead[ii]

We live in a world torn apart by suffering. Some of it is caused by natural disasters. Much of it is caused by human action.

We live in a world where people come together in response to suffering.  Individuals are able to bring the broken pieces of their bruised self back together and move through the pain toward healing. Some are able to reach out to others to share in their brokenness and together begin anew. Many respond in small ways to help those who suffer, as we have seen with the donations toward the relief efforts in Haiti. Some risk everything to try to be of help, like those who have crawled through the rumble of earth-quake shattered buildings to rescue those buried alive.

How might our new understanding of how our Universe works help us to more fully understand our human capacity to cause suffering and deepen our human capacity for compassion?

In my years of reflection on the story emerging through the sciences of the evolution of our Universe and of our place as humans in it, I continually have tried to use my imagination to re-think how we as humans are part of the dynamics of the Universe, not apart from them. What happens in our Universe happens in me, and vice versa. If I am capable of violence, it is somehow a “natural” occurrence. Just the same, if I am capable of compassion, it must be because I somehow witness to the presence of a similar dynamic in our Universe.

In his Twelve Principles for Understanding the Universe and the Role of the Human in the Universe Process , Thomas Berry writes:  “The universe has a violent as well as a harmonious aspect, but it is consistently creative in the larger arc of its development.”

I have found a great deal of help in exploring my own tendencies toward violence and compassion in the writings of the psychotherapist and teacher, David Richo. In his book, How to Be An Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving, Richo integrates the knowledge of depth psychology and the wisdom of the spiritual traditions to provide lessons for interdependent living. He writes:

…both psychological work for individuation and spiritual practice for egolessness will always be required as dual requisites for the enlightenment of beings as beautifully and mysteriously designed as we.

I am not a psychologist. I only know that the first time I read about the two-fold nature of my inner being – that there was a part of me that desired separation (some call it “ego”) and another part of me that “aimed at the good of all” – I recognized those two natures in my decisions and actions.  I have tried in my life to lead from the second nature. It helped when I knew I could say I wanted to make a commitment in all instances “to do the loving thing.”

Thomas Berry talks of three dynamics present in our Universe: differentiation, interiority and communion. If these dynamics happen in our Universe, I believe they happen in me.

The first thing of importance to us here about these three dynamics is that they are in relation to each other. Differentiation is what created the marvelous diversity present in the material forms of our Universe. Related to that, and deepening the diversity, is the dynamic of interiority, which means that every aspect of our Universe, from atoms to humans, has a unique identity, touched, influenced and shaped by experience. The third dynamic, communion, holds all of this diversity together in an interdependent reality.

In humans, it is the ego is a positive, helpful thing to have, because it allows us to psychologically differentiate. It is the work of the ego to create an “I,” who is a unique sum of my experiences, and creates my unique interiority. However, Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk and spiritual writer who died in 1968, called this ego-created self the “false self.” Eckhart Tolle, a contemporary spiritual teacher and author, describes it as the “I” of thought. As young children, we develop this “I-thought” as we come to understand what is “mine” – my name, my toys, my parents, my likes, my dislikes. As we get older, the I-thought adds more things to the list, and my “identity” grows and strengthens, often identified with what work we do professionally: “I am a carpenter,” “I am a teacher,” “I am a musician.” Without this I-thought or egoic self, we would not be able to function in the world. But, it is only part of who we are. As Tolle suggests, it is not our essence. It is, after all, only a mental construct. Yet, it is our own interiority. It differentiates us from others.

Beyond this I-thought or egoic self – our day-to-day identity – is another aspect of who we are. Merton called this the “True Self,” and Tolle calls it “my I Am-ness.”  I Am is me without all the thoughts neatly constructed into my identity by my ego.  It is who I Am when the voices in my head stop. It is the one who stands back and observes the voices.

I Am is the one who has no past, no future, but simply is in the present moment. It is in that present moment, when all the distractions of the ego-self are silent, that I Am knows communion. Tolle describes this experience:

Inner alignment with the present moment opens your consciousness and brings it into alignment with the whole, of which the present moment is an integral part. The whole, the totality of life, then acts through you.[iii]

This alignment with the whole of life, then, is how we “become” compassion. It is not so much a choice we make in any given moment as it is a way of being. When we reach this state of being, the “totality of life” – the communion – “acts through you,” as Tolle says. Our compassionate behaviors become, as Richo suggests, our “natural response” to the reality of “the truth of our interdependence.”

Violence results from the false illusion of separation created by our egoic self.  This illusion prevents us from being the compassion we naturally know how to be – because our Universe knows it.

As Richo says, spiritual tools can help us to manage our ego and put its skills to work in service of the whole.


[i] Richo, David. How to Be An Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving. Boston, MA: Shambala. 2002. 118.

[ii] Whitehead, Evelyn Eaton and James D. Whitehead. Holy Eros: Pathways to a Passionate God. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis. 2009. 133-134.

[iii] Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. New York, NY: Penguin. 2005. 275.

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