Toward a World of Compassion: Learning to Live and Love Globally

Toward a World of Compassion: Learning to Live and Love Globally

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Despite centuries of science and religion being on opposite sides of the debate about the relation of body and spirit, science is now confirming what people of faith have long known. The advancing scientific understanding of how our brains mediate our being has opened the door to reveal sacred Desire as incarnate in our bodies.

What do we mean by sacred Desire? The word “desire” according to Webster’s (eleventh edition) most simply means: “to long or hope for.” We may long for a relationship or a fast new car. We may hope for peace in the world or a new, more satisfying job. But the Latin root of desire, desiderare, reveals a deeper meaning: de is translated as “from” [or down, away] and sider, sidus as “heavenly body.” Desire, then, literally “comes from the stars,” which in ancient times signified the celestial powers, or the Holy. We are referring to this deeper meaning in this paper. To denote that, we spell Desire with a capital “D.” Our Desire in its purest form reflects our longing to be one with the life force that creates and animates all that is. Since we authors are Christian, we call that life force God. Those from other belief systems might call it by a different name—such as the bodhicitta of Buddhism (Thich Nhat Hanh 1999, 113).

Our understanding of “sacred” comes from Jesus, who is here drawing on Judaic traditional wisdom:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all? Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ [Deuteronomy 6:4-6] The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ [Leviticus 19:18] There is no other commandment greater than these.”


– Mark 12:28–31, NRSV

Jesus teaches that the first commandment, or rule for holy living, is to love God with our entire being. But that isn’t enough. We must also love our neighbor as ourselves. Sacred, therefore, we define as: loving—and growing in love of—God, self, and others. Loving is valuing another in all of his or her uniqueness (the singular life the person was created to live) and distinctness (his or her body, flaws, and faults). This is consistent, in our understanding, with the Buddhist practice—The Dharma—of loving kindness as expressed in life (Thich Nhat Hanh 1999, 31).

Desire draws us deeper into love and simultaneously awakens our unique expression of the energy of life—the imago Dei, the image of God, for Christians (van Huyssteen 2006, 111-162) and the Buddha figure or Bodhisattva of Compassion for Buddhists (Epstein 1995, 16)—which only we can bring into the world. Bringing our imago Dei—that hologram of God that has been given to each person in our DNA—into the world moves us toward developing and nourishing a world of compassion. Although Francis S. Collins, leading geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project, does not explicitly say that the imago Dei lives in our DNA, we believe that he alludes to it when he quotes C.S. Lewis, “If there was a controlling power outside the universe … The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way” (Collins 2006, 29).

Compassion is “‘kind, receptive openness’, ‘an attitude of lowliness’, ‘a meekness that does not defend itself’, ‘long-suffering patience’, and thus the winning over, the enduring of one’s unendurable brothers…” (von Balthasar [1963]2004, 128-129). A world of compassion is a world in which each and every person is valued and offered the opportunity and encouragement to express the one person he or she most deeply is, a world where the imago Dei, the Bodhisattva of Compassion,comes alive in us. A world of compassion is a world in which we can reflect our imago Dei or Buddha figure without distorting God or Ultimate Reality.

Our thesis is that we human beings are created with a potential to love and to live in the optimal state of compassion. We have been given a marvelous body suited for this task. Understanding how Desire is biologically imbedded, is expressed interpersonally, and is spiritually embodied prepares us for a common effort to live and love globally in a world of compassion.

Scientific Groundwork

The scientific groundwork for our understanding of Desire resides in four sources: the psychological development, the biological mediation, the sociocultural shaping, and the spiritual expression of Desire.

Psychological Development of Desire. The seed of Desire that infants bring into the world gets nourished (or distorted) by how caregivers regulate their child’s emotions (Schore 1994, 2000, 2003a, 2003b; Stern 2004). The means for doing this is a nonverbal interaction that we call “attuning.”

Attuning is how we know with—how we connect, interact with, and exchange energy and information between one human being and another, between one human being and other elements of creation, and even between different aspects (biological, psychological, social, and spiritual) within ourselves (Morrison and Severino 2003). In the first year of human life attuning is expressed through gazing, touching, rocking, singing, and feeding. The attuning of infant and caregivers creates, in the words of neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese, a “we-centric” space (2003a, 525) in which the infant builds his identity in a pre-verbal raw experiential intersubjective knowing. In other words, the infant knows actions, sensations, and emotions through the embodied experience of them in the “we-centric” space. The infant then takes his raw experiences and organizes them in what Gallese calls the “manifold space” (Gallese 2003b). How the infant organizes his embodied experience of vital information (emotions, states of mind, his very being) and energy (physical, emotional, spiritual) determines whether he will trust his Desire as the essence of his being or mistrust his Desire and divert himself from his essence.

The highly respected twentieth century theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, puts it this way, “If God wishes to reveal the love that he harbors for the world, this love has to be something that the world can recognize, in spite of, or in fact in, its being wholly other” (von Balthasar [1963]2004, 75). He goes on to say, “After a mother has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives her child’s smile in response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child, and as the child awakens to love, it also awakens to knowledge: the initially empty-sense impressions gather meaningfully around the core of Thou” (von Balthasar [1963]2004, 76).

When such nonverbal exchanges bring people together in harmony, we call the creative process “resonant attuning.” When the exchanges bring people together in disharmony, we call the process “dissonant attuning” (Morrison and Severino 1997). Both are necessary for the development of Desire. Resonant attuning awakens us to love; dissonant attuning alerts us that we are out of sync with the other or with our Desire. The experience of dissonance calls us to return to a state of harmony.

Naturally, we live in both resonant attuning where we trust Desire and dissonant attuning where we mistrust Desire. When we live in dissonant attuning, we can be restored to trusting Desire by reparation within resonant attuning. Reparation is a process of healing wounds that have been caused by someone dissonantly attuning to us.

When the wounds occur in the necessary process of socialization, they are relatively easy to repair (Morrison and Severino 2003). Reparation of traumatic dissonant attuning experiences is more difficult. It requires a profound emotional re-experiencing of the dissonant attuning with a person whom we can trust and who is resonantly attuning to us (Severino and Morrison 1999). In sum, our attuning experiences determine how we transmit trust or mistrust of Desire from one person to another and from one generation to another (Ainsworth et al. 1978; Bowlby 1969; Hesse 1999; Hesse and Main 1999, 2000).

Biological Mediation of Desire. Desire is mediated by at lease three biological systems: the oxytocin-vasopressin system, the polyvagal system, and our mirror neurons.

The oxytocin-vasopressin system works in our brain and through the bloodstream into our body. Both maternal love and romantic love activate “regions of the brain specific to each, as well a overlapping regions in the brain’s reward system that coincide with areas rich in oxytocin and vasopressin receptors. Both [deactivate] a common set of regions associated with negative emotions, social judgment and … the assessment of other people’s intentions and emotions” (Bartels and Zeki 2004, 1155). The activated regions, particularly the periaqueductal gray of the midbrain that is rich in oxytocin receptors and involved in maternal behavior might be considered the womb of compassion.

When experiencing safety, our body produces oxytocin that appears in our bloodstream as a hormone and in our brain as a neurotransmitter. Oxytocin makes us calm and friendly, activates our parasympathetic nervous system that decreases our blood pressure and increases our digestion, and it gives us trust to bond positively with others. Unlike most hormones that shut off their own production, oxytocin does the opposite. The presence of oxytocin triggers the production of more oxytocin. In other words, we are made so that we can’t run out of love. The more we have, the more we get (Moberg 2003). The more we get, the more we live in the physiology underlying trust of Desire.

When confronted by a threat (real or imagined), our body produces a hormone—adrenaline—and a signaling substance (called neurotransmitter)—vasopressin—that prepares us to either fight or flee. This cocktail makes us angry, afraid, or both. It increases our blood pressure, decreases our digestion, activates our sympathetic nervous system, and gives us power to focus on defending against threat (Moberg 2003). When chronically aroused, it is the physiology underlying our mistrust of Desire.

The polyvagal system, like the oxytocin-vasopressin system, helps us distinguish whether people or places are safe, dangerous, or life threatening. The polyvagal system (part of the autonomic nervous system) has evolved through three stages (Porges 2001):


Evolution of the Polyvagal System


Stage Character Physiology Behavior

primitive unmyelinated parasympathetic (Dorsal Vagus)

depresses metabolic activity immobilization
II sympathetic nervous system inhibits primitive Vagus increases metabolic activity fight or flight
III myelinated parasympathetic (Ventral Vagus) regulates cardiac output social communication

Perceived life threat automatically arouses the dorsal vagal primitive parasympathetic system for survival cueing. This results in the defensive behavior of immobilization (Stage I). Perceived danger activates fight or flight behavior by removing the ventral vagal influence on our heart and by depending on our sympathetic nervous system to mobilize us (Stage II). Both of these neurological states predispose us to the physiology underlying mistrust of Desire. When the ventral vagal system—unique to mammals—predominates, we are open to social communication (Porges 2004) and to living in the physiology underlying trust of Desire.


Mirror neurons act differently to mediate Desire. Some mirror neurons sit next to motor neurons in our brain. When we watch hand, mouth, face or foot actions of another person, our brain mirror neurons activate the same functionally specific regions of our premotor cortex as if we were performing the actions. Hence we vicariously experience the other as if we were doing what they are doing (Rizzolatti et al. 2001). Our mirror neurons read the mind—so to speak—of the person we are seeing or hearing.

Moreover, with sufficient cues, mirror neurons will fire without seeing the completed action. In other words, a person can know what another person did even though they did not see the entire action. Direct embodied simulation (Gallese 2003a, 2006) through mirror neurons allows us to grasp the intentions of others by feeling, not by thinking (Blakemore and Decety 2001).

Mirror neurons, found in several areas of the brain—including the premotor cortex (involved with bringing about pleasurable attachments and avoiding painful separations), the posterior parietal lobe, the superior temporal sulcus, and the insula (site of the mirror neuron system for social emotions like shame and guilt)—fire in response to chains of actions linked to intentions.

Mirror neurons mediate the “we-centric” space. They are the neural basis of intersubjectivity (Gallese 2003b), the roots of empathy (Ramachandran 2006), and the neural correlates of resonant attuning that promote our trust of sacred Desire. We yearn to enter a “we-centric” space of love.

While other animals—monkeys, dolphins, dogs, probably apes and possibly elephants—have mirror neurons, human beings with our larger brains and growing complexity have a greater capacity to form concepts about inherently unobservable things (Povinelli 2004). The ultimate unobservable is, of course, God or Ultimate Reality.

Sociocultural Shaping of Desire. In addition to science lending understanding about the psychological development of Desire and the biological mediation of Desire, it lends understanding about how social group functioning persists over time and gives rise to the groups’ worldview that, in turn, shapes Desire.

For one thing, people process, store, retrieve and respond to the world in a state-dependent fashion. When a person is in a state of anxiety or terror, the primary areas of the brain that are processing information are different from those o a person in a calm state. Having identical IQs and given the same information, the person in a calm state will use the most complex part of his brain, his neocortex, to process information in ways that are future focused and creative. The person in a state of anxiety will use his limbic/midbrain to process information in ways that are concrete and superstitious. The person in a state of terror will use his brainstem/autonomic nervous system to process information in ways that are present focused and reactionary. These states, over time, become the traits that characterize our person and determine the physiology underlying trust or mistrust of Desire.

Social-Environmental Pressures (adapted from Perry 2001)



  Stable/Safe Environment Unpredictable Environment Threatening Environment






Calm Anxiety Terror


Innovative Simplistic Reactionary

Time Focus
of Solution

Future Immediate Future Present

Rules, Regulations,
and Laws








Worldview Unity Good or Evil Evil


Approaching the sociocultural shaping of Desire from a religious rather than a scientific perspective, Professor of Religion Regina Schwartz draws similar conclusions. Secular forms of life and governance, she suggests, are profoundly underwritten by the sacred terror of the Hebrew Bible. Collective identities of peoples are crafted in the violence that constructs the Other (1997, 5). The Bible encodes Western culture’s central myth of collective identity that is built on an attitude of scarcity—what Perry refers to as the experience of an unpredictable or threatening environment. “To be Israel is to be not-Egypt; identity is purchased at the expense of the Other (1997, 19). The logic of scarcity is distinguished from that of plenitude, “a logic that sustains contraries without obliteration, that multiplies difference” (1997, 19). The logic of plenitude is what Perry would call a stable and safe environment.

Over time our states change us on a molecular, structural and functional level. The more we live in a state where we feel calm and see the world as whole, the more we live from a trust of our Desire. The more we live in a state where we feel anxious or terrorized and see the world as split between good or evil, the more we live from a mistrust of our Desire.

The “we-centric” space and the “manifold space” have roles in the sociocultural shaping of Desire. The “we-centric” space, where we continually pass information back and forth between us via our mirror neurons, is the source of social emotional contagion. The “manifold space” gives rise to multiple outcomes. It is the intrapersonal space in which we organize and internalize what we acquire in the “we-centric” space and where we encode the sense of our self as being like another. It is also the interpersonal space where in large part we pass the organized states directly to others by social sharing. This acts as the starting point for social cognition (Gallese 2003a, 517). From the “manifold space” we also get our understanding of God or Ultimate Reality.

Spiritual Expression of Desire. At the outset we must acknowledge that empirical approaches to the spiritual—our fourth source of scientific groundwork—are fraught with problems. Spirituality is difficult to define, operationalize and measure. We adopt the definition of spirituality used by two researchers: “A person’s experience of … a power apart from their own existence. It may exist within them but is ultimately apart. It is the sense of relationship or connection with a power or force” (King and Dein 1998, 1259). Our human sense of a force apart from us calls us to become aware of the unseen. Spiritual practices provide the discipline that allows us to work with the unseen.

The spiritual practices of the authors have brought us—through different paths—to the same experience of sacred Desire. We both are convinced that sacred Desire urges us to connect with the power of creation that is within us (the imago Dei or the Buddha figure) and apart from us (God or the Bodhisattva of Compassion) and to express that connection in the world. What would this look like?

Let’s consider what happened in May 2006 when several parties were climbing Mount Everest. After completing his climb to the summit and on his descent, David Sharp collapsed from oxygen deficiency and lay dying. Other climbers passed him by to continue their climb. In a world of connection, this would not have happened. Despite anger at Sharp for interrupting their climb, despite disappointment at not finishing what they had prepared and gone for, they would have stopped and helped Sharp out. In the words of von Balthasar, “Within the cosmic order, the only foundation for love is the natural harmony of all the parts of the cosmos; the only foundation is being, working, experiencing, and suffering with one another …, being pervaded by a single, common, cosmic breath …” (von Balthasar [1963]2004, 133-134).

To be pervaded by a single, common, cosmic breath is to live in a body of love—of oxytocin triggering oxytocin—where our flesh is alive, vital, and connected to all other flesh by mirror neurons that mediate interpersonal resonant attuning. For Christians, it is to open ourselves to the power of love that created everything. It is to live in the Kingdom of God—the community womb of life, the “we-centric” space—that forms us over our entire life span by reincarnating God in our relationships. Learning to keep centered on love is a life-long endeavor requiring group support and validation.


Our scientific groundwork gives us evidence that sacred Desire is innate, is psychologically nourished through the attuning of our caregivers, and is biologically mediated whereby living in fear promotes our mistrust of Desire and living in love promotes trust of Desire. Our sociocultural experiences further shape our Desire. States of calm, anxiety and terror—over time—become traits that characterize our person and determine our worldview.

When, then, can we learn to love globally and to live in a world of compassion?

There are two general answers to this question—answers that have been posed by others but that we will discuss from our perspective. First, we learn when we must. Second, we learn when we see role models of those who successfully love globally. Let’s look at each of these answers more explicitly.

We learn when we must. This is the old answer, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Never has it been truer than in today’s world of rapid communication and escalating violence—to ourselves and to our environment—which demands that we must learn to love globally. Fortunately, there seem to be biological, sociocultural, economic, and political forces in the world today that are possibly moving us to live more completely from our sacred Desire.

For understanding the biological and sociocultural forces we turn to the work of Christopher Boehm, the cultural anthropologist who has been most influential in developing the concept of egalitarianism as the starting point for studying all modern institutions. He defines egalitarianism as that product of human intentionality where people “consciously create, and carefully enforce, egalitarian plans” to keep tendencies to hierarachy decisively reversed (Boehm 2001, 12). Boehm presents persuasive ethnographic evidence to support his hypothesis that the evolution of human beings has resulted in the biological selection of genes for altruism (Boehm 2001, 197). He concludes that the evolutionary saga has brought us to the point where we are “a species altruistic enough to cooperate quite efficiently in large or small groups, but at the same time prone to competition and conflict” (Boehm 2001, 254). Our challenge is to maximize our altruism, which is based in love, and to minimize our selfishness, which is based in fear.

For understanding the economic forces steering us to become more compassionate, we turn to the Pulitzer Prize winning foreign affairs columnist at The New York Times, Thomas Friedman. In his book The World is Flat, Friedman explains how globalization flattened the world at the dawn of the twenty-first century. His idea is that economic globalization makes war more difficult because a warring nation risks being left out of the insourcing and outsourcing loop. Globalization thus forces compliance and greater understanding of each other. Though Friedman’s intent is not to promote compassion, we authors believe that his conceptualization of globalization does ask that nations bend to diplomacy. In diplomacy, perhaps we can find a moral sense about each other that would provide a forum for compassion.

For understanding the political forces encouraging us to live and love globally we turn to Senator Barack Obama who calls for a brand of politics that is rooted in the faith, inclusiveness, and nobility of spirit at the heart of our nation. What he offers in his book, The Audacity of Hope, is his assessment “of the ways we can ground our politics in the notion of a common good” (Obama 2006, 9). Underlying his assessment is a search for connection between people. To the extent that human interconnectedness is the foundation for a radically hopeful political consensus, Obama’s view challenges all of us to turn toward a world of compassion. This brings us to the second general answer to our question of how we learn to live and love globally.

We learn when we see role models. And we now know that we are biologically designed to do so. When we see people living from sacred Desire, our mirror neurons facilitate our vicarious experience of their lives.

One such person is Abraham George born in Kerala and educated in the United States where he made a fortune. In 1998 he returned to India to establish, among other things, a school for untouchable children. When Thomas Friedman visited George’s school and saw the energized children, he thought, “We must have more Abraham Georges—everywhere—by the thousands: people who gaze upon a classroom of untouchable kids and not only see the greatness in each of them but, more important, get them to see the greatness in themselves while endowing them with the tools to bring that out” (Friedman 2006, 569).

This brings us to a question underlying the answer of seeing role models: how can each of us be role models of living and loving globally? We offer this answer: since we are all interrelated, our moral identity is dependent “on the mutual experience of emotions where we co-create each other in ongoing self/other-organization as we live together” (Morrison and Severino 2007, 30). Science confirms this answer with the discovery of mirror neurons, the means by which we co-create each other. A role model is an embodied simulation of that person, enabling our body to live that person. If there is a shared affection in the “we-centric” space between the role model and us, oxytocin is released and experienced as love.

Co-creating each other as loving beings fosters a worldview of compassion where we see the world as whole, as Holy. Not surprisingly, the root of our word “holy” is related to the Old English term for “whole,” and “whole” comes from the Middle English hool, meaning healthy, unhurt, entire. As we move into the Holy that is both beyond and more deeply within us than we can grasp, we begin to understand—or at least we are confronted with the mystery—that humanity, the Holy, and creation are interconnected. In short, we are whole. But somehow in the course of human history, including our own personal history, we have forgotten that.

In his book The Break-Out Principle, Herbert Benson, M.D., talks about the “placebo effect.” Instead of writing off the healing that people experience when taking sugar or “dummy” pills as a fluke of the imagination, Benson maintains that healing or significant improvement of health is due to the “healing power of belief” (by the patient, by the physician or healer, and in the relationship between them). As such, he proposes that the placebo effect be renamed “remembered wellness” (Benson 2003, 54). Likewise, our growing awareness of the interconnectedness (or more accurately, the “unity”) of all that exists might be thought of as “remembered wholeness.” That awareness causes us to remember, as Gerald May so eloquently puts it, “the unfathomable, mysteriously intimate co-participation of ‘God in me, I in God’” (May 2004, 76). We are not trying to create or envision something that never was; we are seeking to remember—literally re-member—the reality of creation and the Holy as interrelated. Remembering interrelatedness suppo ts our capacity to v