A Compassionate Evening with Karen Armstrong

September 24, 2018

What a wonderful privilege to hear this kind and articulate soul speak at the Inaugural Ismaili Centre International Lecture at their wonderful facilities in Dubai.

Compassion is not gentle nor is it pity. Its Latin and Greek roots refer to feeling with the other, to endure with, but not just when you might feel like it but all day and every day. The essence of compassion is the need for a lack of ego, a characteristic that she returned to many times during her speech.

The Golden Rule of every religion is along the lines of “Do not impose your will on others” or more positively, “do unto others as you would have them do to you”. This requires a transcendence of ego and not clinging to your own opinions. In her books about God, she mentions that God is often a reflection of ourselves. We must get beyond that notion as God goes beyond.

Karen does not believe in a supreme being. Humanity has a tendency to shrink God down to size and make God an idol. Catholicism for example, is often about the ego, about not performing sins as an individual as you will need absolution or go to Hell. It hasn’t lost the ego. Rather, God is transcendent and it’s hard to put the words around it. Her best analogy is that God is present in the shock we feel when we realise the limitations of our speech when talking about God.

Compassion is central to the notion of God. With 20 leading thinkers across the major religions, she coordinated the development of the Charter of Compassion. Compassion is not just about feeling good but is required in order to gain action. Business people are required to help implement the Charter and young people need to be involved to translate the Charter for the new generation.

Her next book will be about scripture. Her thesis is that scripture is essentially an art form; it is performative. It was meant to be read out loud, or to be sung. Theology is a poetry of expression and in the silence from reading scripture, she found the texts spoke to her. Compassion and a sense of equality are central themes across scripture.

She claims that religion in the West is becoming too individual. It needs to be shared and communicated. In the west, we flaunt our inequity at others (the poor, the less developed countries, etc.). How then do you insert compassion into western society when its politics is essentially unjust.

She then asked what would a compassionate city look like? It would not be a comfortable place. It would deal with suffering and see that as a spiritual opportunity to make us work for a better world. Her dream is not for compassionate cities but for cities that link up as we all have to care about the rest of the world. Compassion is the virtue that can change our world and get rid of hatred while ego will hold any of us back from our best selves.

The final question posed to Karen was “Does being compassionate hold us back?” Her response was that in the long run you need to ask yourself what kind of person do you want to be? Do you want to get to the top by trampling others or do you want to live a good and humane life? A more compassionate world is there for us. Let compassion in but also leave room for the unexpected.

Happiness at Work

May 1, 2014

Over the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of listening to a couple of workshops by Nic Marks on happiness in the workplace and society at large. Nic has created the Happy Planet Index to measure the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives for the people that live in them.  Below are some notes from the talks.

Happiness is a universal emotion. It has an evolutionary function – otherwise, why would we have 40 muscles dedicated to communicate emotions? Anger and fear are well understood emotions that elicit the fight and flight responses; they immediately galvanise energy to respond to these emotional inputs. Other negative emotions like sadness indicate a lack of support with the effective response being to save energy and tread carefully until conditions improve.

Barbara Fredrickson has developed a “Broaden and Build” theory of positive emotions. Happiness broadens our ability to respond to the environment; we are more flexible if we are in a good mood. Happiness also builds self-confidence through positive experiences through learning physical and emotional skills as well as the willingness to take risks to enhance themselves. In addition, we have more peripheral vision if we are happier; happy waiters are more likely to attend to your needs than surly ones.

Unlike the negative emotions of sadness, fear, anger and distrust that indicate threats, positive ones (enthusiasm, interest, contentment) are about opportunities and thriving. Happiness is a social emotion – it’s contagious like a virus; if someone is laughing alone, they are often considered mad! Happiness and sadness are known to impact (statistically significant) on the third degree of separation (friends of friends of friends).

Happiness is not just an outcome but also a predictor of future success. Happiness is twice the predictor of future high performance than high performing teams are a predictor of future happiness. There is a virtual cycle between the two.

Happiness is a better predictor of life longevity than smoking or obesity are predictors of lower longevity. So therefore, we should be spending more time and resources on building supportive environments for happiness. There is also a correlation between income, marriage/divorce, health and whether someone is smiling in their college year book photos.

Too much positivity is bad. The optimal range is between three and eight positive behaviours or utterances to negative ones.

You want to be able to give people a broad array of emotional experiences as well as strong decision making skills (cognitive regulator function). A stable supportive positive environment is better able to respond to a negative signal than unsupported work environments that may miss the significance of such a signal.

The currency of happiness is time; about being available. There are two ways of thinking about happiness. The first is satisfaction such as “I am happy with …”. The second is more emotional – I feel happy”.

Trust and happiness are critical to learning outcomes in school environments.

In 2008, the UK Government through their Foresight area produced a report on Mental capital and wellbeing and offered 5 ways to better wellbeing

  1. Connect – with other people
  2. Be active – emotions we feel in our bodies – if in bad mood, move!
  3. Take notice – reflective, meditative, mindfulness
  4. Keep learning – not about formal learning, but hobbies, etc
  5. Give – we feel good when we give to others – needs to be authentic

Finally, you can’t make people be happy – but you can invite them into a space where happiness could occur.


Don Tolman on Improving Yourself Naturally

April 12, 2007

I was fortunate to attend a VPSCIN talk by Don Tolman recently.  He was a most impressive speaker as he related his life story that directed him towards how we can live healthier and more vital lives.  He gave a similar message to others that I have heard and read including Phillip Day, Sherril Sellman, Rob McIntyre, and Samuel Epstein as my family has been on a pretty strong natural health kick over the past few years.  We then went along to his evening session which helped sink in many of the points that he made earlier.

Some of the key points that I obtained from his talk included:

  • You have to honour your ideas – they are a gift and if you do not act on them quickly by writing them down and sharing them, then you dishonour the idea and its potential.
  • We are nothing but tubes and 90% of all diseases can be thought of as clogged tubes
  • Western medicine tends to focus on symptom management rather than finding and dealing with the root cause of illness
  • The healthcare industry uses the language of war and fear to fight diseases
  • The emerging revolution of self education and self care is coming but is still 20 years away from reaching a tipping point
  • To know, to do, to be – gnosis, praxis, entelechis – a never ending cycle of development and empowerment.  As we obtain knowledge, we are empowered to do, which then empowers us “to be” – lifting us then to a higher level of knowing and the cycle continues.
  • The importance of observation and more observation, a period to ponder, then reflect and letting a seed incubate until your imagination takes over and an idea is born
  • And his seven principles of health sound like a pretty good guide for longevity.

He made the caveats that he is not a medical doctor, that he is unable to provide medical advice, and that his views may not be true.  Despite this, his arguments and style of delivery were compelling.   He combined not just interesting views on health but also on using your whole mind as well, to think clearly and differently to the approaches that we are traditionally taught.

What I also found interesting about Don (apart from his dress sense and moustache) were the words that he did not mention.  Words like prevention and paradigm.  He talked about eating wholefoods to stay well and of his radically alternative views towards education and health that go against standard practice. 

I know that some people find this sort of material very difficult to comprehend; it goes against their belief systems and their reliance on the current authority structures in society.  But I believe his message of simplicity and self-education is right on track.  Ten years ago, I would not have been ready to hear the message, but with my own path of self-education, wider reading and even further wider reading, as well as conversations with key learned people, I now feel in a position to better understand the problems that we face as a society and the systemic issues that have been built up to protect key interests and retain the status quo.  We witness the growth in cancer rates, Type II diabetes, obesity, and the push towards certain educational styles that may not be well suited to the future jobs on offer and the life skills required.  It’s not until there are enough people hear the voices of people like Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) and Bill Mollison (Permaculture) – people that railed against the prevailing paradigm and were eventually listened to and acted upon once the weight of evidence and opinion tipped in their favour.

Pursuing Happiness – An American View

February 4, 2007

Last night, my family went to the cinema to watch the Will Smith movie Pursuit of Happyness.  My 13 year old son said it was one of the best reality-style (non-animation) movies he has seen and really enjoyed the Hero Story plotline. For myself, it was a great movie in demonstrating the love of family and how motivation can overcome adversity.  And how happiness is something that has to be pursued, it is something that requires your own energy to make happen, you have to be open to happiness and do something for it wash over you.


But the other subtext of the movie reveals also the view that happiness is achieved through success/achievement and the attainment of money.  Many happiness surveys demonstrate the correlation between happiness and income but that this tops out once a comfortable subsistence level of wealth is obtained.  This movie sits right in the middle of the ER/orange (in Spiral Dynamics speak) level of materialist/achiever – the strive for improvement and goal-oriented planning – a level that dominates Hollywood and capitalism. 

Yet the next level beyond this in humanity’s never ending quest requires one to discover that material wealth does not bring happiness or peace.  The final part of the movie where Will Smith attains his reward and the text afterwards showing what happens to him in later life does not reveal this further development but shows that hard work, achieving your goals and close ties to family and God are the values and goals that society should value; I for one am less convinced (although it’s not a bad start). 

But then again, it was an American movie!

2007 Upcoming Conferences

January 18, 2007

As usual, there is a host of forthcoming conferences that seem like they would be great to attend.  These include:

National People and Organisational Development Summit – great speakers including Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, Richard Hames.  Sydney, 6-8 February

Happiness and Its Causes – Dalai Lama, Howard Cutler and a number of good pre-and post-conference workshops – Sydney again, 14-15 June

actKM 2007 conference – Canberra, late October.  I’ve been going to their conferences for the past few years and they’re a great bunch.  This year they might look to do something with more workshops and networking and less talking heads.  Doing KM, rather than talking KM.  Why don’t more KM conferences actually embrace what KM is about rather than just talk about it?

 I might not get to go along to any of these conferences.  I am busy organising an internal Justice conference at the moment which is a nice challenge.  If anyone does get to go along to the other conferences, particularly NPODS, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. 

Funny Factoid – Unique Baby Names

December 11, 2006

Sometimes you see something and it is so bizarre that you think it cannot be true – which means that it probably is true.  This from Brainmail.

In 2003, 24 children were named Unique in America but only one was called Xerox.
Ref: Sunday Times (UK). 

A quick Google search also identified that there is an increasing use of brand names as first names – with records showing that in 2000, 49 children were named Canon, followed by 11 Bentleys, and five Jaguars.  There are also Camrys and Timberlands. 

This could be brand-consciousness gone nuts – or a reversion to traditional approaches of naming your child about the events occurring around the birth or conception (as in Two Dogs or Running Bear, etc).

Affluence and Wellbeing

September 10, 2006

Going back over some old Review articles and came across a quote I had circled. It’s from Avner Offer’s book The Challenge of Affluence which has as its first sentence:

Affluence breeds impatience, and impatience undermines wellbeing.

His premise is that increasing affluence has resulted in increased short-term pleasure seeking behaviours – a form of myopia that priviliges the present over the future.  Advertising further pushes us down the path of the hedonistic treadmill, reducing sincerity and trust. 

His advice is to have more prudence, to balance immediate pleasures with sacrifices that benefit long-term wellbeing (such as study, relationship-building, saving) and build self-control.  There are strong links here to obesity, divorce rates and lack of savings. Moderation needs to be given greater weight than increasing choice.

The public sector has a strong role to play here – to help build the policy and institutional structures that support self-control, such as forced savings, financial education, banning certain types of advertising (such as junk food for kids) and actions for community development. This role is becoming more critical as innovation continues apace leading to greater novelty, increased impatience and the merrygoround of reduced wellbeing continues.

Autonomy: Health Benefits of Having Control at Work

September 10, 2006

I’m very interested in statistics that demonstrate differences in longevity between people.  Just as there is an increasing move towards personal KM, I feel that there should be a similar move towards personal foresight so that individuals can maximise their chances of living healthy and fulfilling lives.  There has been recent press that we might be one of the first generations to not live as long as their parents due to obesity related disorders (diabetes, cancer, etc), a terrible indictment on us.

Some of the claims for longevity includes social standing and income.  The Whitehall studies of UK civil servants by Michael Marmot showed a dramatic difference in disease between those at the top of hierarchy and those at the bottom. When adjustments were made for lifestyle factors such as diet, smoking, physical activity, obesity and social support, a strong relationship still existed which was attributed to control of destiny; hence the lower down you are in social class standing, the less opportunity and training you have to influence the events that impinge on your life, leading to stress and sickness.

In some respects, this is similar to Martin Seligman’s notion of “learned helplessness” when people become passive when they feel there is little they can do to influence their environment.  There is a public service term for this – “POPO” – passed over and pissed off – referring to staff who hang around pass their use by date, not doing much work and affecting the morale of others. 

Providing autonomy at work will lead to less stress and less sickness than rampant managerialism with bosses bossing people around.  This will have greater benefit that just providing more money as wages which counteracts the push for wage bargaining when many people would prefer a positive work environment with greater autonomy than perhaps a job with more money but not much autonomy. 

It’s more than just managers empowering staff, it is providing them with the capabilities and freedom to decide on their own work priorities.  Autonomy provides the opportunity for control over your own life, including your own health and wellbeing – and there are not many things more important than that! As with many things that improve wellbeing, the benefits plateau after a certain amount has been granted and more may not realise additional benefit.