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On Altruism and Compassion in Economic Systems

Next year's Mind and Life Conference is called "Altruism and Compassion in Economic Systems: A Dialogue Between Economics, Neuroscience and Contemplative Sciences." Here's a quote from the homepage of the conference's site,

"The ongoing global financial crisis shows clearly just how vulnerable economic systems are to human behavior, particularly to corruption and greed. This strongly suggests that other qualities, such as empathy, pro-social motivation, altruism and compassion may play an essential role in our increasingly competitive global economic system.

But can we really imagine an economic system that delivers prosperity and welfare, or is competition an unavoidable consequence of the human race? How can we, as individuals, help form a society that is both productive and resolves actual societal and environmental problems? What have the sciences to contribute – if anything at all?"

As an atheist as well as one who once considered herself a quasi-Buddhist, but found Buddhism to be not the un-religion it is touted to be, I find Mind and Life to be helpful because their dialogue has largely been about something I know to be true, yet something that many atheists scoff at: the benefits of meditation.

I don't appreciate when meditation is lumped in with New Age and "spiritual" practices and rituals and retreats with a goal of "bliss" or "enlightenment" or "total consciousness" (whatever that is). What I do appreciate, and what Mind and Life does, is when meditation is discussed in relation to actual emotional, physical and mental benefits. This has nothing to do with god or transcending spiritually; it's about calming and clearing the mind and the emotions so that you're less crazy. There . . . I said it.

As for altruism and compassion in economic systems, I'd rather see a basis in social justice. But maybe that's just semantics for the folks at CompassionEconomics and maybe that's the direction they're going.

I look forward to hearing about the findings of the conference, and what, if any, solutions the group develops to what they believe are the ills of the global economy.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Great post Mary.
    I think one of the reasons many atheists scoff at meditation is that the practice has a history that is so wrapped up in religious magical thinking and dogma. Many atheists are unaware that you can break your identification with your thoughts and learn to be more present without having to believe in absurd claims about the nature of reality and the universe itself. The same can be said of accepting the benefits of buddhism without the wacky claims made by many buddhists. Here is a great article on this exact subject from one of our shared fave authors.

    I used to meditate much more and used to find time to do my TM…but now I find that practicing yoga can bring me incredible "spiritual" benefits that help me stay focused and become aware of how my thoughts are being created. I can practice yoga learn to breath and calm my mind and become aware of "where" I am without having to believe in God or krishna or past lives or any other such nonsense.
    Yoga and meditation has also really benefitted my vegan and my animal rights activism. Comprehending what is I feel and think… allows me to have a wisdom and composure that goes further and deeper than most people can imagine………
    Being able to touch our sorrows and our grief as well as our anger and frustration allows us to express our being vegan with others in a much more rational and calm way.
    When we can have our priorities straight emotionally and our concentration is precise because we have connected to what it is we feel it enables us to be grounded enough to be real without being offensive. Meditating or yoga can give us more focus on our veganism. Then we can begin to realize and make this point to others that our feelings of grief, sorrow and pain are actually born from our compassion, kindness and love.
    Our altruism is also rooted in our biology and it appears in other animals as well. The fallacy that altruism comes from a man in the sky is rooted in an invention from a man on the ground.


    December 9, 2009

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