Mindfulness and Compassion: The Art and Science of Contemplative Practice

//Mindfulness and Compassion: The Art and Science of Contemplative Practice

Mindfulness and Compassion: The Art and Science of Contemplative Practice

Mindfulness and Compassion

The Art and Science of Contemplative Practice

San Francisco State University
June 3-7, 2015

From Neuroscience to a More Peaceable World

Bette Kiernan, MFT

The Night Flight of Mohammed on his Steed BuraqThe Night Flight of Mohammed on his Steed Buraq

Sultan Muhamad Nur

In the originally conjoined family of Moslems and Jews,

Moses accompanies Mohammed to Heaven to receive to Koran from God

From Neuroscience to a More Peaceable World

Bette Kiernan, MFT

We stand on the cusp of a different world. Climate change is bringing new global scarcities and related stressful events that scientists predict will exponentially increase. Concurrently, proliferating terrorist acts and wars are perpetrated with technologically advanced weapons. The global community is now connected through social media. Therefore, understanding the influence of core societal narratives on individual and group action is crucial for managing current and emerging threats.

The most revered guides to action, the Bible and the Koran, tell of the ways individuals relate to God and to each other. Messages that support violence to enemies sit side by side with compassionate instructions for empathic relationships. Anthropologists posit two organizational patterns, symmetrical and hierarchal, characterize the structure and behavior of living beings. Symmetrical groups share equally such as hunter gatherers. The hierarchal structure is largest at the top and diminishes downward, like a lobster leg. Monotheistic groups worship hierarchy and thereby incorporate the pattern of inequality. In our current global society, it promotes hubris to those on top, and resentment to those below with the inevitability of violent outbreaks. Hierarchy manifests itself, especially in current times, in the unequal distribution of goods – including property and money – and services. Those at the top mistakenly feel more deserving and triumphant. Wall Street and corporate interests are promoted by United States superior military in us vs. them way. The greatest cruelties worldwide are driven by the profit motive whether Isis torture, sex initiation camps for young girls in Zambia, or global human trafficking of all kinds. Those lowest in the hierarchy are rarely met with compassion or empathy, rather are sacrificed for financial gain of others.

The changing planet will create different contexts and conditions for human interaction. Might our hierarchal world through a sudden change become a symmetrical system, or sharing one, if survival is challenged? Violence might increase. But a wide scale systemic shift toward more compassionate means may also potentially erupt. Symmetrical groups do exist in the few remaining hunter gatherers found in Tibetan monk societies, and hunter gatherer tribes in Africa, but are overcome by power driven others so the best they can do is protect themselves. But rising oceans, nuclear eruption, or similar calamitous events may enable the most sharing people essential survival power.

Within our contemporary world, more compassionate groups might be further urged into being. New research findings in the emerging field neuroscience studies may have applications that call forth the compassionate side of humans. Like the messages contained in the sacred texts, caring ways exist side by side with violent potential. Research shows close families are more compassionate to each other than strangers; warmth increases compassion; fear of an “other” may be evoked by innate brain mechanisms; through nurturing images and other mindfulness means, calm states may be evoked. Should profit driven economies deconstruct if people are equalized by immediate needs for water, food, and shelter, perhaps compassionate societal ways might still emerge. Lessons taught from the Holocaust, according to psychiatrist survivor, Viktor Frankl, showed meaning derived from giving what little one has to another fosters survival.

Applying new knowledge through focus on the common family origins of discordant religious groups, sharp focus upon the shared kinder means also represented within the holy books, and using same patriarchy and prophets as models may create influence to move our world towards peaceful means. Insight into the psychological functions that worship of a dominator God provides may help create new pathways for transformation of violence into more compassionate means of relating. The Koran states, “[2.47] O children of Israel! call to mind My favor which I bestowed on you and that I made you excel the nations.”

The dominant narrative of the creation of Abrahamic religions held sway for thousands of years. According to the Quran and Bible, the original family of Moslems, Jews and Christians was created by God, and sprang from the lush Garden of Eden. While details of the stories of origins differ, the major characters and settings are the same. The actions of the Creator God, the generator of all living beings, is central to understanding the patterns of relationships that passed on through the generations from antiquity into the present. Through centuries of worship, ways of relating modeled in the creation story, Genesis, came to influence actual family, group and international dynamics. Power defined relationship patterns are held in place by wounding and scapegoating those lower on the hierarchy.

Garden of EdenThe Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man

Brueghel, Jan the Elder 1616

Often in war and conflict, the peoples of Abraham remain linked by their monotheistic faith. They trace their spiritual journey back to the covenant made long ago between Abraham and God. Through Abraham’s sons. Isaac and Ishmael, as well the words and deeds of their other shared prophets, patriarchs, and ancestors, their faith is still carried forward. The Quran calls itself the “religion of Abraham”: and refers to Jacob and the Twelve Tribes of Israel as being Muslim. Ishmael, Isaac, Noah, Jesus and Moses” are also referred to as Muslim in the Quran. Focus upon these evident family roots is the key to creation of a newer world narrative wherein compassionate connection is valued rather than destruction of enemies.

Family originated from CanaanThe family of Moslems, Christians and Jews originated from the Biblical land of Canaan

Ancient discord can be addressed and encouraged toward healing in the present. By establishing points of agreement within the Bible and the Koran, groundwork is laid for historically discordant brethren to realign. New research] in the growing field of Compassion Centered Treatment can be meaningfully applied to existing religious frameworks. Soothing and calming messages exist side by side with directives to destroy enemies within both sacred texts. Compassion is at its highest among family members and fades as relationships become more distant. Jews, Moslems and Christians had the same family origins. Their art and religion have been interrelated for thousands of years. Through art depicting the origins of Abrahamic peoples in the Quran and Bible, the close familial connections between cultures now at war can be better brought to the forefront.

Animals Entering Noah's Ark The Animals entering Noah’s Ark

Jacobo Bassano

“The same religion has He established for you as that which He enjoined on Noah-the which We have sent by inspiration to thee-and that which We enjoined on Abraham, Moses, and Jesus: Namely, that ye should remain steadfast in relation, and make no divisions therein…”_Quran, sura 42, ayah 13 Revealing the peaceful ways that can also be found in the Bible and the Koran, may call forth kinder gentler stories to emerge that encourage more compassionate societies. The Quran, states, “And never let your hatred of people who would bar you from the Inviolable House of Worship lead you into the sin of aggression, but rather help one another in furthering virtue and God-consciousness, and do not help one another in furthering evil and enmity; and remain conscious of God…”(V2). The Bible, too, supports compassionate co-existence and states, “For my brethren and companions’ sake, I will now ask, Peace be with thee”. (Psalms, c. CXXII, v.8). For Israel and Palestine, these shifts in traditional warring ways are crucial.

But alongside positive models for compassionate action, courage and resourcefulness, a dark side flourishes. In the Garden of Eden, the original children Adam and Eve, were wounded by their divine Father’s anger. He cast them out of Eden. This original abandonment generated seeds of violence and trauma that passed across generations for eons. The cultures of Jews and Moslems, both of whom were perennially cast out of communities and nations, mirror the pattern God’s behavior when he rejected the first people and brutally punished others. For Eve and Adam, their children and their children’s children, murders, rapes, theft of birthrights, scapegoating and other cruelties were repeatedly perpetrated.

sacrifice of isaacSacrifice of Isaac

Caravaggio 1597-99

God’s covenant with Abraham required circumcision. Not only was the earliest experience of male infants one of wounding and pain, but sociologically speaking, by making Jews and Moslems physically “different”, they were certain as deviant others to attract the negative and often violent attention of surrounding groups. While Isaac escaped cutting with a knife-the male descendants of Abraham were not so lucky. During the holocaust, Jewish men were identified by being circumcised.

Because their psychological wounds were great, they protected themselves from feeling their hurts by casting out their pain through anger and attacks upon those perceived as “others”. The stories of enemy brothers in the sacred books, Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, depict the dark side of human nature. Destructive ways continue into the contemporary family of Moslems, Jews and Christians throughout the branches of the family tree.. Neither Jewish nor Moslem core scriptures focus on self-soothing messages. Rather, emotionally deregulated states are encouraged to be projected upon an enemy. Thus both Moslems and Jews are taught from early childhood to perceive split “good” or “bad” people, rather than understanding all individuals share the human condition, are subject to suffering and have both positive qualities and the potential for aggression.

Moses and the Burning BushMoses and the Burning Bush

Dierec Bouts the Elder 1465-1470

The prophets of the Koran, and heroes and prophets of the Bible interact as the texts emerge through time in important ways that maintain the deep linkages between them. They display qualities of compassion, leadership, strength, courage, intelligence, and sensitivity-qualities that create and sustain flourishing societies without relying on violent means of control. The Patriarchs, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, and Jesus, the leading men of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, carry forward the essential instructions for resilience, positive values, and justice. Each individual can choose to model his or her personal actions upon the behavioral patterns of heroic individuals such as Joseph, who in the sacred texts responded to his brothers who treated him cruelly in compassionate ways. The actions of our ancestors need be reevaluated—their worthwhile behaviors consciously used as role models for healing a troubled world. New pathways will then widen for social transformation and the healing of ancient conflicts.

bosom of AbrahamThe bosom of Abraham – medieval illustration from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century)

Joseph and his BrothersJoseph and his Brethren

Antonio del Castillo

Religious tolerance is further advocated in the Moslem scriptures: “There is no compulsion in religion.” (II: 256) “You shall have your religion and I shall have my religion.” Still other passages encourage peaceable relationships: “And if they incline to peace, then incline to it and trust in Allah.” (VIII: 61). As these passages demonstrate, many avenues exist to encourage more peaceful relationships between discordant religious groups. For example, the Koran demands respect for all monotheistic religions: “Those who are Jews and the Christians whoever believes in Allah [God] and the last day is good, they shall have their reward from their Lord” (II: 62). Similarly, the Koran speaks favorably of the “churches and synagogues and mosques in which Allah’s name is much remembered.”(XXII: 4)

Compassion research shows that people feel most care for their own family groups and less so towards ones perceived as different. By highlighting the family connections, the stage is set for more compassionate and empathic feelings to emerge. Similarly, perceptions of warmth increases compassion. Pointers that monotheistic peoples have suffered, have known discrimination from other groups, have been forcibly evicted from their homelands, endured persecution of all kinds, and wars and violence to maintain their commitment to shared belief in one God. The behavioral similarities between them continue. Covering heads as sign of reverence, not eating pork, ritual circumcision, and High Holy Day reverence for the Haj and Yom Kippur highlight underlying close relations.

The Fathhia, core Moslem prayer, encapsulates both compassionate and wrathful sides. Bringing attention and awareness to first verse engenders peace.

THE FATHIA (English Translation)



The ShemaThe Shema, the core prayer of

The Shema in Judaism, like the Fathia in Islam affirms centrality of belief in One God.

The centuries long family discord of the families of Abraham may once again re-align through shared efforts to manage contemporary threats of global warming and wide economic recession. Should rapid climatic changes impact the jointly inhabited regions of Israelis and Arabs, perhaps sharing may evolve—although increased war might also be the potential outcome. Or, new splits and/or alignments, typical systemic movements, with other nations in the now technologically connected global family system may cause them to join together in fights with newly shared common enemies. The original spheres of influence that create tight binds between now warring groups someday may someday lead them together. It is characteristic of systems to break apart and later realign. Should a shift occur, hopefully it will lead into a higher spiritual phase of development.

adam and eve and twinsAdam and Eve with their Twin Children,

Zubdat-al Tawarikh Manuscript, 1583.

The central Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael, encodes breathing patterns now known the create relaxation, calm and meditative states. Bringing to the forefront meditative ways existing traditional aspects of religions currently practiced, might offer the calm emotional and physical states needed for more peaceful relationships.

Revealing the cooperative ways that can also be found in the Bible and the Koran allows kinder gentler stories to emerge that can encourage more compassionate societies. The Koran, for example, states, “And never let your hatred of people who would bar you from the Inviolable House of Worship lead you into the sin of aggression, but rather help one another in furthering virtue and God-consciousness, and do not help one another in furthering evil and enmity; and remain conscious of God…”(V2). The Bible, too, supports compassionate co-existence and states, “For my brethren and companions’ sake, I will now ask, Peace be with thee”.

(Psalms, c. CXXII, v.8).


the calfThe Calf from Ashkelon, 16th century BCE .The statuette of a calf was found inside the small model shrine. The horned calf is meant to symbolize the storm god. The beginning family of Jews and Moslems alike eschewed other Gods such as this.


Components of research results in compassion based treatments and practices yield the potential to develop new means to confront old conflict:

  1. Placing attention on an object experienced as nurturing creates relaxation and calm feeling states. For example, Although Judaism and Islam prohibit “false idols”, images of the merged landscape of the ancient homeland of both groups’ earliest beginnings in Canaan and Phoenicia might provoke peaceful states. In relaxation, one does not have disturbing feelings evoked that are relieved through projection, and thereby creates violence against, innocent others and groups. During stressful periods, groups are most likely to scapegoat another in order to maintain group cohesion and solidarity. Through compassionate ways, the basic mechanisms of cruelty might be silenced
  2. Moslems excelled at using geometric forms in their exquisite art works. Forms, such as circles, are mandala like and can be expanded upon to create centered feelings cross culturally. Many objects from antiquity share strong cultural similarities. Since difference creates hostility, creating a frame of similarity might be a valuable means to evoke shared peaceful feelings
  3. In the Quran and the Bible, messages of peace are plentiful. A combined version of the sacred texts that frame verses cloaked in compassionate phrases might be elucidated. Publications of a combined Quran and Bible might be in the form of children’s books, prayer books, guides to the Holy Land, and myriad other forms. The cognitive benefits would be a great benefit in creating peaceful relationships
  4. To date, the shared origins of Moslems, Jews and Christians has not been emphasized in publications. The different variations of their mutual creation story might fascinate many
  5. Currently, shared endeavors such as Palestinian and Israeli orchestras, comedy groups, children’s camps, and women’s gatherings, cross cultural grief support, dance choreography groups further urge positive relationships. Encouragement for these myriad movements toward reconciliation enables expansive peace building and family reconciliation among Jews, Christians and Muslims
  6. The Angel Gabriel has been with both Jews and Moslems since the beginning and needs to expand as such in contemporary works.
  7. Technology can be harnessed to increase world peace. Facebook now highlights “Likes” between the two cultures. Grief telephone lines currently exist where a woman who lost a child in one Palestine calls a woman in Israel who similarly lost a child and vice versa
  8. The frame of family creates the feelings of warmth that lead to compassionate connections. Can be used in new works.
  9. Internet chat rooms between individuals in the warring cultures with psychologically attuned moderator and translator needs be established

The potential exists for larger reconciliation within the human family. A new story, through focus upon commonly held ethical heroes and shared positive spiritual values and peace messages held in common in the Bible and the Quran may provide a stepping-stone to a more peaceable planet. A social order based upon compassionate direction, rather than cruelty, can be encouraged through focus upon the shared family origins to evoke remembrances of connection, and the creation of a new platform on which to build peaceful and cooperative ways. In our technologically connected world, infinite means now exist to create a new chapter in the family history of Moslems, Christians and Jews.

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October 13th, 2015|