Civilized Compassion. Not Detached: Engaged.


Spiritual leaders are rarely invited to do stadium-sized talks at public universities.  Mostly because they don’t deliver butts-in-seats sales like, say, basketball. Plus there are risks of violating boundaries separating government-funded academics and faith inspired-education. (Though many feel sports don’t return taxpayers education investments, either.)  In any case, touchy-feely values don’t usually fit empirical rubrics or budgetary criteria.

Which made the recent appearance of the Dalai Lama at University of Minnesota remarkable.

His Holiness (as he is known to his followers) entertained thousands while teaching to his favorite topic: compassion.  Winning hearts with a talk that had the crowd listening attentively, laughing at his child-like charm and leaping to their feet in spontaneous ovations.


Good News Grail

This is good news. Not least because it was witnessed at an arena where attendees are more likely to follow costumed mascots cheering teams to win at any cost.  It’s another indicator of attempts to evolve institutionalized holy-grails.  By moving academics from “show me the money” of gate receipts to “show me the way” of humane leadership.

While the leader speaks of “Peace Through Inner Peace” through detachment from single-minded self-fulfillment, he clearly calls for focusing on public presence, too.


Scientific + Spiritual Enlightenment

Note to Enlightenment-minded skeptics: this definition of detachment isn’t limited to inter-connectedness achieved only via silent meditation. And to those on the path of spiritual enlightenment: neither is it solely about hard-science dogma.

It is a mistake to compartmentalize the Dalai Lama’s message into dualist silos that filter qualitative experience from quantifiable analysis. A more elegant interpretation calls for something akin to an overlapping magisterial construct.


Encompassing Ethics

Where ethics are accessed in the isolation of individual awareness or inspired reflections.  But also and, more compellingly, expressed through sustained, symbiotic actions by all involved.  In academic terms these would be the administrators, teachers and scholars acting as co-stakeholders with co-eds, citizens and colleagues who share academic, civic or research interests and space.

Or as the Dalai Lama puts it: “We have figured out how to cultivate knowledge. Now we have to figure out how to cultivate and sustain ethics.”

The language of compassion is cross-culturally comfortable. But his implied interpretation of compassion goes far beyond linguistic convenience.  If nothing else, as it is persistently proven through his affect and actions.  But also by its most granular meaning.  This definition can’t be condensed down to its component parts.  Which would undermine its elegance by boiling compassion down to singular notions of sympathy, empathy or even self-pity.


Co-produced Compassion

This construction of compassion calls for conscious engagement combined with iterative, co-integration of humane practices.  Where all parties to it are seen to have equal stake and potentials. And, indeed, see themselves as critically co-constructive agents and partners to its most inherent ideal.

In that sense, compassion should be understood as conscious attachment with others in unison with and while disengaging self-only desires.  And rejects holding oneself one-up by way of physical, spiritual or intellectual detachment above the fray or outside nonlinear inter-relational growth.

University of California Berkley scientist Alva Noe explains: “Consciousness isn’t something that happens; it is something we do or make.” Conscious compassion, then, must converge in the actual classrooms and cultural spaces where we seek to “do” and “make” our futures.

These include messy and mostly self-interest driven political environments. Perhaps especially now, when many (including people like David Brooks) whose work puts them squarely in it, would prefer detaching in silent protest from its processes.


In praise of people politics

In fact, in what was likely his last speech as a political speaker, the Dalai Lama endorsed such conscious citizenship, cheering his audience to work together to achieve civic ideals.

“Of the people, by the people, for the people is the best way to govern a country,” said the spiritual leader, as he stood at the secular pulpit of a University stadium.

In essence, the Eastern leader applauded the compassionate ideal at the core of the United States  Constitution.


Andrea Morisette Grazzini is a citizen professional, writer, participatory researcher and founder of DynamicShift.  

DynamicShift is a cross-sector initiative that employs positive kindling and productive discourse to illuminate civility. It has influenced numerous discussions regionally and nationally, including We The People led by Center for Democracy and Citizenship, American Democracy Project and American Association of State Colleges and Universities.