The Emotional Roots of Ethics

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Opening an inner door

When we empathize with others our behavior toward them is naturally positive. With love in our heats, there is no longer room for suspicion. anger or jealousy.

It is as if an inner door is opened, allowing us to reach out.

Having concern for others breaks down the very barriers which inhibit healthy interaction with others. And not only that. When our intentions toward others are good, we find that any feelings of shyness or insecurity we may have are greatly reduced. To the extent that we are able to open this inner door, we experience a sense of liberation from our habitual preoccupation with self. Paradoxically, we find this gives rise to strong feelings of confidence.


The Dalai Lama relates his own experience:

Whenever I meet new people and have this positive disposition, there is no barrier between us. No matter who or what they are, whether they have blond hair or black hair, or hair dyed green, I feel that I am simply encountering a fellow human being with the same desire to be happy and to avoid suffering as myself. And I find I can speak to them as if they were old friends, even at our first meeting. By keeping in mind that ultimately . . . all share my desire to be happy and to avoid suffering, I can express my feelings as readily as to someone I have known intimately for years.

Contemplate the truth of this experience for yourself. Do you experience this? Can you envision this?

reflection head

Can you imagine how empathy and compassion are useful in everyday life?

The Dalai Lama offers some suggestions:

If there is a warm-hearted feeling within when we get up in the morning, automatically our inner door is opened for that day. Even should an unfriendly person happen along, we would not experience much disturbance and may even manage to say something nice to that person. We could chat with the not-so-friendly person and perhaps even have a meaningful conversation. But on a day when our mood is less positive and we are feeling irritated, automatically our inner door closes. As a result, even if we encounter our best friend, we feel uncomfortable and strained. These instances shows how our inner attitude makes a great difference in our daily experiences. Therefore, in order to create a pleasant atmosphere within ourselves, within our families, within our communities, we have to realize that the ultimate source of that pleasant atmosphere is within the individual, within each of us - a good heart, human compassion, love.

Once we create a friendly and positive atmosphere, it automatically helps to reduce fear and insecurity. In this way we can easily make more friends and create more smiles. . . . According to natural law we depend on others to live. If, under certain circumstances, because something is wrong inside us, our attitude toward fellow human beings, on whom we depend, becomes hostile, how can we hope to attain peace of mind or a happy life? According to basic human nature, or natural law, affection-compassion-is the key to happiness. quotebox

Responsibility to others

Empathy and compassion are the doorways to acting out of concern for others. The peace this creates in our own hearts brings peace to everyone we associate with. Without the basic human capacity for empathy we humans are capable of inflicting great suffering on others (and great damage to our planet). With empathy we are able to feel the impact of our actions on others, and so empathy governs ethical behavior.

As you will see in the remainder of this course, the Dalai Lama teaches that in order for people to cooperatively work together, a sense of responsibility is critical

A tremendous effort has to be made to develop in the mind of every individual human being a sense of responsibility, a concern for the common interest rather than the individual interest. . . The genuine sense of responsibility will develop only through compassion and altruism. quotebox