The world we live in is increasingly complex, global and interdependent. The challenges that face the current and future generations are expansive and far-reaching in nature. Their solutions most certainly require a new way of thinking and problem-solving that is collaborative, interdisciplinary and global-oriented. Compassion alone isn’t enough for engagement with the world. We need to complement compassion with responsible decision-making based on an understanding of the wider systems within which we live.
The Global Domain can seem daunting at first, but it is built upon the same knowledge and skills explored in the Personal and Social domains, just expanded to our communities, societies and the global community. Indications are that, in the same way we can understand our own behavior and that of others, the capacity to understand how systems operate is also innate. By deepening this awareness and applying critical thinking to complex situations, ethical engagement can emerge. Problem-solving becomes a more holistic process, avoiding our tendency to fragment issues into small, disconnected pieces.
The Global Domain is explored through the following topics:
- Appreciating Interdependence
- Recognizing Common Humanity
- Community and Global Engagement
Interdependence is the concept that things and events do not arise without a context, but instead depend on an array of other things and events for their existence. A simple meal that we eat, for example, comes from a wide array of sources and individuals if we trace the ingredients back in time and out in area. Interdependence also means that changes in one area lead to changes elsewhere. Effects have causes, and in fact may arise due to a diversity of causes and conditions.
The purpose of reflecting on interdependence isn’t to develop a dry understanding of how our global systems work, but to relate the knowledge to our concerns for ourselves, others and the planet. We can explore interdependence from two perspectives:
- Understanding Interdependent Systems
- Individuals Within a Systems Context
Understanding interdependent systems relates to moving from an “inner” and “other” focus to an “outer” focus on wider systems. We direct our awareness to understanding the principles of interdependence and global systems, such as cause and effect. With individuals within a systems context, we recognize how our existence, as that of others around us, is intricately related to a vast array of events, causes and people around the world.
Understanding Interdependent Systems
Interdependence is both a law of nature and a fundamental reality of human life. No one is able to sustain life, much less flourish, without the support of innumerable others who work to provide basic necessities of food, water and shelter, as well as the supporting infrastructure of countless institutions responsible for education, law enforcement, government, agriculture, transportation, health care, and so on. Major and well-publicized crises, such as the international recession of 2007–2009 and the mounting concerns about climate change and global violent conflict, demonstrate this kind of economic and ecological interdependence on a global level.
In traditional societies, a sense of connection with others was embedded far more deeply into everyday life. Survival often depended on sharing and exchanging resources and on other types of social cooperation, from harvesting crops to building structures and fighting off predators. Since the Industrial Revolution, with the desire to improve economic status, we have become more mobile and disconnected from the community. This has given rise to an illusion of independence, making it easy to believe that, upon reaching adulthood, we no longer need others. This false sense of self-sufficiency contributes to a growing sense of psychological and social isolation. We are intensely social creatures whose very survival, as well as psychological well-being, depend on relationships with others.
Individuals within a Systems Context
In order to make our understanding of interdependent systems meaningful, we need to complement it by looking at how we all fit into the larger picture. This helps to counter the tendency to mistakenly view ourselves as unconnected to others, or somehow independent of the larger system. Here, we explore our relationships with other human beings and the complexity of these relationships. The outcomes are threefold:
- A genuine sense of gratitude for others on a systemic level
- A deeper awareness of the potential we have to shape the lives of others
- A growing aspiration to take actions that ensure wider well-being
We start by seeing how our behavior affects others and vice versa. We then explore the different ways that others contribute to our well-being. We can do this by making a list and going over it again and again. Rather than just focusing on the people we know as in the Social Domain, here we include a much broader spectrum: individuals, communities and systems we may not personally know. Understanding that we cannot thrive – let alone survive – without the support of countless individuals is thus essential to developing a genuine appreciation of others.
Everyone plays a part in the vast network of people who support our lives. When we realize this, we develop a feeling of reciprocity. We no longer need to see exactly how other people benefit us before we accept that most likely in some way there is benefit. As this awareness increases, the reciprocal, mutually beneficial nature of relationships slowly becomes prioritized over a narrowly self-focused or competitive view. This increased sense of connection to others works directly to counter loneliness by increasing our capacity for sympathetic joy. It allows for vicarious pleasure in the accomplishments of others, and provides an antidote to envy and jealousy, as well as to harsh self-criticism or unrealistic comparisons to others.
Recognizing Common Humanity
A richer understanding of interdependence, especially when combined with the skills cultivated in the Social Domain of empathic concern, should lead to a greater sense of concern for others and a recognition of the ways in which we are all interrelated. This can then be strengthened, expanded and reinforced by cultivating explicitly a recognition of common humanity. Here, we engage in critical thinking to recognize how, at a fundamental level, all human beings share certain commonalities with regard to their inner lives and the conditions of their lives. In this way, we can cultivate a degree of appreciation, empathy and compassion to any individual anywhere, even those who are far away or appear quite different to ourselves. We explore our common humanity through two topics:
- Appreciating the Fundamental Equality of All
- Appreciating How Systems Affect Well-Being
Appreciating the fundamental equality of all is where we realize that everyone – from our friends and family to strangers on the other side of the planet – is fundamentally equal in their aspiration for happiness and well-being, and their wish to avoid suffering. Appreciating how systems affect well-being is to recognize that global systems can either promote or compromise well-being through adopting positive values or perpetuating problematic beliefs.
Appreciating the Fundamental Equality of All
We extend the realization of the fundamental equality of humanity to those outside of our immediate community. Ultimately, we bring this realization to extend to the entire world. We do this by focusing on what we all share as human beings, such as the wish to thrive and the desire to avoid distress and dissatisfaction. This helps to decrease bias and our tendency to discount the needs of others.
By identifying others as similar in this way, our “in-group” can be expanded to include people of different nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and so forth. This capability is demonstrated in various ways throughout society, from an individual donating blood, to the outpouring of charitable giving that occurs after a natural disaster, to protesting injustice against groups of which one is not a part. The skills of appreciating interdependence and having empathic concern for others serve as antidotes to many of the obstacles we may have in relating to others, such as bias, a sense of distance, and a lack of concern for the problems of those beyond our immediate circle.
When we focus on ourselves, the world seems small and our problems and preoccupations appear huge. But when we focus on other people, the world expands. Our problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection and compassionate action.
Appreciating How Systems Affect Well-Being
Systems can promote or compromise well-being on cultural and structural levels – by promoting positive values, or by perpetuating problematic beliefs and inequalities. We can take time to reflect on how we feel when and if we’re subjected to inequality, prejudice, bias or favoritism. We can also use examples from history and current affairs to illustrate the effects of such problematic systems. Finally, we can explore if prejudice and bias are ever really justified, or whether all human beings have an equal right to pursue happiness.
Cultivating a wider-scoped empathy is crucial, because as human beings, our inborn capacity for empathy does not appear to automatically include large-scale suffering or global-level problems. For instance, most of us have a strong tendency to empathize with a single victim over a large number of victims. However, by learning about structural and cultural issues, our appreciation of, and insight into suffering will increase, as will the sophistication of our responses to suffering.
Through the recognition of common humanity, we can learn to communicate and cooperate across ethnic and social groups while having more realistic understanding and expectations of others. With greater awareness of what we share with others, we are able to appreciate rather than mistrust apparent differences, leading to decreased prejudice and isolation. Through understanding how the well-being of individuals is shaped by systems, our empathy will be deeper and more encompassing, as will our critical thinking about possible solutions to human suffering.
Community and Global Engagement
Appreciating interdependence, attuning to the ways we benefit from others and recognizing our common humanity can create a sense of responsibility and a desire to take action. We will then naturally wish to repay the many kindnesses we receive from society, and to act on behalf of others who are struggling and in need. Yet how can we engage effectively in complex systems or on a communal or global level?
The whole purpose of SEE Learning is to empower us to recognize and realize our own potential as compassionate global citizens. To achieve this, there are two steps to explore:
- Our Potential for Effecting Positive Change in the Community and the World
- Engaging in Communal and Global Solutions
These two points are similar, but the first helps us to recognize what we ourselves can do to effect positive change based on our abilities and opportunities. The second helps us to explore creative solutions to issues affecting our community and the world.
Our Potential for Effecting Positive Change in the Community and the World
If we are to engage in the community or world and address its needs in a way that is beneficial to ourselves and others, that does not give in to despair and is realistic and effective, we must recognize both our limitations and our capabilities. It is important to explore how not everything is within our immediate power, and that deep-seated problems take time to change. That does not mean that we cannot engage in effective action. Indeed, if we feel powerless when confronting difficult issues, this will make the cultivation of compassion for others and self- compassion much more difficult. This is because compassion – the wish or intention to relieve suffering – depends on hope – the belief that suffering can be alleviated.
While we may not be able to change an entire system, we can act in ways that maximize change by focusing on key elements within a system. This can provide a feeling of empowerment without being overwhelmed by the scale of global and systems-level issues. If we identify the few key factors that account for most of the effects in a system, we can focus on addressing those factors and achieve significant results. It is also worth reflecting on the fact that even if we cannot bring about large-scale change immediately, even the smaller-scale changes we can effect are very worthwhile. Small-scale changes now can grow into much larger changes later. Cumulative larger changes can be created through collective smaller actions, like sorting recyclables from landfill trash. Through a thorough understanding of interdependent systems, we gain confidence that smaller-scale actions and behaviors set the stage for greater impact in the future, even if we cannot directly see the results.
Complex social and global issues need to be broken down into smaller pieces that can be analyzed and engaged with. When we see how our actions can address the smaller components of problems, and how those components relate interdependently in wider systems, we will gain confidence and a sense of agency and empowerment. For this, we need critical thinking skills. Here, critical thinking involves the practice of thinking through complex issues in a way that is informed by basic human values. While this does not guarantee that actions taken will necessarily be considered beneficial by others, critical thinking increases the probability that a constructive outcome will be obtained.
Engaging in Communal and Global Solutions
Even if it might not be within our power to accomplish solutions, we can still reflect on problems and possible solutions to them. We can use the following outline to explore issues we face:
- Recognize systems and their complexity
- Assess short- and long-term consequences of actions
- Assess situations within the context of basic human values
- Minimize the influence of negative emotions and bias
- Cultivate an open-minded, collaborative and intellectually humble attitude
- Consider the pros and cons of a particular course of action
All too often, actions are taken without a proper assessment of short- and long-term consequences. When we examine a particular issue, we also have to think about the various populations that will be affected by a course of action. If we follow this process and become familiar with it, we will naturally begin to think about the broader implications of actions and how they can affect people that, at first glance, appear quite remote from the issue. We also need to look at how issues relate to basic human values, and how solutions promote individual, social and global flourishing.
Community and global engagement is greatly supported by an open-minded attitude that is willing to collaborate with others and learn from and respect others’ perspectives, opinions, knowledge and experiences. Healthy debate is only possible when we consider that others are also using their reasoning and experience to come to the positions they hold, even when those positions are different to our own. Without intellectual humility and open-mindedness, debate and mutual consensus becomes impossible, and conversation can degenerate to unproductive conflict and power struggles.
There are few serious problems that we can solve alone as individuals without collaborating and working with others, and that requires an ability to clearly communicate our ideas and values. Community and global engagement is therefore greatly supported by the ability to articulate our position, ask questions, learn from others, and engage in debate in a constructive way. Being able to communicate clearly and articulately on the basis of our critical thinking and deeply-held values and being able to speak in a way that is empowering and inspiring, even on behalf of those who have no voice, is a powerful skill for us all as global citizens and transformative leaders.
In the first two parts, we’ve learnt to navigate our emotions and engage harmoniously with our family, friends and colleagues. In this third and final part, we begin to understand how the world is interdependent, how all humans share a common desire for happiness and a wish to avoid suffering, and how our actions can contribute to broader global change.
This world we live in is complex. As adults, it can sometimes seem as though we can survive by ourselves, without the aid of anyone else. It can feel like fellow humans across the world don’t matter – they are, after all, so different from us. And often, it can appear impossible or too difficult to make any real change in the world. When we understand the reality of our situations – how all of the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the cars we drive come from the work of others, we will naturally have a feeling of appreciation for them. When we see that these fellow humans also wish for happiness, just as we do, we will also develop a desire for them to be happy. Finally, with the knowledge that small actions build up to create larger results, we will be confident that whatever constructive deeds we do – no matter how small – will be of benefit to the world.
This training program is not meant to simply be read and forgotten about; we need to practice it, point by point. We humans are all different, but we all face a range of challenges while navigating our way through countless individual encounters and social situations. When it comes to managing the ups and down of life, there is a clear distinction between actions motivated by self-interest and those that take into account the interests of others. With great awareness of our impulses and biases, along with the ability to manage our reactions and critically examine situations, we can handle anything we encounter in life. We can move forward and realize our own tremendous potential for being a force for good: our own good, the good of others, and the good of the wider world.
If you would like to go deeper, read the full version of the SEE Learning Framework and learn about the other programs of the Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics.