To­wards a bet­ter way of be­ing in the world

Weekend Post (South Africa) - - OPINION - PETER WOODS

I WAS priv­i­leged to at­tend the Mind & Life In­sti­tute’s con­fer­ence in Gaborone, Botswana, last week. The in­sti­tute ar­ranges di­a­logues be­tween the Dalai Lama and lead­ing sci­en­tists and schol­ars around crit­i­cal is­sues of mod­ern life at the in­ter­sec­tion of sci­en­tific and con­tem­pla­tive un­der­stand­ing. Be­gin­ning in 1987, this year’s con­fer­ence on the theme “Botho/Ubuntu” was the 32nd in the se­ries.

Sadly, the Dalai Lama was un­able to travel due to ill health, but his trans­la­tor of many years, Thupten Jinpa, rep­re­sented him and was able to make his ho­li­ness present by mod­el­ling that same clar­ity of mind and en­gag­ing hu­mour.

Also present was Arch­bishop Emer­i­tus Des­mond Tutu, which meant the con­tin­ued friend­ship be­tween these two spir­i­tual greats was ev­i­dent at the di­a­logue. The Arch must have been par­tic­u­larly proud of his daugh­ter, Mpho Tutu-Van Furth, who gave a won­der­ful in­tro­duc­tory talk on ubuntu.

Tutu-Van Furth stressed ubuntu was so much more than the name of a com­puter op­er­at­ing sys­tem, a soft drink or a cof­fee shop – the things that come up when you Google the word.

This theme was taken up by sub­se­quent speak­ers, stress­ing ubuntu as a way of life, an in­ter­ac­tive en­ergy that flows un­con­sciously among peo­ple and de­sires the best for oth­ers.

It is not a sim­ple job though. “I am be­cause we are” – the usual ex­pres­sion of ubuntu – hides a dan­ger that the “we” of­ten be­comes a closed group that ex­cludes the “other we”: those who are not like us. This is the ba­sis of racism, trib­al­ism and all ex­clu­sivist cat­e­gories.

Pro­fes­sor Michael Eze sug­gested a more help­ful phrase would be, “I am be­cause of you”. In this state­ment, the “you” is any other per­son. Dif­fer­ent or sim­i­lar, an­other hu­man be­ing is a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to my ex­is­tence and de­serv­ing of re­spect and com­pas­sion.

The more we are able to open to the dif­fer­ence of the other, the more likely we are to un­der­stand what it must be like to be in their skin. Open­ing to an­other hu­man in­evitably re­veals what I call a “com­pas­sion win­dow” into their life and em­pa­thy emerges.

In the con­fer­ence dis­cus­sions, one of the del­e­gates summed this up per­fectly, “Com­pas­sion in­oc­u­lates you against ha­tred”. It also har­monises with the Bud­dhist un­der­stand­ing that all re­al­ity is in­ter­de­pen­dent.

A fas­ci­nat­ing perspective was the con­tri­bu­tion of neuro-sci­en­tists and psy­chol­o­gists who of­fered maps of how our brains change de­pend­ing on whether we are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing alien­at­ing stress or com­pas­sion­ate in­clu­sion of oth­ers.

Also prom­i­nent in the con­fer­ence was a col­lec­tive re­al­i­sa­tion that our world, so riven by di­vi­sion and sus­pi­cion, de­mands we find an­other way of be­ing to­gether. The in­ter­est of del­e­gates from the US sug­gested that Amer­i­cans no longer be­lieve they have all the an­swers but are look­ing to the an­cient cul­tures of Africa and Ti­bet to of­fer an­ces­tral so­lu­tions that could heal us all.

ý Woods is a pas­toral ther­a­pist.

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