Guaranteeing happiness from compassion training?

I’d like to reflect upon part of a public event I attended last week that I found quite distressing. I feel it is worthy of commentary primarily because it exemplifies the misappropriation of compassion meditation in corporate and clinical settings. It is important to note that this exchange did not take place in a vacuum and was just another manifestation of a distorted ‘mindfulness mass delivery machine’.

Sadhguru was invited to engage in a public conversation at Stanford University with James Doty, MD, the Founder of CCARE (Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education). Much of the exchange centered on Sadhguru’s personal history, spiritual vision, and his organization’s charitable work. He is an interesting mix of mystic, businessman and spiritual teacher. Toward the end of their dialogue, Sadhguru suggested that the fastest way to change the world was to have the world’s 85 wealthiest individuals spend a weekend with him learning meditation. He claimed his meditation practices would open their minds to wisdom and turn their hearts toward the suffering masses, creating a wave of financial giving which could end poverty, hunger and the like. No matter what you may think of the validity of such a plan, it certainly was a bold statement to make before several hundred academics and clinicians.

In response, Dr. Doty rebutted with the following personal anecdote. He was presenting CCARE’s research at the Aspen Institute before an audience of the world’s top executives and other wealthy individuals. That night Dr. Doty attended a gathering at the home of an 80-year-old billionaire who was a holocaust survivor. As they conversed, his host pointed at his watch, revealed it cost $10,000 and then intimated that his life had centered upon accumulation of wealth and happiness had remained elusive. This is when Dr. Doty offered a deal to this man (presumably out of a desire to lessen his suffering, though he did not say so directly.) “If you pay me $100,000 a day for 10 days I will teach you meditation practices that are guaranteed to make you happy.” (This is the point at which shock and dismay arose in me.) Dr. Doty continued, “The man’s daughter overheard my offer and told her father she would gladly give up her entire inheritance to see him happy and he should do it. But in the end, he refused.”

Sadhguru immediately replied, “Why should he pay you? I would give him $100,000 a day to open his mind and heart to the truth.” Shortly thereafter I left feeling disheartened.

Much of my consternation revolved around the following concerns:

1)   CCARE’s compassion training program is based upon Lojong, Buddhist mind training. These traditional compassion practices are designed to train the mind-heart in selflessness, not happiness. All three Buddhist schools—Theravada, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna—share this basic understanding regarding the ‘goal’ of compassion meditation. Guaranteeing the delivery of happiness from compassion training is false advertising at best and deluded thinking at worst.

2)   Dr. Doty seems to have missed the real benefit of Buddhist compassion training: recognizing emptiness and the unconditioned contentment associated with awakening from the delusional grip of self-cherishing. This missed opportunity is another example of how the decontextualization of Buddhist mindfulness and compassion practices has diluted their effectiveness and hijacked their intention to cultivate wisdom, virtue and selflessness.

3)   $100,000 a day either taken or given to entice a suffering individual to awaken feels morally wrong if what one offers in return is purported to lead to wisdom and compassion. Additionally, his offer was callous and probably missed the likely source of this man’s suffering: his holocaust trauma. To know the full extent of human cruelty first-hand at such a young age could indeed lead to a life dedicated to self-sufficiency in all its forms and a loss of connection with basic human goodness. How could any man asking for $100,000 a day be trusted to offer anything of true and lasting value? In this instance, only an offer with no strings attached and promising nothing other than the Buddha’s own invitation of, “Don’t take my word, come see for yourself,” would reflect genuine trustworthiness and innate human goodness.

The good news is the rise of a serious movement to reunite modern mindfulness and compassion practices with core Buddhist philosophical, psychological and ethical principles. My book is part of this effort. A wonderful example of this trend is a newly released scholarly article in The Journal of Management Inquiry by Ron Purser and Joseph Milillo, which I highly recommend for its scholarship, critique and vision of a new ‘deepened-in’ mindfulness model. I invite you to take a look at it.

One thought on “Guaranteeing happiness from compassion training?

  1. Yep . . . don’t let ’em off the hook for their bold-faced consumerism! Completely misses the point. It is a common strategy to bring wellness modalities to meet people “where they are” (i.e. spiritual materialism, valuing money as a passport to peace), but when this strategy threatens integrity of the wisdom and practice, one must speak up and stay vigilant to the core truth! Thank you, Lisa.

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