Rite&Reason: Charter for Compassion is a key moral compass

Postmodern, secular society is signing up for code of wellbeing and helpfulness

Does the Charter for Compassion get us closer to doing unto others as we would want them to do unto us?

Does the Charter for Compassion get us closer to doing unto others as we would want them to do unto us?

 

Last month RTÉ showed a programme called Divorcing God. Its theme was whether the decline in Catholic religious practice in Ireland was depriving society of the positive contribution of traditional religion, in healthcare, education, social welfare and in providing spaces for life – and death – rituals.

A wide swathe of people of different ages, backgrounds, and beliefs was interviewed. They included practising Catholics, a secular family, an Evangelical Church leader, a class in a Catholic secondary school who didn’t identify with the church and a yoga teacher who did.

Out of this smorgasbord of attitudes and beliefs one common element emerged. All of those interviewed expressed goodwill and a mindset towards doing the right thing. It was a fair assumption that all of them subscribed to one golden rule: do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.

This universal maxim was the theme of a TED talk given by Karen Armstrong, the historian of world religions, some years ago.

The Charter for Compassion is a response to a groundswell of feeling which intuits the need for a moral compass in post-modern, secular society

In receiving the TED prize in 2008 for her talk, Armstrong expressed her wish to help create, launch and propagate a charter based on the golden rule. After world-wide consultation at all levels of society, the Charter for Compassion was drafted and launched in 2009.

The charter is now a movement that works in 400 cities in 54 countries. They are all creating strategic plans leading to compassionate action.

Belfast is the only Irish city to have signed the charter.

The charter’s scope covers 10 areas: the arts; business; education; environment; healthcare; peace; religion/spirituality/interfaith; science and research; social sciences; and restorative justice.

Local action

The communities which affirm the charter often do so in response to local issues which are troubling and which they feel should be addressed. So when an Islamic Centre was vandalised in Louisville, Kentucky, the local Charter Group organised an immediate clean-up operation which involved 1,000 volunteers.

It was a statement that hate attitudes were not acceptable in the community at large.

In the Netherlands, a group of medical students has written a charter on medical ethics and compassion in healthcare. At Stanford University in California research is in progress on mapping compassion in the brain and developing compassion training programmes for adults.

The contemporary practice of mindfulness and the related practice of meditation derive from recent developments in neuroscience

The Charter for Compassion is a response to a groundswell of feeling which intuits the need for a moral compass in post-modern, secular society. The fact that it originated under the auspices of TED (Technology, Education, Design) indicates the wide scope of interests to which it appeals.

Leaders in these fields express concern about workers trapped in a global paradigm of competitiveness and profitability, leading to stress and in some cases to mental illness.

One response to such problems in the workplace has been the introduction of programmes of mindfulness, sometimes teamed with body awareness practices such as yoga.

Stress levels

Some of the biggest corporations in the world have adopted these practices as a tool in HR wellbeing, including Google. In the US the AETNA Health Insurance company reported a 28 per cent reduction in stress levels as well as an increase in productivity among employees who underwent mindfulness training.

The contemporary practice of mindfulness and the related practice of meditation derive from recent developments in neuroscience. They go back, of course, to the sixth century BC in the teachings of the Buddha, and entered mainstream Christianity at the time of the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the third century CE.

In 1979, Jon Kabat Zinn, professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts, introduced them into clinical practice, not only for the alleviation of mental disorders but for stress reduction and the promotion of wellbeing in general.

More recently the concept of “compassion” as an element in mental health has been developed by neuroscientists such as Rick Hansen and is popularised by others, including Paul Gilbert and Norman Doidge.

So, would the Charter for Compassion answer to the shared acceptance of the “golden rule” in Irish society, across the fault lines of religion and ideology?

Is the charter a Sermon on the Mount for a post-religious society, including our own?

Carmel Heaney has retired from the Department of Foreign Affairs and is a freelance writer

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