One of the great leaders of Mexico, President Benito Juárez, once said, “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” — respect for other’s rights is peace. This formulation of peace captures its intentional quality, for one can only create this type of peace through the conscious practice of respect in interaction with others. And beyond respect, peace draws dynamism from empathetic understanding.
Respect, as a stance and relational posture, involves a form of distancing of the other. I respect you, and to honor who you are I do not interfere with you — I respect both who you are and how you are so I don’t try to change you or to influence you in one way or another. If I did, I wouldn’t be respecting you (although I could still cherish you dearly). However, if I sought to understand you, to understand who you are and where you are coming from, then I would have to engage with you. I would need to question the things I didn’t understand (even though I might respect them) and to try to learn why you are the way you are. This would bring me closer to you since I could not understand you without some sort of interaction (even if it were only through the tools available to the historian who seeks to enter the life of someone long gone through such artifacts as their letters; getting to know and appreciate how they wrote, what they wrote about, even the style of their calligraphy). So, President Juárez was quite right: respect for other’s rights is peace. But to complete his dictum with a “sense of syntony” we would need to augment the notion of respect with that of understanding.  Understanding brings people closer — without requiring that “respectful distance” that would otherwise keep us from reaching out to engage with them — and thereby allows for the dynamic growth and nurturance of peace.
This augmented notion of intentional, interactive, dynamic peace is in accord with Daoist notions of harmony, and it is this notion that lies at the core of evolutionary conceptions of syntony. One way to remember it, and to distinguish it from conceptions of peace as a static state, is to think of the following acronym:
Many people think that respect is the height of thoughtful and caring attention and don’t stop to consider the need for mutual understanding in order to create and nurture truly healthy and authentic relationships. Notions of peace often fall prey to similarly simplistic interpretations. Let’s look for a moment at some colloquial expressions that only reinforce static, non-syntonious conceptions of peace:
Let’s take a moment more to consider these pared relations of contrasts. This is important if we are going to engage with empathy and not just with sympathy or even with compassion. The problem is that these terms are so similar and are often take to be synonyms, but they’re not. And using the indistinctly can lead to confused intentions and confusing behavior. In contrast, using them distinctly can lead to clear communication and powerful action.
Continuing with our exploration of empathy in relation to these and other terms, we can make the following distinctions, just as we did with peace, tolerance and understanding:
Empathy is to compassion as understanding is to tolerance. Sure, it’s not always advisable to try to engage with someone (or something (or some situation)) with empathy. Sometimes, that would just get us stuck and would be unhelpful and possibly even make situations worse. If we are too emotionally drained ourselves, too tired, stressed, or frustrated with our own circumstances, we may not be in a place where we can engage with other empathetically. However, we can (and most probably should) engage with ourselves empathetically in such situations… But there might not be time or space to do even that … momentarily. If the demands of the situation are such that you can’t afford to relate more deeply with another, then empathy is not the right course of action – and neither is understanding. For instance, for the medical doctor engaged in surgery, empathy with the patient’s state of being can be exhausting and dysfunctional, just as for the military soldier engaged in combat, understanding of the politics of the situation can be exhausting and dysfunctional. Each has a well-defined and delimited task with which to engage, higher empathetic connections or deeper understandings could be catastrophic.
But for most people who seek to engage with the world through the eyes of love empathy and understanding are key. Why is that? Let’s think this through…
If all that is true, then curiosity is a form of love, and indifference is a form fear. This is why empathy, beyond compassion, is so important in caring, loving relationships: empathy involves communion with the other whereas compassion does not. The Wikipedia article on compassion [retrieved 16/III/19] states that; “compassion involves “feeling for another” and is a precursor to empathy, the “feeling as another” capacity for better person-centered acts of active compassion; in common parlance active compassion is the desire to alleviate another’s suffering.” Delving deeper into this distinction, Sherlyn Jimenez defines empathy as “the ability to discern or vicariously experience the emotional state of another being and as an affective response that stems from perceiving or understanding another’s emotional state or condition… whereas compassion may be experienced when one comprehends and reacts to someone else in trouble by wanting to ameliorate the suffering.” Empathy, therefore, is more of a capacity and a process than it is an emotional state.
Just think about it: kings and emperors exercise compassion toward their subjects, being merciful and granting leniency in light of hardship. But to be empathetic one doesn’t mean only seeing and acting considerately in face of suffering and pain. One can also empathize with the joy, wonder, awe and ecstasy of another! One cannot have compassion for others who have such experiences… One can’t even sympathize with them, for sympathy is the recognition of the plight of another without taking on or entering into their emotional state. If someone we know and love experiences loss and grief, we send our condolences and our sympathies. It’s the polite thing to do… but expressions of compassion in this time of need may feel too heavy. And since empathy requires a switch of viewpoint, from a personal perspective to the perspective of the other, thereby blurring the line of “otherness,” it may feel too intimate.
The challenge, as with any sense-ability, is to learn how to use one’s empathetic sense when appropriate (when one is centered, stable, and emotionally strong enough to enter the lifeworld of another) and in ways that are appropriate (when the other is receptive and appreciative of the gesture to enter their lifeworld). Also, if one doesn’t know “what to do” with the pain/joy/grief/confusion/ecstasy of another, it can be destabilizing for both you and for them … and possibly even emotionally toxic for you.
In the final analysis, the alchemy of transmuting pain or even toxic psycho-emotional residue from traumatic life experiences into constructive and healing expressions of self requires skill, competency, training, and hope. In the collection of essays that comprise the book Beyond Fear and Rage , the need for hope is recognized. Hope derives from the knowledge that we are all part of patterns that emerge and evolve, and that this dance of becoming is simply that: an opportunity to dance to whatever music is playing. It also derives from the knowledge that we can (and always do, whether wittingly or not) affect the harmonics of emergence. We cannot not do this, so the questions become; how do we choose to join the dance, and what patterns of consonance do we help give rise to? Ultimately, whether this leads to change that we can or cannot envision is irrelevant, and if hope depends on being able to envision outcomes in times of non-linear bifurcation, we will surely despair. Hope lies in the process, in the joy of being a part of a consonant, coherent, connected narrative. And in this, it does not depend on others – one can do this alone (though I certainly would agree that the consonance, coherence, and connection are deeply boosted by the loving embrace of others).
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never Is, but always To be blest. The soul, uneasy, and confin’d from home, Rests and expatiates in a life to come.” ~ Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man
Transformation, transmutation, and transcendence require diligence, integrity, and commitment. All ways — even if we are not aware they do. Even then, with diligence, integrity, and commitment, they manifest — only without efforting. It is a consonant alignment of being, a state of syntony, and it is often non-conscious. Indeed, trying to transform, transmute, and transcend is about as effective as trying to be wise, loved, or enlightened. If they come at all, it is when we are not actively seeking them.
In his book Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender, David Hawkins explains beautifully this transcendent state of peace as a dynamic of tranquility and equanimity:
“In peace, there is no longer any conflict. There is a total absence of negativity and an all-encompassing lovingness that is experienced as serenity, tranquility, timelessness, completion, fulfillment, stillness, and contentment. There is inner quiet and light, a feeling of oneness, unity, and total freedom. The peace is imperturbable. Actions become effortless, spontaneous, harmonious, and loving in their effect. There is a shift of perception of the universe and of our relationship to it. The inner Self prevails. The personal self has been transcended, with all of its feelings, beliefs, identities, and concerns. This is the ultimate state sought by all seekers, whether they are religious, humanist, or have no spiritual or philosophical identification at all.”
Syntony can provide just such a learning path for how to live in harmony with deep enjoyment — in harmony with ourselves and in exultation of dynamic and constructive relationships that cultivate positive synergy and vitality. Syntony is a process that we can create — if we want to. But to want to means wanting to co-create peace in an ongoing dance of harmony and interaction with others (other people, to be sure, but also with other beings, and indeed, with other things as well). This type of stewardship, of taking on the mantle of evolutionary co-creator, breaks down the barrier between “us” and “other.” We can only if we care enough to learn how and when to be empathetic. And even then, it works only if we care enough for “all of us,” and if we stop separating things into atomistic, individualistic compartments. In short, it means reaffirming the sacredness of life — of life as a dynamic process to be maintained and furthered, and not as a state of being. Our true nature is as Human Becomings, not as Human Beings…
In his book on Birth Without Violence, Frederick Leboyer evokes the attitude, the disposition, that the sacredness of greeting a new life invites: “Only a little patience and humility. A little silence. Unobtrusive but real attention. Awareness of the newcomer as a person. Unselfconsciousness.” When I read these lines I thought, “that sounds so right! And if that is how to engage with a new life coming into this world, then it must also be appropriate for how to engage with all things sacred.” And when all things are considered sacred – all the time – it evokes an entire worldview.
Learning how to listen, that is the first step toward syntony. As a species, we are just at the beginning of learning how to listen to the living breathing rhythms of our world — to babies being born, to each other, and to our planet. If this is what you want to do, then know that you can! Jantsch suggests that “… we are in the process of learning to take seriously those responses which are no longer innate, but emerge from tuning in to general evolutionary forces. Syntony” he says, “is on the verge of becoming more conscious.” It won’t be automatic, though. He points out that “an understanding of the internal (coordinative) factors in the evolution of human consciousness will probably become possible only in the framework of a wider theory of evolution.”
It is precisely such a framework that evolutionary systems design (ESD) seeks to provide in the form of an approach that can be used by individuals and groups to curate the emergence of systems of syntony. The emergence of such systems is predicated on the creation of conditions for empowerment. It is the sort of thing that Margaret Mead alluded to on her death bed, according to Jean Houston, who captured her words in A Mythic Life:
“Forget everything I’ve been telling you about working with governments and bureaucracies! I’ve been lying here being an anthropologist in my own dying — fascinating experience, by the way; there is no hierarchy to it — and I’ve had an important insight into the future. The world is going to change so fast that people and governments will not be prepared to be stewards of change. What will save them is teaching-learning communities [italics mine]. They come together in churches or businesses or even in families. They could meet weekly and do your kind of exercises, especially ones that develop their capacities. There must be humor, laughter, games and good food as well. That will keep the participants coming back. Then, when they feel ready, they will choose projects to work on to help their communities. The only way to have a possible society, Jean, is to develop the possible human at the same time.“
That’s the spirit! Others see the need for this sort of thing, too. In fact, my father has a very similar vision of such collaborative learning communities. “What our world needs,” he says, “is … flexible and functional learning environments where people, young and old, can be exposed to concepts and ideas relevant to their present and to their future.” If we want to be stewards of our evolution, we’ve got to become engaged in helping make these conditions be present in our own places and spaces. We have to realize what it means to be the systems we want to see in the world.
Written by Prof Alexander Laszlo
EARTHwise Centre – Scientific Director
Citation: Laszlo, Alexander (2019). Curating a Culture of Peace and Empathy through Syntony. Mauritius: EARTHwise Publications, 17 March 2019.
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