August 29, 2009

Compassion for oneself

The issue of self-directed compassion has been coming up in a variety of ways lately -- in my reading [in Compassion: Conceptualisations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy and in Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego]; in sermons at the mission; and in discussion at Loaves & Fishes.

As a longtime believer in ego reduction, I come at this with bias against being soothing toward oneself [or, as I term it, "the dastardly deed of giving yourself a pass for doing a bunch of stupid shit].

But studies this century on ego have changed the terminology and a sense of what the ego might be and what stable egos might be like. Now, perhaps, ego at its "best," is either quiet or silent, and that it might be good, for some, if not all, to direct compassion toward oneself.
Input from the mission

While matters of outwardly-directed love and compassion come up rarely at the mission [either in the milieu of Homeless World or in the preachers' sermons], they do come up in rather weird ways. One usually-hate-mongering preacher said something I've been mulling over: "God doesn't love you (and everyone else, equally) because of who YOU are, but because of who HE is." The line got hardy approval from the congregants. [Congregants DO hear of how they are much loved, but not about how they should themselves love.]

My immediate reaction was "What the hell!? If He doesn't love us for who WE are, individually, but wholly because He is who He is, then He must love us conceptually, and not for ourselves. And, truly, one can only love a being for his/her unique constituent of qualities; otherwise, it ain't love."

[But, then, God being God, knowing us from the inside, as the Christian preachers claim, He may ONLY be able to know us as particular persons and NOT as conceptions. He knows the numbers of hairs on the head of each of us, it says in the Bible (Matthew 10:30 & Luke 12:7.)]

Later thoughts of mine on the matter were even less damning: We can evoke love of others. We have that power. We can direct ourselves toward loving our enemies (as Jesus famously instructed), for example. At least we might if they are not so narcissistic that they are constantly game-playing. [I don't think a mentally healthy person can love someone whose authentic self is fully shielded. "There's no there there," as is said by psychiatrists about sociopaths.] Still, I insist loving the particular person is necessary for it to be love; people (as opposed to God) cannot love someone conceptially.

From what I understand, when Jesus said "love thy neighbor as thyself," one interpretation is that he meant "love they neighbor instead of thyself." For him to have meant "love thy neighbor in the same manner as one loves thyself" -- which is the usual interpretation -- presents curious problems. For one thing, we don't know ourself in the same way we know others. While we may think of ourself in the third-person, we never experience ourself in the third-person. Our relationship with ourself is radically different than the relationship we have with others. We can't bestow love to ourself in the same way we can to others; the two "loves" are wholly, radically, spectacularly different beasts.

It's a more than a little like comparing making love to masturbation. These are greatly different experiences because you can't be "the other" to yourself.

To my way of seeing things, compassion necessarily comprises an element of ignorance that we don't have about ourself. [While we are ignorant about things relating to ourself, when we are compassionate toward ourself, the same "ourself" that is bestowing the compassion is receiving the compassion, thus it is fully informed. Compassion we give to ourself is directly, overtly twisting what we immediately beforehand had seen as the truth.

Compassion toward another is given from a different viewpoint, different worldview and from a base of different data about the situation than what "the other" is going by. Compassion, because of its otherness, is enlarging. Compassion you direct at yourself is skewing and screwy and very much NOT a second opinion, from another perspective.
Beyond the self

In their paper "Beyond the Individualistic Self" by Drs. Korsgaard and Meglino in Transcending Self-Interest, the writers/researchers tell us that those who attempt to be both self-regarding and other-regarding end up with conflicted decisions and end up choosing self over other. Thus, only those who are "Other Oriented" benefit from full-throttle compassion.






Mindlessness Thanatos

Other Orientation Quiet Ego


Rational Self-Interest Noisy Ego

Collective Rationality Phobos

In the chart at right, you can see the four types of egos that result from different combinations of high or low interest in self or others.

Mindlessness is a category that includes individuals who are low in both self-and other-interest. This mode of behavior is posited to involve functioning in obedience to commonsense rules. Behavior has been documented extensively in research on automaticity [Bargh & Chartrand: "The unbearable automaticity of being."] and mindlessness [Ellen Langer on Mindlessness, or, see her 1989 book Mindfulness].

Rational Self-Interest [High in self-interest; Low in other-interest] is egoism in its most-rigorous form (i.e., the "noisy" ego). Individuals pursue only self-serving goals. This type of reasoning underlies classical economics [unfettered capitalism!] and value expectancy models of attitudes and motivation [Ajzen: "Nature and operation of attitudes"].

Collective Rationality [High in both self- and other-interest] Individuals engage in rational judgment. While trying to maximize outcomes for both self and others, self-oriented goals triumph according to studies [That is, a self-serving bias wins out [Bazerman et al:. "Why good accountants do bad audits," in Harvard Business Review.] [Also, see DeDreu et al: "Motivated information processing, strategic choice, and the quality of negotiated agreement."]

Other Orientation [Low in self-interest; High in other-interest] Individuals are focused on benefitting others and apply principles or norms of behavior to meet these goals, obviating the need to consider personal consequences. [The "other" may involve a pair or group within which the self is subsumed.] This is the 'extreme' in quieting the ego. [See Meglino & Korsgaard "The Role of Other Orientation in Reactions to Job Characteristics" in the Journal of Management.]

But another view comes from Dr. Kristin Neff [in her Transcending Self-Interest paper "Self-Compassion: Moving Beyond the Pitfalls of a Separate Self-Concept" and from Dr. Paul Gilbert, editor of Compassion: Conceptualisations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy.

Writes Neff, "Self-compassion can be thought of as a type of openheartedness in which the boundaries between self and other are softened -- all human beings are worthy of compassion, the self included. In this way, self-compassion represents a quiet ego, because one's experience is not strongly filtered through the lens of a separate self."

I'm not sure I understand Neff, nor that she makes a good case for self-compassion, generally, but in case histories in Paul Gilbert's book I can see how some individuals are aided in overcoming trauma by soothing themselves with inward-directed compassion. For most of us, though, I have to think that loving ourselves is necessarily non-compassionate because of the self-other conflict that ensues.

At her website, Self Compassion, Dr. Neff writes, "When individuals feel self-pity, they become immersed in their own problems and forget that others have similar problems. They ignore their interconnections with others, and instead feel that they are the only ones in the world who are suffering. Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows one to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection."

Well, maybe so. Certainly Dr. Neff has researched the matter extensively. But I cannot see that people applying what they want to be compassion toward themselves doesn't become, really, self pity. One's relationship with oneself is, necessarily, self-oriented so only self pity occurs when one feels sorry for his- or her-self. Feeling sorry for others is the 'road in' for having compassion for others. Feeling sorry for oneself always, it seems to me, becomes self pity.

August 10, 2009

Homeless Tom honored by Progressive Buddhism blog and Four Honest Scrappy blogs

This blog was honored in a blogpost two days ago, "My Twelve," in the much esteemed Progressive Buddhism blog as one of the "best Buddhist blogs by individual practitioners." Thanks to Kyle Lovett for his very kind commendation.

With only a couple exceptions [ones I was unaware of], the blogs Kyle cites are excellent Buddhism blogs I have long read and admired. Those blogs I was unaware of are ones I am now aware of, have read them, seen they are mighty fine, and added them to my reader.

Of Homeless Tom [the blog], Kyle wrote,
Tom Armstrong is one of the most strong willed men I know. He has been through a lot of hardship in his life and he still has managed to be a powerful voice for all Buddhist bloggers with his annual administration of the Blogisattva awards and his Zen Unbound project. He also is a tireless advocate for the homeless and still finds time to write some very insightful and compelling stuff. He says what he thinks, and doesn't back down from talking about any subject.
Kyle also commended the individual blogs of several of his co-contributors to the Progressive Buddhism group blog. Again, these are some of the outstanding Buddhism blogs in the Buddhoblogosphere.


I am embarrassed to say that I had not acknowledged til now [and mostly didn't know about] kudos this blog has received from other Buddhobloggers in the expansive "Honest Scrap" awards. "Honest Scrap" winners are tasked with bragging about receiving the award, naming seven blogs they find to be awesome and inspiring and then listing ten honest things about themselves.

The magnificent and kind TMcG, blogger of Full Contact Enlightenment [formerly TMcG buddhablog ], wrote in her blogpost "Honest Scraps being handed out..." of May 23, 2009,
I’ve been reading Tom’s blogpost from the days of Zen Unbound and his journey on the path has been one which gives a strong first person account of the voice of homelessness. He’s whip smart, creative and a fresh voice and I believe he needs to get a book deal - STAT. I learn so much from him.
NellaLou of enlightenment ward was magnanimous in her Honest Scrap blogpost of April 30, 2009, "Yikes! Honest Scraps Makes a Visit Here," writing about Homeless Tom [the blog],
I have followed this blog since it’s inception and often been challenged by Tom’s astute viewpoint. I don’t always agree but I always pay attention here.
Monkey Mind blogger [and minister at Rhode Island's largest UU Church], James Ford, was generous in his May 7, 2009 post "Honest Scrap Comes to Monkey Mind":
Homeless Tom is Tom Armstrong's project. Tom is a Buddhist thinker and Dharma bum who is currently homeless in Sacramento. He is a first rate writer and a very interesting thinker.
Nathan, who has a fondness of squirrels and is an Honest Scrap winner for his blog Dangerous Harvests, wrote kind words about Homeless Tom [the blog and the fellow] in his May 13, 2009, blogpost "Blogosphere Awards": is such an eclectic experience. This guy writes about so many things, from homelessness in Sacramento to zen, to Christianity, even the Talking Heads.
I am grateful to Kyle of Progressive Buddhism, TMcG of Full Contact Enlightenment, NellaLou of enlightenment ward, James Ford of Monkey Mind and Nathan of Dangerous Harvests – nice and talented people, each, who ride herd on wonderful blogs. Tomorrow, or in a day or two, I will properly meet my Honest Scrap obligations. I bow.

August 5, 2009

On Jail, part I: Warehousing the Rabble

The following is from the beginning of John Irwin's classic study of jail existence, The Jail, published in 1986 and still considered relevant and keenly insightful. The blockquote is a rather long chunk of text – sorry 'bout that – but I believe worthy of your attention.
In a legal sense, the jail is the point of entry into the criminal justice system. It is the place where arrested persons are booked and where they are held for their court appearances if they cannot arrange bail. It is also the city or country detention facility for persons serving misdemeanor sentences, which in most states cannot exceed one year. The prison, on the other hand, is a state or federal institution that holds persons serving felony sentences, which generally run to more than one year.

The public impression is that the jail holds a collection of dangerous criminals. But familiarity and close inspection reveal that the jail holds only a very few persons who fit the popular conception of a criminal – a predator who seriously threatens the lives and property of ordinary citizens. In fact, the great majority of the persons arrested and held in jail belong to a different social category. Some students of the jail have politely referred to them as the poor: "American jails operate primarily as catchall asylums for poor people." Some have added other correlates of poverty: "With few exceptions, the prisoners are poor, under-educated, unemployed, and they belong to minority groups." Some use more imaginative and sociologically suggestive labels, such as "social refuse" or "social junk." Political radicals sometimes use "lumpen proletariat" and argue over whether its members are capable of participating in the class struggle. Some citizens refer to persons in this category as "street people," implying an excessive and improper public presence. others apply such labels as "riffraff," "social trash," or "dregs," which suggest lack of social worth and moral depravity. And many police officers, deputies, and other persons who are familiar with the jail population use more crudely derogatory labels, such as "assholes" and dirt balls."

In my own research, I found that beyond poverty and its correlates – under- education, unemployment, and minority status – jail prisoners share two essential characteristics; detachment and disrepute. They are detached because they are not well integrated into conventional society, they are not members of conventional social organizations, they have few ties to conventional social networks, and they are carriers of unconventional values and beliefs. They are disreputable because they are perceived as irksome, offensive, threatening, capable of arousal, even protorevolutionary. In this book I shall refer to them as the rabble, meaning the "disorganized" and "disorderly," the "lowest class of people."

I found that it is these two features – detachment and disrepute – that lead the police to watch and arrest the rabble so frequently, regardless of whether or not they are engaged in crime, or at least in serious crime. (Most of the rabble commit petty crimes, such as drinking on the street, and are usually vulnerable to arrest.)

These findings suggest that the basic purpose of the jail differs radically from the purpose ascribed to it by government officials and academicians. It is this: the jail was invented, and continues to be operated, in order to manage society's rabble. Society's impulse to manage the rabble has many sources, but the subjectively perceived "offensiveness" of the rabble is at least as important as any real threat it poses to society.
From my experience – a year in Homeless World Sacramento and forty days in Sacramento county jails – I believe Irwin is right, except that the radical fringe has withered and there are no longer protorevolutionaries in our midst.

I do believe, whether it is overt or blithering, a lot of effort is made in Sacramento to hide or impair the homeless in jails and in VOA's terrible Winter Shelter (an extra-legal jail) that violates people's freedom and keeps good people from re-entering polite society. It is a tragedy; something straight out of Chuck Dickens and Vic Hugo. [Oliver Twist and Les Miserables]

It is all especially sad because leaders in our homeless-help organizations are participants [albeit unwitting, I hope] in keeping the underclass corralled and under thumb and eerily tranquilized.

August 4, 2009

Homeless Lit: The Scarlet Letter

Title page, first edition of The Scarlet Letter, 1850.
This is the third in an ongoing series of posts looking at homelessness in literature. Prior posts in this series: Cannery Row [1/30/09] and The Tenants of Moonbloom [3/18/09]

In an NPR program last year about Hester Prynne, the heroine of The Scarlet Letter, one of the co-hosts commented, "one of the first things you learn about Hester Prynne is that she is drop-dead gorgeous."

Indeed and how! And it's far NOT a trivial factor at understanding the book and the journey Hester has in it. From the book's text:

The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam; and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was ladylike, too...

Also of significant importance in understanding this brave woman of literature is that from the beginning of the book she suffers a double whammy of homelessness. She was sent away from her homeland, England, to the wooded outland of a new continent, America, to a newly birthed town called Boston. Her husband, who was to follow her there, is presumed lost at sea since he had not arrived in over two-years' time. And, she is in jail with no abode to return to. As if she doesn't have enough problems, a babe is in her arms and the letter "A" is embroidered in scarlet on a patch at her bosom, an indicator of sin of some sort that readers of the book are left to guess at. Adultery, you think?

We are told, in the book's fifth chapter, that upon release from jail, Boston's leaders allow Hester use of an abandoned "small thatched cottage" on the outskirts of the community. From the text:

In this little lonesome dwelling, with some slender means that she possessed, and by the licence of the magistrates, who still kept an inquisitorial watch over her, Hester established herself, with her infant child. A mystic shadow of suspicion immediately attached itself to the spot.
Thus Hester, in fiction alas, became America's first known beneficiary of transitional housing.

Though it most readily seems the scarlet sin had made her at outlier, it was the homeless "sin" that best fits the depiction of her alienation from the whole of the Puritan society where she was. Most Homeless World Sacramento folk will feel the sting of the words that follow, from the text:
In all her intercourse with society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it. Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere, or communicated with the common nature by other organs and senses than the rest of human kind. She stood apart from mortal interests, yet close beside them, like a ghost that revisits the familiar fireside, and can no longer make itself seen or felt; no more smile with the household joy, nor mourn with the kindred sorrow; nor, should it succeed in manifesting its forbidden sympathy, awakening only terror and horrible repugnance. These emotions, in fact, and its bitterest scorn besides, seemed to be the sole portion that she retained in the universal heart.
BUT, Hester is a very, very resourceful homeless person that all of us aware of the homeless condition have to applaud! First off, despite her sad circumstance, she is a very very good mother to her young daughter, Pearl. And Pearl is this wild and intelligent child that is beguiling and a delight. The Hester-Pearl relationship is one of great benefit to each, as we would hope for any mother-child relationship.

Early in the book, clergymen consider taking Pearl from her disgraced mother for the benefit of the child. Somewhat ironically, it is Arthur Dimmesdale, the child's secret father, who voices the Puritan wisdom of why mother and child should be kept together such that they can stay together and do stay together. Wise words, these! Every homeless-family agency in Sacramento should mark these words, which follow (from the text):
"God gave her the child, and gave her, too, an instinctive knowledge of its nature and requirements--both seemingly so peculiar--which no other mortal being can possess.

... [Hester] recognises, believe me, the solemn miracle which God hath wrought in the existence of that child. And may she feel, too--what, methinks, is the very truth--that this boon was meant, above all things else, to keep the mother's soul alive, and to preserve her from blacker depths of sin into which Satan might else have sought to plunge her! Therefore it is good for this poor, sinful woman, that she hath an infant immortality, a being capable of eternal joy or sorrow, confided to her care--to be trained up by her to righteousness, to remind her, at every moment, of her fall, but yet to teach her, as if it were by the Creator's sacred pledge, that, if she bring the child to heaven, the child also will bring its parents thither! Herein is the sinful mother happier than the sinful father. For Hester Prynne's sake, then, and no less for the poor child's sake, let us leave them as Providence hath seen fit to place them!"
Of course, Buddhist heathen that I am I don't personally buy in to the Providence idea, but it is interesting and likely sound Christian reasoning.

To Hester's great credit she quickly gets to work laboring to fund the effort to take care of herself and her treasured Pearl. She begins a cottage industry, becoming a successful entrepreneur at her art, needlecraft. From the text:
By degrees, not very slowly, her handiwork became what would now be termed the fashion. Whether from commiseration for a woman of so miserable a destiny; or from the morbid curiosity that gives a fictitious value even to common or worthless things; or by whatever other intangible circumstance was then, as now, sufficient to bestow, on some persons, what others might seek in vain; or because Hester really filled a gap which must otherwise have remained vacant; it is certain that she had ready and fairly requited employment for as many hours as she saw fit to occupy with her needle. Vanity, it may be, chose to mortify itself, by putting on, for ceremonials of pomp and state, the garments that had been wrought by her sinful hands. Her needle-work was seen on the ruff of the Governor; military men wore it on their scarfs, and the minister on his band; it decked the baby's little cap; it was shut up, to be mildewed and moulder away, in the coffins of the dead.
Hester becomes more and more of a success as a person such that she makes major contributions to other poor people in the Boston community. Poor as she is, she is considerate and compassionate toward others. It comes to pass that the staunch Puritan society comes to appreciate Hester's many able aspects and basic good character.
Hester never put forward even the humblest title to share in the world's privileges--further than to breathe the common air and earn daily bread for little Pearl and herself by the faithful labour of her hands--she was quick to acknowledge her sisterhood with the race of man whenever benefits were to be conferred. None so ready as she to give of her little substance to every demand of poverty, even though the bitter-hearted pauper threw back a gibe in requital of the food brought regularly to his door, or the garments wrought for him by the fingers that could have embroidered a monarch's robe. None so self-devoted as Hester when pestilence stalked through the town. In all seasons of calamity, indeed, whether general or of individuals, the outcast of society at once found her place. She came, not as a guest, but as a rightful inmate, into the household that was darkened by trouble, as if its gloomy twilight were a medium in which she was entitled to hold intercourse with her fellow-creature. There glimmered the embroidered letter, with comfort in its unearthly ray. Elsewhere the token of sin, it was the taper of the sick chamber. It had even thrown its gleam, in the sufferer's bard extremity, across the verge of time. It had shown him where to set his foot, while the light of earth was fast becoming dim, and ere the light of futurity could reach him. In such emergencies Hester's nature showed itself warm and rich--a well-spring of human tenderness, unfailing to every real demand, and inexhaustible by the largest. Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one. She was self-ordained a Sister of Mercy, or, we may rather say, the world's heavy hand had so ordained her, when neither the world nor she looked forward to this result. The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her – so much power to do, and power to sympathise – that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Abel, so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength.
There is much much more to the novel -- about the men in Hester's life and the moral of the tale. And things come to a quick resolution of sorts that is somewhat dissatisfying. But all that is not our concern here. As a homeless person, Hester had spunk! She boldly took on the challenges in the unfair predicament she was in and always always forged forward, finally making a better life for herself while facing up to her responsibilities as a parent and as a compassionate member of a community.

Right on, Hester!