Listening to the Songs of Compassion

I listened to a fascinating On Being podcast that was recorded in 2007 with the acoustic biologist, Katy Payne. Payne has studied the vocalizations/songs of elephants and whales for nearly 40 years. Her elephant study, entitled, Elephant Listening Project, explores the mysterious world of elephant vocalizations, many of which the human ear cannot detect. In the podcast, she reflects on the relevance and meaning behind her observations and the conclusions she draws. Both whales and elephants are highly social animals and use a complex series of vocalizations to communicate emotional states and instructions for the social group. Here is an interesting quote from the podcast in which Payne is sharing her thinking while watching elephants respond to the death of a young elephant.

“Well, I don’t know whether I’m crossing a line or whether that line has been too firmly drawn in the past. My sense is that community responsibility, when it’s managed well, results in peace. And peace benefits everyone. That taking care of someone or something to which you are not immediately genetically related pays you back in other dimensions, and the payback is part of your well-being. Compassion is useful and beneficial for all.”

I can’t help but think about our human species when reading this quote. There are so many examples of humans who assume responsibility for members of their community, helping them cope with the challenges they face. This caring and nurturing results in “peace,” as Payne suggests. “And peace benefits everyone.” Peace and compassion stimulate the positive emotional energy that allows us to empathize with others. As Payne suggests this enhances our well being and our ability to trust others in our community.

So in our current situation around the world, we need to learn from many of the behaviors of other species. While evolutionarily we are more advanced than whales and elephants, our social and emotional evolution has not kept pace with our technological, economic and scientific evolution. Just take a close look at the rhetoric and behavior of world leaders, sports heroes, and other people who are in the public arena. We struggle speaking respectfully to one another, listening to one another, and trying to understand one another. We gravitate towards vengeful acts instead of acts of compassion. Clearly, there are many examples of human beings who care, nurture and love the other. But there are just as many examples of the opposite, which are the root cause of much of the discord we see around the world.

The Dalai Lama has written about the value of compassion as it relates to happiness.  If you follow him on Twitter or read conversations with him, Book of Joy, he references the healing power of compassion.  This quote encapsulates how he communicates the power of compassion.

From my own limited experience I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion.

Are we ready to learn from other animals how to live with each other and show compassion? Are we ready to apply what we learn to our daily behaviors? My commitment is to start with myself and show more compassion and caring for others.