Empathy in The Kaliyuga

Ruth Richards – USA

[This essay—which is drawn from a talk at the International Theosophy Conference, August 2012 in Wheaton, IL—is about what we Theosophists can do during the “worst of times.” That is, what we can do right now. Sometimes we are able to offer a lot, and not only to help ourselves but all beings on the path of evolution. As per the single Chinese character carrying a double-meaning: With danger comes opportunity.]

Kaliyuga the Dark Age


Importance of Kaliyuga

What is a Kaliyuga?  There is more than one definition, one starting point, or time span for this long Dark Age (often said to be 432,000 years) between creation and destruction, of increasing heaviness, conflict and friction, one of four Hindu ages or yugas, and definitely the worst. This is just one cycle, as part of a larger and repeating pattern in a cyclical view of our manifest reality. Do note that Kali is a destructive demon, and not the Goddess Kali. 

An occasional sage such as Sri Yukteswar (teacher of Paramahansa Yogananda) or Sri Aurobindo believed we have now emerged from the Kaliyuga.  But if so, not by that much.  If we are on our way up, things are still bad, with some key signs including:  increasing sin, murder,distress, intoxication, ignorance of spiritual teachings, avarice, hatred, and let us add, unreasonable rulers. Lord Krishna is said to have come at the beginning of the Kaliyuga to help us. Buddhists too accept the Kaliyuga. But are we fated to misery no matter what?  Is there hope for us?

Danger and Opportunity

So hard for the many who suffer today, without spiritual relief or vision.  Theosophists have the benefit of precious teachings (even as spirituality fades in general), and openness to new knowledge and vision—to truth. This commitment transcends the immediate material reality, encompassing all we may discover. This is not just for us, but so as to help others. 

From a Nyingma Tibetan Buddhist book, Ways of Enlightenment (Dharma Publishing, 1993, p.222) “…when we know the purpose of life is transformation, and can make a commitment …each obstacle only sharpens the sword of wisdom.”  One Chinese character links together danger and opportunity. The other side of the danger here, for the spiritual devotee, could even be “enlightenment in one lifetime.” 

Why should this be?  Amidst misery, we won’t get too comfortable; we won’t imagine this to be how life should be. Better yet, we have a shining vision and powerful antidote for the times.

One does not, of course, typically travel this road alone, as for instance, in Mahayana or Tibetan Buddhism, or in Theosophy. As per its first object, Theosophists recognize the Brotherhood of all, and work to benefit the greater whole. The third proposition of Theosophy concerns the identity of all souls with the universal oversoul. We help each other—and thereby, and most certainly and profoundly help our self.

Empathy—Whole and In Part


We humans are already physically built to attune to each other, to care, and to assist (not to mention at higher levels of consciousness). Nor is it just about humans.  The family dog should probably win the Nobel Prize for empathy. A popular definition involves “standing in another’s shoes” (or, perhaps, paws).  Psychologist Paul Ekman identified three levels or aspects of empathy: (a) cognitive empathy (a perspective taking; we can know what it’s like); (b) emotional empathy (we not only understand, but we feel, and can share the experience, (c) compassionate empathy (we know, we feel, and we are moved to try to help).  A sociopath might be good at just the first part, psyching us out, selling us the proverbial Brooklyn Bridge, and bankrupting us.

Paul Ekman

Fortunately, case (c) is more common. Yet often we maintain our active empathy for only limited others—our closest group, band, or tribe (as per our contained and safer communities in hominid evolution—remember, fear the stranger!). Jeremy Rifkin, Adviser to the European Union, fervently calls (in his book, Empathic Civilization) for a broadening—in fact as soon as tomorrow, on our shrinking and multicultural globe.  We need a universal empathy and compassion, he insists, perhaps even if we are to survive as a species. 

And let us add, from Theosophy:  if we are going to evolve as a species.  

We are built for Empathy

Mirror neurons. What a remarkable discovery from back in 1992.  We are wired to connect, and deeply. You have perhaps heard of these so-called “Mirror Neurons” in our brains.  We and the dogs, and many other species have these remarkable neurons. They light up when another has an experience, just as if we ourselves were having it.  A brick falls on someone’s foot and we say, “Ouch!”  That is the idea.  Here too is how a soccer player can practice while relaxing on a couch. Exercise those mirror neurons. Can we too make better use of these, toward our collective future?

Mme. Blavatsky knew we could work in harmony.
Furthermore, she was aware that some of the mysteries of multiple cause and effect in our phenomenal world would clear up if we lived in this greater harmony.  We could cope better with the karma of this age.  We then stand or fall together and it becomes win-win all the way.  From The Secret Doctrine:

“Nor would the ways of Karma be inscrutable were men to union and harmony, instead of disunion and strife.”

In view of our lower nature, and its instinctual pulls and disturbing emotions during this troubled era of the Kaliyuga, she also warned about these lower temptations, while cutting loose from our lower needs, and practicing renunciation.  Recall, from Buddhism, the “three poisons” that impede spiritual growth:  greed, hatred and ignorance.  From The Voice of the Silence:

“The self of mater and the Self of Spirit can never meet there is no is no place for both.”

(and to the disciple)                                    

“Kill thy desires, lanoo, make thy vices impotent ...”
As we work towards this, two hopeful additions from the SD

“The closer the union between the mortal reflection MAN and his celestial PROTOTYPE, the less dangerous the external conditions and subsequent reincarnations – which neither Buddhas nor Christs can escape.”

(And hope can expand further, even as we cycle back up to a new world age)

“With right knowledge, 2/3 of the world’s evil would vanish.”

But not so fast. There is still much to do right now, especially if we are to help others and emerge from the Kaliyuga.  Fortunately our current social sciences give us further food for thought.

A Dynamic, Not Just of Win-Win, But Also of Win-Lose

One hears it, “we win, they lose.” Too bad, folks.  Recall the three Buddhist poisons: greed, hatred, and ignorance.  Our lower urges and needs prevail; our greater concern with others evaporates. We humans can justify, and sometimes even advocate, harming our neighbor.  Where is our compassion, our empathy now?  

Western competitive norms. Higher values may fade especially in Western competitive cultures, and in contexts, not of win-win (let’s benefit together), but of competition with huge win-lose stakes (as in “they might  change the class average…don’t tell them the answers to the test”).  I saw too much of this win-lose “zero-sum game” outlook among “pre-med” students, honestly—a select group chosen, in theory, to help others. 

Following a talk I gave on empathy and creativity, one gentleman, Mr. A Gladstone, with a clinical background, came up afterward and gave me something thoughtful he had written out.  Here is part of it:

“Our present way of life encourages us to be self-centered and self-protective.  As children in school and as adults at work, we are urged to look out for ourselves, to compete rather than cooperate. “Success” means getting ahead of others and leaving them behind….”                                   

Criterion-referenced standards—we can all win. Of course it is realistic that some opportunities be selective.  Space is limited.  Not everyone can prevail.  But we Westerners have enshrined the “winner takes all.”  The loser—too bad.  Alfie Kohn in a revealing older book, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, showed how we are groomed in our schools, and in everyday life, even to see our seatmate or neighbor as the enemy.  Take “grading on the curve.”  Only so many “A’s.”  We need that “A” more than they, don’t we?  What if they get into that prestigious university and we don’t?  Yet at all levels, we can use instead “criterion referenced” evaluation.  If we all do a great job, then we all get an “A.” We can help each other.

Theosophists can see even further yet, to honor our incredible power together, beyond the commonplace, to cultivate our group synergy, harmony, and emergence of higher qualities and identities.  (Parts of this are even reaching today’s business world, see Theory U, by Sharmer and associates at MIT.) We can also start teaching win-win, brotherly love, harmony and our profound interdependence, beginning with the youngest child and in the earliest grade levels at school.

Harmful Views and Myths: Social Darwinism (Actually: Spencer-ism)

Charles Darwin

It’s macho, it’s cool?  If some people, acting from lower needs, are too eager to assault, attack, and even kill others, some bystanders also celebrate this. (Take a look at popular TV.)   It may even be idealized as strong, “macho,” decisive, and a mark of leadership.  For one example, consider Ayn Rand’s  Fountainhead. Some have taken (and twisted) a justification based on Charles Darwin’ scholarship —Darwin, known for the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” Yet Darwin’s work was misapplied. Some so-called social Darwinists claim our “human nature” keeps us fighting each other out of necessity, humans killing humans, countries fighting countries (to the death), after all that is “how it is.”  Let’s go to war before they do. Soon may follow ethnic cleansing and other horrors. (Animals are typically too smart to do this, and establish dominance, then back off). 

Remember, Charles Darwin studied entire species to assess their collective survival and reproductive fitness, as in species of turtles on the Galapagos Islands. Remember, Darwin once trained for the ministry. With humans, being “one’s brother’s keeper” was well known to him.

Herbert Spencer.
Darwin was writing not about you and me versus our next door neighbor. It was the “Social Darwinists” and Herbert Spencer in particular, who did this, who applied the findings to man vs. man—remember, nature “red in tooth and claw”?—while justifying everything from road rage to international war (“attack them before they can attack us”).  Social Darwinist positions can be chilling as in two examples of attitudes given by ethologist Frans de Waal, in his book, Age of Empathy: “Life is a struggle…those who make it shouldn’t let themselves be dragged down by those who don’t.” It may also occur that “poverty is dismissed as proof of laziness, and social justice as a weakness.”  A great motto for the Kaliyuga.

Herbert Spencer

Let us meanwhile watch for any trace of such culturally sanctioned attitudes in ourselves.

On a Higher Level: What Darwin Really Said

Quite astonishing really, since Darwin’s view has been lost or, as some believe, suppressed.  (See David Loye for the a careful and authoritative analysis in his chapter of a 2007 book, edited by this author, Everyday Creativity and New Views of Human  Nature: Psychological, Social, and Spiritual Perspectives. Loye found that Darwin, in his later writings including  his last book, The Descent of Man and his private journals, showed great faith in the collaborative and social tendencies of humans, as a particularly advanced species moving into the future. 

For example, in Descent of Man, the word  LOVE was mentioned (just imagine) a full 95 times! Moral sensitivity was mentioned 92 times and Sympathy (closest term to Empathy at the time) a full 61 times.  What about “survival of the fittest”?  It was mentioned only twice—and once to apologize for it!  Remarkably Darwin stated, (cited by Loye from Darwin’s, Descent, 2nd Ed., p. 111):

“…in the earlier editions of my Origin of the Species, I perhaps attributed too much to the action of natural selection or the survival of the fittest.”

Our connections, cooperation, and empathy within species are not just for humans, either.  Here are basic survival characteristics found across species, over time and space and, indeed, across millennia of evolution.  If Charles Darwin’s words are twisted as a prototypical evolutionary expert justifying  violence and horror, let us do our job to dispel this misperception. 

In turning from the Kaliyuga, we Theosophists, and Darwin too, can very much remain “our brother’s keeper.”

On a Higher Level: Is It Only for a Few?

On the way up

Are these “higher” understandings available only to an advanced few who have spent years in contemplation and practice?  Not at all. We can all experience and appreciate wisps of our higher natures and more expansive identities. At least at times. 

This is not just a dualistic “empathizing with,” either, but at times a greater identification with a greater whole.  As psychologist Judith Jordan said of empathy (picture a strong love  relationship, for example):

“When empathy and concern flow both ways, there is an intense affirmation of the self and, paradoxically, a transcendence of the self, a sense of the self as part of a larger relational unit.  The interaction allows for a relaxation of the sense of separateness; the other’s well-being becomes as important as one’s own.”

If we all carry Buddha Nature or Christ Nature (or substitute your own preference), it should not surprise that at times we may see further, glimpse more.  Just consider the shining high point of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” relationship.  The challenge for us is, as Jeremy Rifkin said (now, in our dark world age plus one of globalization), or as the Buddha said (for all ages, in terms of the beautiful “four immeasureables”—lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity):  How do we extend this benefit beyond our limited groups and self-interest, to encompass all beings?

On a Higher Level: the Transpersonal in Creativity

Whether we call upon intuition, insight, or other capacities, creativity (all else being equal) can call on our higher human potential.  Let us use this more!

Relational creativity. In Creativity Studies (area of mine for teaching and research at Saybrook University), everyday creativity or our “originality of everyday life”—an idea going back to  John Dewey and others, and important to Maslow’s humanistic psychology, basis for Saybrook—is identified using only two criteria, originality and meaningfulness. We can be creative (or not) in virtually anything we do, at work or at leisure. Relational creativity is a part of this. Original?  Yes.  Meaningful?  Indeed. We can be open, flexible, spontaneous, authentic, original, willing to hear and respond to others, to change and grow in turn.  We can be  creative as teachers, parents, employers, teammates. We may be creative (or not) in other areas, too, home repairs, office management, raising a child, planning a community benefit.  

Who is happiest, healthiest? We will not only create more creative outcomes, but we ourselves, the creators, can heal and grow, from this process of opening, risking, and integration. We can, every one of us, do this, too. It turns out that it is not people with the highest IQs who are the most happy.  It is those who have the highest emotional intelligence—those who are attuned to each other, resonantly responsive, and let us add, growing creatively together. Can we teach this in our schools?

Our relational creativity is a mutual dance. We are open, appreciative, responsive, empathetic and connected (while going beyond ego, being open to change, and working toward mutual ends and objectives). This orientation (and willingness to explore and change creatively) is vital to intimacy, mutual understanding, and peace.

Too often people—even us, if we are honest—do the opposite. We at times may relate mindlessly, automatically, even somewhat fraudulently, from other frames, acting out of past memories and future expectations, not really present, but playing out roles. We may be focused on self-interest, and making points “for our side.”  Might we sometimes even slide the truth? A deception, granted, can be creative too.  But we reach a higher level when we live an authentic creative life, and engage each other from an open, integrated place. And again, more than ever, it becomes a dynamic of win-win.

Artistic creativity. Before we leave creativity, let us turn to visual art—which the person on the street most commonly equates with “creativity.” Consider Eastern masters creating sacred art.  Here too one can “more than connect” with the portrayed subject. We may again find a higher identity, and a creativity that transcends. (This can be true as well of our ongoing appreciation of nature and of much of our manifest reality.)  For instance, in an exhibit catalog, a series of bamboo paintings by 14th century artist Wu Chen was called:

“Portrait of the artist as a bamboo.”

This is profound. And for the viewer as well, in these magnificent pieces, we may see the leaves blowing in the wind, feel the notches of the bamboo segments, as if we were touching them. One surely seeks this in doing the rendering.  From a book on Chinese brush painting:

“Paint with love and kindness for the materials and the subject portrayed, becoming one with both.”

Wu Chen and Bamboo

For references to these quotes and more, see this author’s chapter in J. Pappas et al., Cultural Healing and Belief Systems. Also don’t miss a beautiful book by Zen Master Loori, The Zen of Creativity.

Where We Are Going

From The Secret Doctrine. The Kaliyuga will surely end, even as we all change, and hopefully evolve, and as we meanwhile keep doing our share.  This includes offering “empathy in the Kaliyuga.” 

Recall, this Dark Age is also a time of possibility.  With danger, as was said earlier (from the single Chinese character), comes opportunity, and in this case of advancing our own spiritual development as well as that of all beings.  Theosophists have the deep benefit of a spiritual awareness and an open questioning tradition, one that honors, above all, truth. For the spiritually inclined, this age could open many doors.  It is most interesting what Mme. Blavatsky’s says about the end of the Kaliyuga, and a later leap in evolution. (From Part I, pp. 377-78).  Note that the Krita age is another name for the Satya age, the age following the Kaliyuga. See how you interpret the following:

“When the close of the Kali age shall be nigh, a portion of that divine being which exists, of its own spiritual nature…shall descend on Earth….the minds of those who live at the end of Kali Yuga shall be awakened and become as pellucid as crystal.  The men who are thus changed…shall be the seeds of human beings, and shall give birth to a race who shall follow the laws of the Krita age, the age of purity…”

Embodying and living our interdependence. Whatever one’s precise interpretation of this, let us meanwhile feel, and manifest at all levels of our being, the truth of our profound interdependence—and our need to honor the Brotherhood of all beings.

Our interconnection and underlying unity is expressed beautifully, by Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, in The Sun My Heart:

“There is no phenomenon in the universe that does not intimately concern us, from a pebble resting at the bottom of the ocean to the movement of a galaxy millions of light years away. The poet Walt Whitman said, ‘I believe a leaf of grass is not less than the journey-work of the stars.’”

The Sun My Heart


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