I think His Holiness the Dalai Lama likes museums. I could be wrong, but if you Google "Dalai Lama Museums," you'll find photos of him at museums. And he did, after all, spend nearly 90 minutes with a group of about 30 museum professionals last week, including me (video below). It was surreal and thrilling to not only learn from His Holiness, but also to participate in the Fostering Universal Ethics and Compassion Through Museums Summit in Dharamshala, India.
During our private audience with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama shared his thoughts about compassion and secular ethics. There were three tidbits in particular that stuck with me:
1 - Anger's antidote is compassion. Admittedly, this is a hard one to swallow sometimes. It is easy to give in to anger, especially around issues of social justice. I get angry that we cannot push as hard as we would like to present a more inclusive history and share more inclusive art and culture. But in my work, I have to cultivate cognitive empathy for all of our audiences … even those I disagree with. Only then can we understand the rationale of those who think differently than us, and determine the best path forward that brings more people with us rather than alienating some (which, let's be honest, defeats our purpose).
2 - Wise selfish vs. foolish selfish. There are times in our lives when we need to take care of our own needs first. Primarily, our basic physical, mental, and emotional needs. That self-care is what the Dalai Lama referred to when he said there is "wise selfish." And then there is modern life, when "foolish selfish" abounds (and I think we all know what that is).
The reason this leaped out at me is that it fits in with the theory of capacity I have been working with for the past 18 months or so. Generally speaking, as the graphic below shows, we are all at the center of our own universes, and before we can take care of the needs of others and engage in the broader world, we have to take care of our own needs, in concentric rings going outwards. Some people have greater capacity to engage, largely because they have more education and/or resources at their disposal. Some are doing the best they can when they simply take care of themselves. It isn't a judgment, but an honest assessment of the constraints we all have to varying degree. I have fewer constraints than most people, and thus have greater capacity to engage with the broader world (it would be fair to say my greater capacity = privilege).
But the Dalai Lama gave me vocabulary to articulate when it is good to focus on self and family (perhaps at the expense of community and broader world), and when it isn't. That is, an affluent family with a newborn or experiencing a medical crisis is practicing wise selfishness to take care of those family needs, just as a struggling single parent may also be on a day-to-day basis.
But foolish selfishness comes into play when an individual or family has resources at their disposal and chooses not to engage in community and the broader world. To not be interested in learning about other people and culture, to make their neighborhood better, or to give back in meaningful ways. That's foolish selfishness … and I will admit my human nature is to be critical of that.
Keeping in mind, of course, we are all human and practice both wise selfishness and foolish selfishness to varying degrees. I have my foolish selfishness just as much as most people.
(For more on capacity to engage, see my reviews of American Generosity and Creating Capabilities.)
3 - In Tibetan, they don't have the phrase "warm-hearted," but they do have one for "warm-minded" or "warmth of mind." What I love about being "warm-minded" is that it links knowledge with compassion. The more we learn, the more we open our minds to others and other perspectives, which in turn diminishes "the other" and builds compassion and trust. We can't be compassionate and open-minded without knowledge, and museums tend to be really good at providing that knowledge of others that can both open and warm minds. And we sure need more of that.
The whole experience of traveling to India, then participating in the summit, was surreal (a word that many of us used, over and over). I was very much out of my comfort zone at times, and at other times thrilled to feel my mind expand, grow, and become "warmer," (as did my heart!). My deepest thanks to Elif Gokcigdem for her leadership and vision that made this summit possible. Stay tuned for next steps the members of our group take.
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I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the lands of the Duwamish people, whose ancestors have lived here for generations. I thank them for their ongoing care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.