by Joe Oliver
While co-operation, as a set of behaviours, is not unique to humans, the degree to which we co-operate is. The vehicle for this is human language, which developed out of the need of our ancestors to convey increasingly complex and abstract notions to others in their group. Higher level abstract communication allowed for the development of more sophisticated forms of co-operation, which in turn necessitated individual group members to develop their communication skills. The key to this higher-level communication is the ability to jointly refer to things which are not in the current external environment, which exist in a different time (past or future) or space (there rather than here). There was of important survival value in those groups that were able to communicate in this way, in terms of being able to plan, anticipate, and learn without direct experience. Think of the advantages of a group who were able to co-operate on projects such as building a communal water well or developing the capacity for long term food storage.
Co-operation required the ability to communicate about a third set of factors not directly referable to both parties; the internal experience. Being able to describe and convey our internal experience allowed groups to more efficiently co-operate by more effectively ensuring individual needs were met as the group moved towards common goals. Language therefore evolved to let us to do this, giving humans the ability to describe to other individuals, not only concepts related to time and space, but also our own thoughts, emotions and desires. Simultaneously, as other individuals reciprocated, we came to understand more of their internal experience, getting a sense of what it was like to be ‘in the skin’ of another person (or at least a rough and ready approximation of this). In this way, we began to develop the ability to take their perspective.
Taking the perspective of others is a central skill to building compassion towards others. If I can put myself in your shoes, I can make better sense of your experience and therefore I am more likely to be tolerant, even accepting, towards you as another human being that is – in at least some respects – similar to me. This is an effortful, active process and doesn’t always come naturally. But, with sufficient motivation, it is a skill that can be developed. If being compassionate is rewarded and reinforced by the group, it is more likely to occur. Groups that are compassionate towards each other are more likely to co-operate with each other, and therefore more able to achieve complex goals that benefit both the group as a whole as well as the individual.
While the human ability to be compassionate towards others has built over the centuries and now comes naturally to most people, the ability to be compassionate towards oneself is often far less developed. Many people find negative self-talk and damning self-judgements to be a common and distressing part of their daily experience. This is due, at least in part to an inability to “take our own perspective”. The same skill I apply in order to get into the shoes of others, I can apply to myself. I can begin to notice my own perspective and develop an observer stance towards all the different aspects of my experience, including the range of different thoughts, feelings sensations and memories that are part of being alive. But, just as I need a good reason to engage in the effortful behavior of taking the perspective of others, I need a sense of the benefits that are available from developing this ‘observer stance’ on my own internal world. As I take the perspective of myself, the awareness that I am not the totality of my experiences develops, alongside the awareness that I therefore need not be engulfed in them, as distressing and scary though they may be sometimes. With this stance, I have more freedom to notice them, make room for them, even actively embrace them as I begin to see the value in these experiences. In this way, I start to develop a sense of compassion for my experiences and myself.
However, this skill only becomes possible as I engage with others around me. To develop the skill of taking my own perspective, I need to be able to take the perspective of others and naturally the converse applies as well. From the individual perspective it may seem as if we are alone in our experience, but, like the individual honey bee or tree, this misses the inherent interconnectivity of the wider organism; the hive, the forest or, for us, the human race.