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Let me tell you how I discovered the concept of ‘cultural compassion’ – While walking through Paris, during strikes, with Ben Harper (or let’s say, a young man who looks a lot like him, I don’t have his permission to share his name).
You may have noticed that culture is often thought of as an accumulation of knowledge. We sometimes forget that it is actually a sharing of experiences, thoughts and emotions. It is the emergence of common knowledge, a mental resonance that creates a music score.
Do you think that culture as I have just defined it, can be healing? Could it free us from our suffering, and therefore be a form of compassion?
I move away from a small Parisian sidewalk, under a light drizzle, the yellow lights of the lampposts are reflecting on the puddles, when this idea appears to my mind: ‘cultural compassion’.
This story that I’m going to tell you illustrates the creation, the emergence of a concept as something shared, a common creation. We often think that concepts emerge in isolation, that they belong to us personally, in other words that we have a good idea. But conceptual history has shown that one concept has appeared at the same time in different places on the planet at a time where communication did not exist as it does today while the idea couldn’t have yet been shared.
One way to interpret this phenomenon is to say that the concepts emerge from a convergence of historical, cultural or biological factors – From the access to knowledge more than from the individual who embodies this idea. It is the alchemy of the moment and the interactions between an individual and his environment that makes it emerge, that makes thoughts emerge in general.
So here’s my story, I had the chance to attend the conference of Matthieu Villatte, brilliant researcher studying psychology and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). He is more specifically looking at the Relational Frame Theory, which is a model linked to a behavioural science of language. Matthieu presented through a monistic materialist approach of spirituality, a model allowing transcendent integration of different models of therapy.
To translate, it means that he tries to explain the world from the world itself and is relying on scientific knowledge of language behaviour to understand spirituality (the human behaviour of giving meaning to what seems beyond our ability to rationalise like personal growth, sacred meaning or one’s won ‘inner dimension’).
Materialist philosophy is opposed to an understanding of the world by God or something that would exist beyond the world, but it is in the approach of Matthieu Villatte, to better understand the development of mental constructions of what is beyond our scientific knowledge. Instead of invalidating these constructs, this perspective makes it possible to better understand them and to overcome the dogmatic cleavages linked to the institutions which hierarchise their beliefs sometimes leading to wars or to extremism putting ideas before the reality of the suffering of beings. Or more simply, between different therapeutic fields, the ‘Parish’ quarrels.
In short, fascinated by his presentation and by the personal interest I see in it, my study of the links between compassion and love being in the midst of conceptual oppositions, I went to chat with Matthieu Villatte and Ben Harper by the end of the congress. As the discussion was slow to finish, I proposed to ‘Ben’ to walk a long way and let Matthieu find his friends (Matthieu is brilliant but he also has the patience of an angel).
In short, ‘Ben’ told to me about his experience of therapy, I was hypnotised by his lucidity and by his experience of therapy. It is quite rare for us, psychologists, to hear without filter how a patient experienced his therapy.
I reformulated what I understood using the metaphor of a tree. When we are threatened, our negative emotions tighten us, tense us up to protect us, like the trunk of the tree which hardens not to be devoured. Our positive emotions if we listen to them, guide us, like the branch of the tree which feels the direction in which it must push to go towards the sun. “Ben” replied that it was very cultural, that this image resonated with his African culture.
We looked at each other, and the idea appeared: ‘cultural compassion’. And we develop it together. Matthieu began his presentation by talking about the different ways of perceiving men and women across cultures. I am often embarrassed that people who fight stigma list negative cognitive biases towards a subgroup. It is of course necessary to be aware of our biases, but it is even more important to go beyond.
But how? Well, through cultural compassion, that is, through the creation of shared experiences that will take us beyond our biases. Without erasing our differences, we can collect our points of shared humanity.
Isabelle Leboeuf is a psychologist and psychotherapist. In her practice she integrates hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and compassion-focused therapy.
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