Evolution of Compassion

One early viewer of Sacred Bond described the mother as “an icon of compassion.”  I believe he was responding to the mother’s tender care for her child who is warmly wrapped in a blanket, wearing a purple knit cap, covered by the mother’s shawl, and securely, yet gently, held in her arms.   Her loving attention to the child’s needs speaks to her compassionate care and deep bond of love with her child. The development of that bond is not confined just to infancy or to our individual lives.  As Charlene Spretnak explains in her book, Missing Mary, the bond of compassion between mother and child has deep evolutionary roots and a potentially universal scope that has yet to be fulfilled:  


Compassion as an evolutionary achievement can be traced in the story of life on earth.  The bond between mother and child, which first emerged, in mammals, some 200 million years ago, was a new power in the unfolding story.  Natural selection favored this power, in that offspring that bonded with their mother had a better chance of survival.  The bond of compassionate behavior then surfaced between animal siblings.  Eventually it emerged within kin groups, although fighting still took place with other kin groups.  All of these developments were favored by evolutionary dynamics and continued into the human species.  Mary the Compassionate Mother may be seen as the culmination of this progression because no one is outside the embrace of her outstretched arms or beyond the reach of her bountiful grace, visited upon the whole world and the entire cosmos.”  (p. 99)


Spretnak’s vision reveals the depth and breadth of the sacred bond between mother and child.  On the one hand, it originates deep in our genetic heritage, extending beyond our own species to ancient mammalian ancestors on our evolutionary tree.  That bond eventually grew beyond the individual mother-child relationship to include siblings, kin groups, tribes and whole nations.  Seen in this larger context the worldwide immigration crisis and the growing threat of climate change to vast numbers of species can be seen as urgent challenges to develop ever wider, more inclusive kinship bonds not just with our own species, but with all life on earth and ultimately with the cosmos itself. 

The image of the Compassionate Mother directs our attention towards this reality of interconnection at all levels of the cosmos. These interconnections already exist, though we remain largely unaware of them.  Our challenge is to awaken to the truth of the Universal Sacred Bond of love and compassion and embody it in our fractured world.

The Mayan mother in the painting can be seen, then, as a symbol that points simultaneously to several dimensions of reality.  At one level she is simply an ordinary mother from somewhere in Central America walking on a mountain path. On another she represents the leading edge of an ancient path of genetic and cultural development that has gradually extended the sacred bond of kinship to family, tribe and national groups. She can also represent the Compassionate Mother’s truly universal sacred bond of love that extends to the entire human race and the earth itself with all its creatures.  

There are still more dimensions to the image of the mother. As a poor, indigenous woman the Mayan mother can be seen as a symbol of those who have historically been excluded from full human community. But she is also a symbol of action toward a more just and inclusive world.  She and her child seem to be stepping out of the painting and “crossing the border” into our space. We as viewers are faced with the challenge of how we will respond to them, not just as painted images, but as living symbols of immigrants around the world.

Such “moments of truth” are being enacted globally as immigrants cross borders and step into the space of nations that face the challenge of how to respond to them. Will they simply react in fear and protect “their” space?  Or will they embrace the invitation to extend their sense of kinship to the “others” and collaborate with them in creating a more just world in which “no one is outside the embrace of her [the Compassionate Mother’s] outstretched arms or beyond the reach of her bountiful grace, visited upon the whole world and the entire cosmos”?