The Table Video

Lynn Underwood

Perspectives on Compassionate Love: Science, Spirituality, and the Arts

Senior Research Scholar, Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University
June 2, 2017

Scientifically oriented models and approaches can enrich our understanding of other-centered love. Quantitative research using the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale (, can inform our understanding as we examine how these 16 questions, both the 4 explicit questions on divine love, and the others, correlate with various other things in life such as care for others and less compassion fatigue, in scientific studies. These questions can also be used to cultivate love in our lives in an alive way. Qualitative interviews on the topic of compassionate love can also help as we try to understand the complexity of giving love to others, and the various factors involved. The model and qualitative interviews with Christian monks can inform the cultivation of our character in ways that encourage other-centered love. Poetry, Visual Art and Fiction also provide ways to enhance our understanding of the meaning of love, and some examples of that will be provided.


Thank you, Evan, and it’s lovely to be here. And the after-lunch slot, I’m hoping that anybody who wants to have a little doze in preparation for Dr. Helm’s presentation after mine, you just go ahead and do that. [laughs] I’m kind of a nervous speaker, so it’ll be relaxing for me to see people falling asleep in the audience. [audience laughs]

Giving you a little idea of what, an overview, of what we’re gonna be talking about. I’m going to give a working definition of compassionate love that I developed in the context about 1998, in the context of doing a request for proposals for a private foundation. And I had to have a working definition to go on, so we’re gonna look at that. I’m going to discuss some qualitative interviews that I did with Christian Trappist monks, these would be monks in the Benedictine tradition, on compassionate love and we’ll talk about what the definition of that is. I’ll also talk about some other qualitative research around the issue of love. And then I’m gonna talk a little bit about quantitative research on love.

I thought maybe this would be something I could bring to this discussion in an interesting way. I developed a scale of 16 questions and four of them deals specifically with love. And also, to mention a model that I developed to help scientists interface with the world and with others around notions of doing research in this area. Unfortunately, when I timed my research, I’m gonna run out of time for the art.

There’s just not gonna be time if I wanna have time for the discussions, which I really want to leave, so I’m gonna whiffle a little bit through some visual art at the end, but that’s about all I’m gonna be able to do in that regard. So compassionate love, we’re looking at other-centered love, self-giving love, agape, altruistic love, unconditional love. This isn’t the same as compassion, but it was what I picked as the name to call it, this other-regarding, other-centered love, when I was trying to develop this request for proposals.

My focus has been on the human experience of self-giving love, love centered on the good of the other, with the motivation of supporting their flourishing, not only relieving suffering. The other group that wanted this name for compassionate love was the World Health Organization project that I brought together. Love was just too big a word and too mushy for some of the people from some traditions, and compassion was just too dry and desiccated for others, so I just kinda combined compassionate love, and it’s just really a place marker for this other-regarding love that none of us can really describe fully. I had to develop a working definition for this meeting in ’99, and then a science research RFP.

And these were the key qualities that I ended up coming up with for that. They’re informed by theological background, readings from the spiritual masters over time, philosophical, looking at ethical research, and also, the qualitative research that I did. So you’ll see some overlap with the first presentation this morning in this, I think. Has to be some element of free choice, some degree of cognitive understanding of the situation, some understanding of yourself, fundamentally valuing the other – which is key to this definition, openness and receptivity. When I did this definition and this model, I had to do it for scientists, many of whom were not religious at all, and also for people from different faith traditions.

So I wanted to have a space for grace in this model without pushing it on people that it had to be there. I personally think it has to be there, but I couldn’t really lay that, as in a science project. And then a response of the heart, and I don’t mean affection or emotion here necessarily, I’m using heart as the core, where emotions and cognitions integrate and I’ve done some work on that in neuroscience – how we think of the core of the human being. So I’m gonna move on to talk about these qualitative interviews that I did. I interviewed Trappist Cistercian monks, who are from the Benedictine tradition. They’re contemplative monks.

I was doing it using qualitative methods, and we might wanna talk about what are qualitative methods. They can be things like focus groups, they can be observing people and then coding observations of what happens in the world, you can be like an anthropologist and go live with people; so those create qualitative research. I used something called a structured interview, and I had a set of questions, I tried very hard not to be overly responsive to the answer, I tried just to be good listener, and then I would just write down everything I was hearing in the interviews, and then I would group it into things.

So we’re gonna see some of these groupings. The monks that I used, I didn’t pick them because I thought they were the most compassionate people in the world. I picked them because I thought they would have a better way of being reflective about this notion of compassionate love, and the complexity involved in motivation and decision-making. They spend time in this contemplative tradition, where they, seven times a day, they recite the Psalms, they read scripture together, and even in the middle of the night, they spend a lot of time in contemplative prayer, listening to God, through things like Lectio Divina, where they read scripture and try to hear God speaking to them. And then they have an intention in their community to be, this is an important value for them. So that’s why I picked them.

The other thing was there was a book by Han De Wit called Contemplative Psychology, and it was really talking about how do we get good self-reports out of people, and as you know probably from your friends, there’s some of us that are more self-aware than others, and it was trying to kind of access the capacity for self-awareness in these monks. Also, I got a great group. They were a real variety from age 34 to 80.

They were people who’d done business school. The one that introduced me to everybody had been a fighter pilot in World War II, and subsequent had great sense of humor. They were just a huge variety of different kinds of guys, and they were able to be open and honest in these interviews, and it was a blessing to me to be able to speak with them. So I’m gonna talk about some of the things that came up in these interviews because it really.

First of all, I asked them a word that was good, and they thought agape was too much God’s thing, agape, and as people, they weren’t going to be able to do that. They lot thought compassionate love was okay too as a word. So what were some of the features they thought were important? Humility. If you look at that paper that I showed earlier, a lot of these things, you can find some of those in that paper. Humility. Unselfishness. Receptivity – this was one of my favorites, this was from the abbot. Setting aside your agenda, for the sake of, to strengthen, to give life to the other – I love that definition or kind of description of what compassionate love is. Experience, be present to the situation of the other. Respect. A mature view of reality.

A certain degree of detachment. And one of the things I noticed too is the language they use, they weren’t trotting out theological phrases, pad answers, which I found quite reassuring. We all can trot out certain things, and it’s not always kind of in under our skin. Trust. Openness. Acceptance of self in order to accept others, which I think gives a really marvelous insight. Really listening to the other. Denying self for something greater. Suffering with another. Helping another to become fully themselves.

And being aware of my own emotions – acting rather than reacting. So these were some of the characteristics when they thought about compassionate love that were important to them. Now I also asked them to reflect on the internal processes, what goes on when you have to make a decision? So they make lots of decisions; they run a bakery, they make fudge, they have a farm, they have the internal politics that any organization has.

So giving of self for the good of the other could be things like letting another monk get the plum job, getting happy when another monk does a really good job on something, even though you really don’t like him – they don’t all like each other, they have arguments – letting a monk step in front of you in the food line – I mean food’s a big thing in the Trappist monastery. So it’s things like that.

And so when they were thinking about these kinds of things, what was going on inside? There were kind of two major approaches, and I’m hearing this in the themes I’m hearing in various presentations this morning. One is weighing of the individual actions, very analytic approach of weighing them, and the second was just this kind of attitude of heart. It just, I am and then I do, and I’m loving, and it kinda just flows. Most had a combination, but they leaned in one direction or another. When I asked them, “What goes on when we choose “for the good of the other at cost to self?” Well, the cognitive weighing people were weighing various things. How much of myself is in this? How much of the other person? We can’t ignore ourself completely. What’s the short term benefit, rather than long term benefit?

You can imagine, you might wanna give a drink to somebody who’s an alcoholic, but in the short term, it’d make them happy, and the long term, it’s not gonna be so good for them. Close others and strangers, how do we do that balancing? There are people that are closer to the monastery, and then their guest, and then there’re people they’re not so close to. Giving and receiving, I thought that was an important one. We often think compassionate love, other-regarding love, is all about giving, but if we don’t provide a space to receive love from God, from other people, then we’re not going to be able to really allow them to give.

There’s somebody there passing around the handout. It’s not really relevant. It’s more for afterwards, so you can look at references, and you’ll have the references on it. It doesn’t follow and map on to this. And then the final one is balancing justice and mercy. Dr. Wolterstorff has written some great stuff on this love and mercy, love and justice, how do we balance these things. That’s something they have to think about in the monastery all the time. And then the second thing that what goes on inside is this kind of attitude of heart, And there’s always the challenge of self-report when you do interviews, but they seem to be very honest. I was not going to be quoting them to anybody.

I was outside of their political system. They didn’t have to look good in my eyes, so I think I got very honest reports from people. Now what were some of the processes for sifting motivations? We heard earlier how important motivation is for compassionate love, other-regarding love, and I think it’s key. As well, what were some of the things that they mentioned, when they were weighing individual actions. I ask, “How much of me is in this?” I quiet down, I get myself out of the way. Sometimes, there’s a natural pull. I’m more attracted to one person than another. It’s a lot easier to do nice things for people who I like.

I let go of a grasping feeling inside. When I have a contented feeling, it’s a signal of kind of a deep inner freedom that signifies that I am just kind of going with God’s flow of love. I make sure that what other’s would say is not driving my actions. Ultra conscientiousness can be a danger. You try to do good, I’m really great. Higher moral ground. You can imagine, in a monastery, that’s a real value. And so they’re continually trying to kind of guard against, just doing something because it gives them a higher moral ground.

We talked about weighing values earlier. And then they mentioned self-interest is a value, but it’s placed as a lower level than the value of others. And then to do good because it’s good. One monk mentioned correcting for weakness by doing good things unseen, rather than just to look good. Looking at that other process, remember that internal lens of just being love and expressing it naturally.

We have just the attitude of valuing the other somehow brings love. Compassionate flows out of us when we value the other. They mentioned the feeling of willingness, which I kind of think about having God’s will and our will kind of just naturally lined up, [laughs] so that that sort of willingness just happens. And then just not being aware. Some of them were just not aware of how this was working in them. Now this is an interesting one too. I asked the question, “What attitudes get in the way when you’re trying “to be self-giving, express self-giving love to others?” A need for reciprocal love and affection often can drive our love, and that isn’t fully the kind of love we’re hoping for. Need to be accepted and to belong. A desire to avoid confrontation.

A lot of us, sometimes we think we’re being nice to somebody because we’re being nice, but sometimes, it’s just ’cause we don’t want the confrontation, and confrontation may be the more loving thing. Seeing the other as an extension or reflection of myself, and I think a lot of social scientists who are looking at other-regarding love often stumble into this, and I think that is not fully self-giving love. Pleasure and looking well in the eyes of others. And control of others through their indebtedness.

You know, I’m doing for you, I’m doing, I’m doing, and I’m on top here in this score chart. And a desire to exercise power over others, and feel superior. So these are some things they recognize as something that got in the way of God’s love flowing through them into others in their community. All motives are a mixture. I look at that list, and I mean if we say so much of our motives are mixed, and we just are human beings after all. But how can we encourage these other-centered motives and be aware of the motives that detract.

So what are some of the practices they use that help them? Strengthening my identity, awareness of who I am was one of them said. So somehow when they’re own identity is stronger, they can then be more loving towards others, rather than dependent on their identity being continually reinforced by the surroundings. Quiet and time alone. Living in a community that supports the value of love. An unselfish lifestyle. A balanced life – respect for myself, respect for others. Prayer. Spiritual reading. Critique of aware community.

The community keeps you right. If you’re trying to be a do-good-er, they’ll say, “You’re just being a do-good-er,” you know? And it keeps them kind of on, correct inside, “keeps me straight,” one of the guys said. Listening – very underestimated quality. Doing compassionate things encourages us to do more. The whole idea of it reinforcing our character, our growth. Learning about people. Avoiding aggression and violence. And cultivating awareness of motives. Okay, so that’s the qualitative.

That’s some of the qualitative stuff. Hopefully, I’m not too far behind. Okay, and this is the quantitative research. I won’t be able to really just kind of touch the tip of the iceberg on this. Quantitative research is necessary. In the sciences, you have to put numbers on things. They don’t let you put in studies unless you add a number to something, so I have been stuck a lot of my life doing quantitative research and I don’t really love it, but it’s a necessary evil in the world. [laughs] I’m gonna talk a little bit about a few things here.

I’m gonna skip through these. This is, I think, from a great painting. When we do quantitative research, we’re trying to capture the scene out the window. That’s what we want to get in our research. But so often, we don’t do as good a job as this person did of doing the painting. We often have a Mondrian sitting in front of this view out the window, and we don’t capture it very well. I developed a scale, this Daily Spiritual Experience Scale, the DSES, and I did it using qualitative research.

I interviewed young people, old people, people who were from the intercity, very diverse ethnic groups, different religions in this World Health Organization project, to find out what were some good questions that asked about ordinary spiritual experiences. And it was designed to transcend religious boundaries, but still address theistic experience within particular religious contexts. So I tried to do everything with this scale. It’s suppose to go on studies, and I wanted it to be used widely.

It measures the perception of ordinary interactions with God and daily life. That’s what it’s aimed to do. It’s been translated into 40 languages, and it’s been used in over 300 published studies, as well as many DMin thesis, so it’s being used a lot. And because it kind of gets at the deep religious, but also gets at the less so, it kind of appeals to a lot of people. It predicts lots of stuff, and I’m not going to go into that.

I think these are on your handout. What are these questions? I’m gonna talk about the questions a little bit because it’s how do you do quantitative research. It asked, “How many times a day, many times a day to never, “do you experiences these things?” It has an introductory sentence that says “any answer you say is just fine and dandy” and it also says “if the word God is uncomfortable for you, “use a word that indicates a diviner holy for you”. This has been important in it being able to be used more widely than just a Christian setting. These are the kind of questions. I’m not gonna spend so much.

Four of them are in love, so I’m just gonna scibble through this first set here. Spiritually touched by the beauty of creation. I developed these with the kind of fundamental, I will say to you in this group of Christian [laughs] theological start, but I then tried to be encompassing of a variety of different kinds of people. I’m spiritually touched by the beauty of creation, awe. I feel thankful for my blessings. I ask for God’s help in the midst of daily activities. I feel guided by God in the midst of daily activities. I feel deep inner peace or harmony. I find strength in my religion or spirituality, comfort in my religion or spirituality. This is many times a day to never. I desire to be closer to God or in union with the divine. I feel God’s presence.

I experience a connection to all of life. Here are the love questions. Oh, no, one more here. During worship or at other times when connecting with God, I feel intense joy which lifts me out of my daily concerns, so that says more community and orientation. Then the love questions are I feel God’s love for me directly, I feel God’s love for me through others. These have been very powerful questions in predicting many different things. The whole set predict tons of things, but those two questions also predict independently.

I was able to do interviews to make sure what does this mean to you, as lots of people in structured interviews. What does this mean to you? And was able to confirm that they were getting at what I was wanting them to get at. I feel a selfless caring for others. These are the love out questions. This question, when I did it in the interviews, even though it had selfless in it, people didn’t interpret that as I couldn’t care about myself at all, it was just that the self was not the center of the caring because it’s the adjective. I accept others even when they do things I think are wrong, so that’s the mercy question. So.

These have been put on a number of studies. An example of a project that those are on at the moment is a project with Harvard University that’s looking at prospective studies of health. Steven mentioned epigenetic change. It’s looking at why do we have such health disparities in the country, why are certain ethnic groups really dying more and have had higher hypertension and dying of various cancers more frequently than the typical white population.

So it’s following longitudinal studies of Hispanics, African-Americans, Native Americans, South Asian people, and they have blood and DNA and all that sort of stuff. These questions are being put on these longitudinal studies, and that means those numbers that are there can be correlated with things in the future. So if you wanted to look at love, these love questions – love in and love out – you could look at that in that data set and see does it connect with anything that you’re interested in in this population.

Make sure I’m staying on time here. This is an example, what do you do with those numbers? It was put on the General Social Survey, which is a survey in 2002. It was random population data, full distribution of everybody – races, ages, ethnic groups, religions. This was the percentages that came out, which is kind of interesting. When I did this scale, I really didn’t know how often are people gonna have these things. That was something I didn’t know at all. I was quite pleased that people were reporting feeling selfless caring for others of 10% many times a day. I thought, “Oh, that’s kinda nice.”

I look around myself, maybe there’s some of that going on. [laughs] But I also was reassured that we’re a bunch of people saying never, in a way, because it meant my scale worked. It meant people were, you know you ask a question of people, “Are you nice?” Well almost everybody says they’re nice. So you have to ask a question in a way that they feel okay saying no. And so they felt okay saying no, never for this. The nice distribution is reassuring for me, for the numbers. If you look at the accept other one, you see the distribution in the population. Even though these are crude, I admit they’re crude, that qualitative research is just so rich and deep. But it does give us something, and it can allow us to lift up a certain element of the human person that doesn’t sometimes get viewed.

Quantitative research can inform our understanding of love, but choice of the questions is very important. You just can’t pick some question out of the air. And then a model can help us to fit various results together, and help us to effectively apply it to our lives. When I developed that definition back in ’98, ’99 for the meeting and then for the request for proposals from the scientists, which we ended up drawing people in around the topic, I developed a model, so that people would be able to, scientists would be able to fit their pieces together into the picture of what would cause love and how would love work. Again, crude.

You ethicist are gonna not find this adequate, but it is a crude model that allows people to interact around different things. The substrate is we all start as different people. Some of us are more naturally empathetic than others, for example. We have different physical capacities. The social, environmental, cultural, you could add religious there. The environments we’d grow up in shape how we love others and what we have capacity for. Situational factors. If you’re there with your dad or your mom or your kids, you’re gonna act differently, in terms of a loving situation, than if you were with strangers. Then I have, in the center of this model, motivation and discernment, which very often was left out because it’s so hard to measure.

When we were looking at the monastic study with the qualitative stuff, you saw that you could really get at that, to some extent. But it’s very difficult to do in research settings. There are variety of ways we can do it, and I don’t have time to go into this. But you can get at some. And then I have compassionate love fully expressed. If your motivation and discernment are on target, then compassionate love is fully expressed. But you can have negative motivation and discernment. You could be doing something, you could give money to a college ’cause you only want to see your name on the building.

That’s maybe not, it’s kind of positive behavior, but it’s not really compassionate love fully expressed. One of the things that I built into this model was a kind of a feedback loop. When we do good with these good motives, it can reinforce that and strengthen that in us. If we do it for not-so-good motives, it can really even get in our way ultimately, in terms of our perceptions of our selves.

On the other hand, if we become aware of that, we might just call ourselves to account, and it could have a positive effect on us. I think one of the things that this model can help is when you read about studies have shown, about anything that has to do with altruism, love, [laughs] social relationships, you can kind of see, well where would it fit in here. It can help you, a little bit, think about what are the practical implications of that research. If somebody looks at a brain scan, and they say, “We have a brain scan. “We have increased oxytocin, and then we these actions.”

Well you can say, “Well, is there anything being left out?” What does this have to say about compassionate love, if that’s what you’re interested in. One way that this is being used, for example, using that Daily Spiritual Experience Scale, I was mentioning – I don’t wanna go too much, I’m wrapping this quantitative stuff up – is that it’s been shown the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale predicts less burnout in all sorts of people. Higher scores on that Daily Spiritual Experience Scale, which has the love questions but also those other ones, people who are trying to care for others in nurses, social workers, parents of disabled kids, ministers. The DSES predicts less burnout in a group of protestant ministers in Germany.

There were less burnout if they scored higher in the DSES. So it predicts a less burnout. One of the thoughts is you’re getting a sort of support from the divine. You’re getting grace that’s fueling your love, that is less exhausting to you, than if you’re just trying to grit your teeth and trying to do and without that soft of receptivity to God’s love flowing through you and into your work. Let’s see, I’m gonna I think I was trying to decide out.

I have just one more comment would be the study, it’s also being used in a study of stress in a smartphone study, which is kind of interesting. It’s 2000 people, smartphone, the DSES, those 16 questions are administered twice a day. They also measures things like stressors. So how stressed are you and what relationships are you in? And then they also ask a question, “How loving and caring are you feeling at the moment?” They find that people who are under high stress are less loving. They’re less feeling loving and caring. You can imagine, when you’re in a traffic jam, you probably don’t feel terribly loving and caring toward those in front of you. However, when the people have higher DSES than their normal, they’re still able to feel loving and caring, even in the midst of the stressful situation.

So it’s kind of interesting that’s the kind of thing this can lead to. Now I don’t have time to do the arts, which is such a shame, but I want time for questions, and probably, I thought this was the better thing for me to present on. But I think arts really, we talk about qualitative research enriching our understanding, I think the arts really, just over the top do that. They really can do that beautifully. I particularly like poetry, but I think film and television have a real rich mine of different situations you can be exposed to that would be good. Fiction of various kinds. I’m sure you have all your favorites, and I’m not gonna list mine. [laughs] And visual art.

So I’m gonna skip over this, which is, let’s see, yeah, I’m gonna skip over this. This is a film. But I wanted to show some visual images at the end, since it’s after lunch. I have some pictures here. This is an image by Guercino. One of the things I like about it is here, Christ is being compassionately loving. First of all, merciful toward the woman. Second of all, standing, the Pharisee there is just ready to accuse her, and Christ is just, you see, holding the finger back there, down at the bottom. Standing firm, it’s not a lovey-dovey Christ necessarily.

I think this really speaks to me of compassionate love. This is by Tim Lowly, who’s done some beautiful, beautiful images of his disabled daughter and his wife, and we’re looking at all his work, and just the sort of respect he has for her. Icons, I think, can, in a transcendent way, be visual art that can really stir love in us.

This is Our Lady of Vladimir, a very famous icon. And then this icon, which is the Trinity Icon by Rublev. I think, also, we think about compassionate love within the Trinity itself. I think, for me, I find that rather inspiring. Also, photography can capture things in way. One of the studies that we supported under that request for proposals was looking at people in war, and what do people in war do to be compassionately loving.

One of them is not doing anything. One of the things that they reported in this Red Cross study was to actually not do what you were suppose to do in a variety of war situations, was one of the ways they felt they expressed compassionate love to others. And then of course, this picture’s quite lovely in itself. I wanna make some last comments about the importance of receiving in compassionate love. It’s really important to think about how do we receive from God and from others. And also, to celebrate joy. Compassionate love, although it has that word compassionate, it’s about the flourishing of the other person, and how, when somebody else is joyful, can we join in with their joy, and is that gonna be loving.

I picked this cover art for the Altruism and Altruistic Love book. It’s a giant sculpture with microchips, and Jay Defeo took eight years to construct it. To me, it’s love in the rough and the smooth of life, beauty and difficulty. And that’s it, so thank you very much. [audience applause]

About the Author