2019: Year of the Pig, Year of Compassion

Ask what you can do for your fellow beings this year.

Posted Jan 30, 2019

Pixabay. Or is that Pigsabay?
Pixabay. Or is that Pigsabay?
Source: Pixabay. Or is that Pigsabay?

What does the pig have to do with compassion? Let's root around a bit for an answer.

One of my dearest friends was living in China a few years ago. One day, as she was walking through a rural village, a pig took a liking to her and started walking next to her, all the way through the village. By the end of the stroll, she’d developed a fondness for her porcine pal and a newfound fondness for pigs in general. From that day forward, she pledged she would never eat pork again.

So, one definition of compassion might be not eating someone for whom you feel compassion. We could start with pigs, for example. I remember when Babe came out, many people also took the no-pork plunge. Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja (streaming on Netflix) might do the trick for you.

This last September, I attended the three-hour long “Long Conversation” sponsored by the Asia Society of Northern California, at the phenomenal Coal + Ice exhibition at Fort Mason. A rolling series of 15-minute conversations between climate experts, this afternoon really drove home the dire straits of our Earthly predicament. I highly recommend watching the entire three hours. Shortly after I attended the talks, I decided to go 90% vegetarian. After all, I already drive a Prius (haha), so I might as well go full Californian. Eating a predominantly plant-based diet is one significant step individuals can take to help prevent climate and environmental catastrophe, I’m told, other than, say, having fewer or no children. I’ve been a vegetarian before, and come from a very long line of pure South Indian vegetarians, so it was not hard to take this step forward. (One contribution of Asia to world culture is just this—living on a healthy, predominantly vegetarian diet.)

Let’s call it my step towards preventing the eating of current 20-somethings, or them eating me. #SoylentGreen, anyone? (I’m retaining about 10% meat—a meal or so a week with some meat—just to hedge my bets, I guess. And also, please remind me not to eat a vegan brunch—#VeganSalmonCrepe—before stepping on a transcontinental flight. Yes, Kennedy TSA, I was carrying an unusual amount of natural gas on that JetBlue flight.)

Back to pigs. A 2015 review (quoted by my colleague on PT Marc Bekoff) by researchers Lori Marino and Christina M. Colvin called "Thinking Pigs: A Comparative Review of Cognition, Emotion, and Personality in Sus domesticus," reads in summary:

“While relatively little is known about the psychology of domestic pigs, what is known suggests that pigs are cognitively complex and share many traits with animals whom we consider intelligent. This paper reviews the scientific evidence for cognitive complexity in domestic pigs and, when appropriate, compares this literature with similar findings in other animals, focusing on some of the more compelling and cutting-edge research results. The goals of this paper are to: 1) frame pig cognition and psychology in a basic comparative context independent of the livestock production and management setting; and 2) identify areas of research with pigs that are particularly compelling and in need of further investigation. ... We conclude that there are several areas of research in which the findings are suggestive of complex psychology in pigs. We conclude by calling for more noninvasive cognitive and behavioral research with domestic pigs in non-laboratory settings that allow them to express their natural abilities.”

So pigs are complex and worthy of our attention—and, many would say, compassion and affection. 

One of the beauties of the Chinese “animal” zodiac is that it reminds us of interdependence with other living creatures. You may be human, but you are also a pig, dog, sheep, rat or monkey. Our animal natures are not far from us—because we are indeed animals. And all those animals possess admirable and complex qualities.

Psychologically, Western religions put humans at the apex, just below God and the angels, giving them “dominion” over the natural world. Eastern religions and philosophies, as well as Aboriginal and Native traditions, are much more egalitarian, recognizing that humans are just part of the web of life. As Chief Seattle said, “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”

I went to two college a cappella concerts this last month, hearing groups from Stanford, Brown, Colgate, Tufts, Santa Clara University, and Yale. Some of my happiest memories in college are of listening to the joyous, enthusiastic voices of my classmates, and of being in a choir myself. This time, I was joyful again, but also tender. As Yale’s Whiffenpoofs took the stage and began to sing, tears came to my eyes, thinking of all this younger generation will have to face, even after I’m gone.

A Burmese meditation master said, “When the sunshine of lovingkindness (sometimes translated as ‘friendliness’) meets the tears of suffering, the rainbow of compassion arises.”

May we all grow in compassion, empathy, and friendliness in 2019, the Year of the Pig, the Year of Babe, the Year of Okja. May the rainbow of compassion arise in the world.

And please, let’s at least try not to eat each other.

P.S. Here's a reminder of the definition of compassion: 

Compassion is a sensitivity to suffering, coupled with a deep desire to alleviate that suffering.

Or in graphic form:

Image by Ravi Chandra, based on Thupten Jinpa's words
Stages of compassion
Source: Image by Ravi Chandra, based on Thupten Jinpa's words

(c) 2019 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.