Matthieu Ricard, founder of Karuna-Shechen, and Flore Vasseur, director of Bigger than Us, discuss engagement with Elsa Da Costa, director of Ashoka, as part of the second edition of the Altruistic Encounters organized by Karuna-Shechen at the GoodPlanet Foundation.

Our system only works because it creates injustices. As long as we don’t tackle these injustices, we can talk all we want, but we won’t achieve anything. How do I contribute as little as possible to this injustice? By not causing harm.

Flore Vasseur

Bigger than Us” is a documentary directed by Flore Vasseur, follows six young activists which includes: 

  • Melati Wijsen: reducing  plastic pollution in Indonesia, 
  • Memory Banda: ending institutionalized rape and forced marriage in Malawi,
  •  Winnie Tushabe: developing empowerment through permaculture in Uganda,
  • Rene Silva: creating community-driven journalism in the favelas of Brazil, 
  • Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: ending fracking in the United States, 
  • Mohammad Al Jounde: educating refugee children in Lebanon, 
  • Mary Finn: rescuing migrants at sea in Greece.

In this hour and a half discussion, Matthieu, Flore, and Elsa explored engagement through the lens of powerlessness, education, interdependence, intention, and turning points. They agreed that fear and ego are the main obstacles to engagement. 

Fighting the feeling of powerlessness

There is no intention to destroy the planet, so the responsibility for its destruction and salvation is shared among us all. As Matthieu Ricard reminds us, humans are equipped to react to immediate dangers, but the crisis of the Earth system has not appeared urgent.

To succeed in mobilizing, we need to recognize that responsibility is universal, despite the feeling that our individual actions are insignificant. We also need to understand the concept of critical mass. If only a small percentage of the population says that inaction is unacceptable, that will be enough for the whole society to shift.

Education for a more altruistic world.

Flore Vasseur recounts what Edward Snowden confided to her: All the solutions to our problems exist. What is lacking is the political will and the cultural shift.

Matthieu Ricard proposes that we reject the assumption that moral values are all culturally relative in order to finally be able to teach common principles in schools, like solidarity, sentience, and the avoidance of unnecessary suffering. However, Flore reminded us: “We talk about educating children, but let’s start with us, the adults!”


We worry about the disappearance of bees, but I’m here to tell you that it’s now affecting our children!

Flore Vasseur

We are not separate from nature, as human arrogance wants us to believe. Wonder can reconnect us. The founder of Karuna-Shechen shares, “We inevitably step out of the bubble of ego when we are in front of the wild beauty of nature. It’s greater than oneself, it transcends the individual.”

Fear and ego.

Matthieu Ricard sheds light on the link between these two notions: fear comes from being self-centered, believing oneself to be independent of the surrounding environment. This belief contradicts the reality of interdependence and thus leads to dysfunctional behaviors for oneself, others, and all living beings. The world is seen as an enemy, with countless threats against the individual.

Moving away from the self-centered view decreases the sense of threat. Fearlessness is the state in which we have nothing to lose, nothing to gain, but everything to give. This is where courage and compassionate engagement come into play. Like a doctor who heals wounds with precision, without shedding tears for the patient’s pain. This analysis, articulated by Matthieu, is shared by Flore, who received it from the protagonists of the documentary. Engagement is possible when we put our ego “in a small box.”. However imperfectly, we detach from ourselves. If we do it for even a moment, we become connected to something greater than ourselves.

A suffering youth.

It’s difficult to open up to others when our relationship with ourselves is painful. Matthieu reminded us of the statistics of self-harm in Europe. Our society needs to learn to care for ourselves. Some people believe that happiness is forbidden to them. Flore adds that the environmental crisis makes people, especially those under 30, anxious and pessimistic about their future.  It is eco-anxiety. She emphasizes that eco-anxiety is not just the accumulation of bad news.The silence within families and the impossibility for children and young people to find a space to share their anxiety makes it much worse.

Towards a more altruistic world.

With selfishness, everyone loses. With altruism, everyone wins. It is the only concept capable of bridging the three scales of time: short, medium, and long term.

Matthieu Ricard

This conversation shed light on the barriers to engagement and the necessity to weave bridges between generations that don’t understand each other. Society is filled with anxious young people who feel alone and disarmed adults who are unaware of their own need for inner change.