empathy

Airport Insecurity

Airport Insecurity

Flying provides a steady stream of frustrations: the crowded isolation of DIY check-in, the sock-footed walk on eggshells through TSA, the hypervigilant tracking of an elusive ETA.

All the inevitable discomforts of air travel make it a fertile attentional fitness opportunity. I’ve been developing a strategy that transforms the situation from hell into heaven. Okay, maybe more like a really productive purgatory.

Accept Your Non-Acceptance

Accept Your Non-Acceptance

Everyone is doing their best, even when it seems like they are doing their worst.
Everyone is dreaming or having a nightmare, battling with pain you may never understand.
You don't have to condone their actions.
You may not be able to wake them up.
You don't have to like what happened.
Simply let go of the illusion
that it could have been any different.

~ Jeff Foster

Feel Around

Feel Around

"Because I write poetry, I can sit down and write things that I don’t have proof of, or even know the end of the sentence. I can feel around and nobody gets hurt, right? It’s a poem. And so I wrote this poem out of grief and an attempt to make it very plain to myself, the argument that I’d come up with." 
 

~ Jennifer Michael Hecht

Powerful Empathy Machine

Powerful Empathy Machine

"Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while. I can walk in somebody else's shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief."~ Roger Ebert

Stories are Powerful

"Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds, but in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry. And that’s what it means to be a social creature—to connect with others, to care about others, even complete strangers. It's so interesting that dramatic stories cause us to do this."

~ Paul Zak  director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies and author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity

See also: "Trust, morality — and oxytocin?" In this TED Talk, neuroeconomist Paul Zak shows why he believes oxytocin (he calls it "the moral molecule") is responsible for trust, empathy and other feelings that help build a stable society.

Bombarded

Excerpt from "Joan Halifax on Compassion's Edge States and Caring Better," On Being, Dec. 26, 2013:

TV Screens Wall (Photographer: Athewma/Flickr)We are subjected to distressing images through our mediabombarded. So we enter into a state of moral distress and futility. We see that something else needs to happen. Children need to be protected, we have to stop rape and violence toward women in the Congo, and we feel this profound moral conflict. And yet we can't do anything about it and we enter into a state either of moral outrage or we go into states of avoidance through addictive behaviors where we just, you know, don't want to deal with it or we just go into another state of withdrawal, a kind of numbness or freeze. I think a good part of the globe is going numb. 

I think what we're seeing is not actually compassion fatigue, but empathic distress where there's a resonance, but we're not able to stabilize ourselves when we're exposed to this kind of suffering. When we are more stabilized then we can face the world with more buoyancy, we have more resilience. You know, we've got more capacity to actually address these very profound social and environmental issues. So that's why I call these things edge states because they really call us to our edge... A near enemy to compassion is sorrow and that's that sorrow, that's me getting wrecked by the picture of the child in the newspaper so that I can't actually help them.

The theme of compassion has been important in Western culture and it certainly is important in Eastern culture, but it's a kind of fuzzy word. Antoine Lutz and Richie Davidson and others have been finding that certain areas of the brain light up when people are in states of compassion, and that they feel amore acutely the experience of another's suffering, but also they let go of it much more quickly.

From The Emotion MachineOne of the features that the neuroscientists have discovered is an area of the brain that's associated with the capacity to actually distinguish self from other. In other words, if there's such great resonance when you're in the presence of suffering with the other, you go into empathic or over-arousal. If I'm sitting with a prisoner on death row or I'm sitting with a person suffering from intractable pain, I can feel this resonance. I can sense into their suffering, but I also have simultaneously this insightit's that person suffering and this is me. I'm not experiencing it in reality. It's true, but it's not...

From my point of view, the experience of grief is profoundly humanizing and we need to create conditions where we are supported to grieve and where we're not told, "Why don't you just get over it?" "Or, "It's time" or such as that. We in our lives experience one loss after another, and it can be loss of a breast, loss of a loved one, a child going into adulthood, which is a way of loss for many parents, loss of identity, loss of capacity.

My own experience of aging is that there are capacities I had ten years ago that I no longer have, and I have to reflect upon those losses. And, of course, the loss that all of us will face in anticipation of death. It is something that brings great depth and meaning into our lives and also helps us to articulate internally our priorities. What is really important for us? So for me as a human being and not identified as a Buddhist or a woman or a Western person, but as a simple human being, I value the experience of grief. 

Listen to the produced or unedited conversation...


See also: 

Capable of Change

Sharon Salzberg, from "Embracing Our Enemies and Our Suffering," On Being, October 31, 2013:

They say that metta or lovingkindness is a practice of generosity. It's like generosity of the spirit. And the best kind of generosity comes from a sense of inner abundance, because if we feel depleted and overcome and exhausted and just burnt out, we're not gonna have the wherewithal inside, the sense of resourcefulness, to care about anybody, even to notice them all that much.

It's not only a kind of self-indulgence, but it's a self-preoccupation that happens when we feel so undone, so unworthy, so incapable of giving or whatever it might be, however it might manifest. So I really do see that factor of lovingkindness for one's self is this tremendous sense of strength and resourcefulness in terms of connecting to others.
 
I guess the one question that's very interesting to reflect on is how do I actually learn best? How do I change? How do I grow? Is it through that kind of belittling myself and berating myself and humiliating myself? Or is it through something else, some other quality like self-compassion and recognizing the pain or unskillfulness of something I've done or said and having the energy to actually move on?

So where does that energy come from? It comes from not being stuck. And how do we get unstuck? In fact, it's from forgiving ourselves and realizing, yeah, it happened. It was wrong. I'm gonna go on now in a different way because I'm capable of that. I am capable of change.  

March 1971

Listening to the recent On Being conversation with Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman on "Embracing Our Enemies and Our Suffering," reminded me just how significantly Sharon's practical insights have impacted my life.

I listened to an audiocassette version of Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness back in 2002 when training for my first marathon and before my first silent retreat. It was during this time that I also decided to leave the field of social work. I was tired. I felt exhausted, not by the people I tried to help who were suffering from mental illness or child abuse, but from the lack of reliable resources to give them. I spent my days evaluating emotional pain employed by organizations who seemed to have almost nothing (tangible or intangible) to provide in response to it.

So many of the professional helpers I worked with were glaringlly ill equipped to manage their own often serious problems let alone the challenges of people with billable issues. None of us were taught skills or strategies for taking care of ourselves or for maintaining healthy boudaries. A supervisor once said, "Social workers are a dime a dozen. If you don't want the job anymore, there are a line of others who will take it." This was in response to my trying to argue that the quality of work I was providing was beyond the expectations of the role as evidenced by my willingness to facilitate difficult treatment planning meetings in the absence of engagement from higher paid professionals.  

When you decide to leave the helping professions, people squint at you and shrug and tell you that you're burned out. But this diagnosis never rang true to me. We were constantly documenting that our clients needed to gain insight. It usually felt like a hollow goal. An imposed ideal. Everyone knows it's easier to be objective about another person's problems and what she could do to improve her plight. Isn't that what makes the perspective objective. But what was consistently lacking was an independent variable to test in the laboratory of the suffering person's life. Even if there was such a variable to tweak, however, there would still need to be some investment on the part of the person himself.

When I left social work, it was not due to burnout, it was the result of gaining insight.

I went in search of practical strategies I could experiment with to try to take better care of myself. I'd been attending weekly yoga classes with an exceptional teacher who uses a meditative approach. She pointed me to Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are which inspired me to experiment with bringing the practical strategies learned in yoga out into the ordinary activities of my life. When I heard about a four-day silent meditation retreat lead by Phillip Moffitt, I signed up months in advance. His wisdom articles in the Yoga Journal reminded me of the practical wisdom I'd discovered in these other books.

I was nervous about not talking for four days, but realized a few hours into the retreat that my worries had been misplaced. The silence ended up being a remarkable luxury, one that becomes more valuable as opportunities for experiencing it seem to become more scarce. What I wasn't prepared for was the rigorousness of the sitting and the boredom of the walking. This was problematic since these were the main activities we engaged in from very early in the morning until late at night. I was so physically and emotionally uncomfortable that I wanted to leave after a couple of days.

But when I met for my brief interview with Phillip, I told him that the only strategy that seemed to work when the physical pain became too intense to bear was the lovingkindness strategies I'd learned from Sharon's book. They involved considering the well-being of others and yourself. He suggested that if this approach brought relief, then perhaps it would be a good idea to include at least a bit of it during my daily meditation practice over the next two years to see if I noticed any impact.

I decided this prescription was either completely absurd or the most realistic suggestion about addressing some amorphous internal resistance that I'd ever encountered. Is it the consumerism that we're swimming in that makes us insist on instant resolution to our decades-old problems? When does anyone ever suggest more than ten or thirty days before promising to give your money back.

So I took him up on the challenge.

I attribute the consistency of my mindfulness practice since that day to this experiment. And I did notice an impact. But instead of noticing something being added to my life, I observed an erosion of an invisible barrier that I didn't know was there until it began to wear away. A wall between me and other people, but also between me and aspects of myself.

One of the most significant challenges I faced early on in the lovingkindess practice was trying to wish safety, happiness, health, and comfort for myself. Considering the well-being of the most difficult people in my life was much easier than this. I could simply not do it. It felt like a physical impossibility. One of the things I love about this work is that I did not need to get bogged down in this problem as a story to resolve. I did not go looking for causes, although looking back from the distance of years, I have some strong guesses about where the deeply ingrained self-loathing orignated. But reason alone would never have been enough to help me untangle them.

Standing Strong Together

"The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one...We can't really expect to find an answer when we're still afraid of the question....The only way we're going to beat a problem that people are battling alone is by standing strong together."

~ Kevin Breel, from "Confessions of a Depressed Comic," TEDxKids@Ambleside 

See also: 

 

A Decision to Be Whoever I Am

Exerpt from "M.E. Thomas on 'Confessions of a Sociopath'" with Anne Stranchamps, To The Best of Our Knowledge, August 11, 2013: 

I think one of the primary characteristics of sociopaths, what it feels like to be a sociopath, is to have a very weak sense of self. There's sort of no there there. I don't think of myself in these terms, female, or part of a particular political party, or even my age, my ethnicity. Even Mormonism, to a certain extent. I've never really felt Mormon.

So people see me and see all these different characteristics and treat me that way, but I never really think of myself in those terms. I think of myself more in terms of how I process things, how I think, rather than the results. So more like the formula, rather than the particular inputs or outputs of the formula...

...Not having a sense of self. What does it feel like? It sort of feels like I am a mirror or a camera. I am just capturing other things. I think the figuring out that I didn't have a sense of self was experiencing things ...where people had very strong opinions. And I always felt like the opinions I had were largely convenient. I had them for that particular context, or for that particular moment, or maybe even just to portray a particular role in society, whatever I was doing. And I always thought I can change my mind the very next minute.

So I think in my personal relationships is where it felt most obvious. Because I felt that way, and I say this all the time, that tomorrow I could be out of a relationship if I happen to be in a relationship.

I make a decision to be whoever I am, or whatever role that I have, every day. I make a decision to keep my job every day, I feel like I could quit every day. Same thing with relationships, same thing with everything that I participate in. I think I can move tomorrow. I'm [constantly] deciding these things. It's not something that's rigid or solid and I think that really scares people when they're in a relationship with me because it doesn't seem secure.

It Can Unmoor You

"You never stop questioning who you are and therefore how you would empathize or step into someone else's shoes. So it can be a relentless work of knowing yourself, getting out of your own way, knowing your flaws, knowing your weaknesses, knowing your strengths, and it's so much self-reflection. [The characters you play] definitely expand your worldview -- if you're smart…and it can unmoor you, slightly, because you find it easier, perhaps, to imagine what someone else would do than what you might do." 

~ Lauren Graham, from her conversation with Leonard Lopate (5/14/13)about her new novel, Someday, Someday, Maybe

Would You Treat Them Differently?

If you could stand in someone else's shoes... Hear what they hear. See what they see. Feel what they feel. Would you treat them differently?

This is an effective reminder of how little we actually know about the people we peripherally encounter in our lives. It resonates with the consistent indifference I experienced when navigating the medical system after I broke my shoulder. The shortcoming of this strategy is that it implies that we would all soften our hearts if we really knew the specific details about what others are going through. But what if we can't know? What if there isn't a drama driving the disinterest? What if the grouchy person you encounter is simply bored or even a bully? 

What if we take this recommended approach a step further? Instead of needing to discover or create a backstory in order for us to erode these social and emotional walls, what if we simply remind ourselves that we can never truly know the subjective experience of another person and that regardless of what we're able to observe on the surface, we're all driven by the deep desire to be safe, happy, healthy, and comfortable.

From this perspective, we reduce the risk of accidently tipping over into pity and comparison. It's easy to shift from feeling sorry for ourselves into feeling sorry for someone else. This approach comes with a side of guilt as we feel badly for feeling bad when we discover someone who is worse off than us. It can be powerful to feel our own feelings while also acknowledging that others are busy feeling theirswhich have nothing to do with us. 

There is some liberation in not having to crack the code of other people. Each encounter with a stranger provide an opportunity to gain a bit of intimacy with how our own thoughts and feelings mingle together to create tiny fictional portraits. We have an impressive ability to project our fears and insecurities onto the canvas of strangers. And when these impression resonate—look out. We assume they are true and act accordingly. 

Intimacy with our thoughts and feelings means simply becoming more aware that the suffering we imagine others to be going throughor the evaluations of their actions at allis a little "reality show" that we produce from a private, mostly subconscious palette of emotionally-flavored sensations in our own bodies along with the verbal and visual details percolating in our minds. 

Of course, the approach I'm describing would be nearly impossible to communicate with an emotionally moving video. This is one of the challenges of sharing attentional fitness techniques. In order to illustrate them in action, we are forced to use specific examples. But any example we use carries an emotional valence. What we're really trying to communicate is the cultivation of an ability to emphasize the composition of experience in contrast to the default preoccupation we have with the narrative content—especially our evaluation or interpretation of the content. 

In this approach, the situation of the other doesn't matter. We try to relinquish the requirement of a valid story before considering our common humanity. In this way, we are trying to develop an empathy that is not dependent on a set of conditions. This might sound like indiffierence, but it feels paradoxically like a much more generous and honest version of empathy. One that isn't so fragile that it instantly collapses when in our personal opinion, the backstory doesn't justify the behavior. 

How would we treat each other if we accepted that we don't have access to every backstory and that we're all driven by the same basic desires regardless of the obervable evidence?