Field Notes

EMPATHY: MISSING IN ACTION!

March 31, 2024 - 0 Comments

 

Dr. Avraham Cohen’s Field Notes

April 1, 2024

EMPATHY:

MISSING IN ACTION!

Hello! Welcome to my Field Note for April 1, 2024. The title of this Field Note is

Empathy: Missing in Action!

 

 

 

Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.

-Barak Obama

 

If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

 

– Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

 

When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world  opens up to you.

Susan Sarandon

Audio of the Field Note:

According to Jeremy Rifkin, economic and social theorist, writer, and public speaker, a new civilization is emerging: The Empathic Civilization (this is the book title of one of his 21 bestselling books). It may be so, and I hope so. But looking all around me, I don’t see any strong evidence that we as members of the current civilization are doing very well, in terms of practising empathy. If we were doing well, there would not be hundreds and thousands of people being killed in armed conflict and wars around the world today. There would not be so many abused and exploited children, women, men, various marginalized groups, animals, and the entirety of the eco-system.

 

I am not contesting Rifkin’s thought and vision that an empathic civilization is emerging. I hope so, and my ardent wish is that we could learn to be more empathic and facilitate the emergence of a civilization that values, understands, and practices empathy.  Hence this month’s Field Note.

 

While most everybody seems to be familiar with the word ‘empathy,’ I would say that an understanding that encompasses depth and breadth of empathy, and even knowing how to recognize and activate this human ability meaningfully, is neither ample nor thick enough. In this Field Note I will explore with you some ideas about empathy, and building on that, a way of practicing empathy.

 

A little research turns up the information that the word, empathy, is just over 100 years old and that the meaning has gone through an evolutionary and developmental process. This fact does not mean that no one was empathic 100 years ago or before! In today’s techno-terminology, empathy seems to be “hard-wired” in us: at least its capacity is. This makes total sense: humans are social animals. Our survival depends on each other. Knowing each other’s minds and communicating with each other in ways that promote each other’s flourishing would be advantageous for survival. However, capacity is not the same as developed ability. Empathy as developed ability needs to be activated, learned, and cultivated.

 

Empathy in essence is knowing another’s mind: not as a mind-reader but as in the ability to have an accurate sense of another person’s experience. Apparently, we are neurobiologically primed to know what another is experiencing: from having “mirror neurons” that can actively reflect what another person is experiencing in the moment. There has been a lot of research done on mirror neurons. There is some dispute as to whether mirror neurons actually exist but whatever explanation is offered, there Is an important reality about and effect from having knowledge of another’s experience.

 

Now, some real mirrors distort the images that they reflect. There could be manufacturing defects to the mirror; or some mirrors to be deliberately designed to distort the reflected images. With human beings, it is fair to say that this “distortion” in reading another’s mind happens all the time. For instance, I can get so caught up in what the other person tells me and shows me. I may lose track of myself and the connection between me, the other person, and the feeling and overall experience that the other person has. In the same vein, I can be manipulated by the other person who, noticing my being ‘consumed by their experience’,” begins to lead me around to where they want me to go, without my knowing or consenting.

 

I would say that the more accurate and comprehensive empathy involves sensing: your sensing what the other person must be feeling, thinking, sensing, and a general states of consciousness they are in. I will add to this, as well as the overall impact of whatever has affected them, and having in the moment flexibility that allows them to shift their sense of knowing based on the feedback that appears and that you hear from them. A person who has this refined ability will be able to understand the other’s experience, which will give them a huge possibility of knowing how to connect, facilitate, and maintain the connection with another and which may actually mean knowing just how to be with them while they are experiencing what they are experiencing.

 

How much of another’s experience you can ‘know’ is a matter of practice, and also activated curiosity, or to put it another way, to ‘see’ it from the other end of the spectrum, deadened curiosity, which is also strongly aligned with the developmental stage at which your own empathy abilities may have been blocked or derailed, assuming that this ‘interference’ took place early and sufficiently consistently in your life. At this point I think a small outline of the human developmental process and how it can be best facilitated in terms of empathy ability, how it can be reinitiated from the edge at which it was originally stopped/blocked, how to grow this human ability over the life-span, how to make very good use of this feeling state with others, and how to communicate empathy in the most optimal ways to facilitate growth and connection

 

Human Developmental Process

According to research that is based on close observations of infants and small children, and also based on my own ideas and observations, the biggest blocks to development of empathy are a lack of encouragement to actually feel feelings and body sensations, and assurance that feelings, thoughts, and emotions are okay to have and are part of being a human being. Along with such discouragement is also a lack of modelling about how to feel and communicate one’s experiences in the inner and relational worlds.

 

Parents and other central caregivers are children’s “first teachers.” Hence, a crucial aspect for empathy “teaching” is a parent’s ability to feel, to be conscious as to what they are feeling, and to communicate this to their children. Ideally, a child grows up in an environment where this is demonstrated in a natural, flexible, and fluid way by the adults who themselves are involved in a close and intimate and feeling relationship with each other. I can imagine many of you are saying to yourself at this moment something like: “I am not really too sure I have seen such parents!”

 

Of course, ideals are hard, if not impossible, to realize, especially when the world conditions are such that they seriously impede movement towards such an ideal. For centuries and millennia, humanity has mostly not been practising empathy and have not been encouraging each other to freely share their thoughts and feelings in depth and breadth, and with clear values of sensitivity, authenticity, and honesty. Cause or result: the more discouraged we are to share what is really in our minds and to practice empathy, the less safe we feel in the world.

 

Many parents did not have parents who were ‘educated’ or ‘brought up’ to hold these values and to practice these feeling expressions. They lived in a culture that does not identify the development of empathy capacities as critically important. Our culture educates for a social/cultural goal that is for the most part about the prioritization of the so-called success-oriented abilities, such as getting a good job, being good at work, making lots of money, and the like. In the hopes of meeting such goals as core life-values. we see membership in the ‘club’ where everyone shouts: ‘I’m busy,’ and ‘I just need to get organized to get all these things done,’ and ‘I aspire to be in a better club,’ and so on and so forth. As John Taylor Gatto said so well, we have become  “human doings,” and not  “human beings.”

 

All Begins with Awareness

To feel means to be in touch with the associated sensations and an ability to attend to these sensations and, most importantly, with conscious awareness. For example, if I am angry, I feel a hot feeling in my torso, and particularly in my chest area. I feel warm, even hot in my whole body. If I am able to be conscious about the feeling, then I am not afraid about what I might do, and I can even enjoy the feeling. Such feeling is powered by vital energy, also know as life force. There is no danger with the possession of this power, and it does lead to a further question. “How do I develop my capacity for empathy?  And what do I then do with this capacity?”  Maybe I need to explore another important question that might float through my mind: “Do I really want to feel empathy for others? There is so much pain and suffering in the world. Maybe it would be better to be a little numb to the experience of others!”

 

Initially, it is important to notice and work with your tendencies to react to and even to ignore important signals from another person. This is your own awareness training. Here is an example: My friend is crying and telling me about someone who he or she feels has treated them badly. I may have an initial tendency to say words of sympathy, or words intended to help them think more clearly about this event. I may also notice my own tendency to remember some similar event in my life.  I may even have the tendency to attempt to cheer them up. Or maybe I just feel my discomfort, fear, or hurt. All these tendencies can result in helpful outcomes. However, it is not helpful to them or to me, if I get lost any of these possibilities, meaning that I don’t hold these possibilities as possibilities, rather it is fair to say at that point I am held in a tight grip that is characterized by unconsciousness; my awareness has gone to sleep. When I hold possibilities that are generated within me, however accurate these may be, as reality, I will be lost in them. Then I risk projecting my own thoughts onto others, and shoving them into my own box of thoughts, perceptions, and feelings. At this point, i am not likely to be capable of checking in with them to see if what I am thinking and feeling about them is accurate or not.

 

Empathy Cultivation

Place yourself in the other’s position. What are they experiencing as they share their story? Allow yourself to “become” them for a moment to better understand what their experience might be like. Notice what you are feeling and thinking. You can practice this by taking advantage of opportunities as they appear with anyone, anytime, anywhere, and learning to feel and “see” your own experience in the presence of another. This learning is best facilitated by imagining yourself as them and eventually increasingly feeling yourself as them, and developing your ability to ‘know’ their experience, and using this to further the process for yourself, for them, and for the connection between each of you. As I mentioned at the beginning, when I look at the conditions in the world currently, I see that lack of feeling for another is evident in all the major conflicts that we are witnessing in the world. I don’t say this as a chastisement or a ‘should’; rather, as a reminder that empathy has a large part to play in all our relationships and for us particularly, in our closest relationships.

 

Closest relationships are often the hardest to feel empathy within. Perhaps the next time you find yourself apparently behind some barrier with someone who is important to you, maybe, just maybe, you will have a small memory tweak that suggests that you put yourself in their place to better understand them, yourself, and what is going on between the two of you. It is possible that the small changes in your personal world will have a little bit of radiating effect for others. Even if that doesn’t seem to happen, maybe you will just feel a little better yourself.

 

A Mini-Demo of Empathy and Its Applications in Life

This is an actual experience I had this year in my life. As some of you may know, I have experienced some compromise of my hearing, as I have moved along in years. It runs in my family on the ‘Cohen’ side, and this is relevant to the event I will share with you.

 

I am walking east on second avenue near our home. I am listening to a podcast as I walk. Not necessarily the smartest idea for someone with a hearing issue. I am feeling good, and I am fascinated with the podcast. Suddenly a man on a sit-down bike goes by on my left side at a fair speed. He passes within about 30 cms of me. He does not hit me. I am startled and have a thought that, if for some reason, I had turned left towards the center of the sidewalk, at the moment he was almost beside me, the chances for a potentially serious collision would have been high. He continues on and I see that not too far ahead he has come to a stop and is preparing to lock his ‘vehicle’ to a parking meter. I decide to stop and say something to him about what took place.

 

I notice he seems very absorbed in his locking up activity.

Avi: Hello!

 

He does not look up or acknowledge me in any way. I feel myself tighten up a little. I am not in a place of even considering his experience. I proceed to tell him my experience of his proximity to me at some speed as he went by me.

 

Avi: I did not hear you coming, and I could have easily turned into your path without warning at just the instant when you arrived.

 

He does not look up and perseveres with his locking activity, and he does not speak. I decied to repeat a bit of what I have said already and add some explanatory details. (You may already be guessing how this went!)

 

Biker (with a harsh tone): F❋❋❋ you!!

I feel a physiological shift in my inner world located in my chest; a loosening and relaxing. I back up a couple of steps. I shift in a flash to ‘being.’ I can feel the intensity and the anger that seems to be within him. I realize I have no idea what is bothering him, but it is almost certainly more than my comments to him.

 

 Avi: I am sorry that you are having a bad day. I hope you will feel better.

 

I am now turning to walk away.

 

Avi: “I hope you will give some thought to what I have said for your own safety and the safety of other.

He still does not look up and says nothing.

 

My immediate shift to putting myself in his place is the outcome of much practice, and for sure this is easier to do with a stranger where there is no history and no prior knowledge such as there would be with an intimate. The key is to remember, and to practice the shift to awareness and the lack of captivation by pre-programmed reactivity.

Some Fine Points

Distinguish between thoughts, concepts, theories about a circumstance. It’s fine to have an idea about a person or event. It is equally important to notice these cognitions and also to notice the associated feelings.

 

If you are ‘drowning’ in a feeling—that is, it has you as opposed to you having it; feelings such as guilt, shame, anger, hurt, rage, and so on, practice distinguishing between actions to rid yourself, or ‘defeat,’ or control the feeling, and the actual feeling itself. You can do the latter by working on activating your awareness, the part of you that notices the feeling and is able to ‘study’ the feeling. Initially you can work with surrendering to the feeling rather than fighting with it. This gives you opportunity to eventually have the feeling, and not be had by it. This ‘action’ is, as many of you will know, a core part of mindfulness practice. I recommend that you recall that this awareness is a beginning point, not an end point.

 

I will leave this Note here for now and with the hope that you will find this of interest and value. If you have read previous Field Notes, you probably would know that there is more to do to facilitate a deeper, and ongoing growth and development for yourself. I encourage you to leave your questions and comments for me and for the benefit of others who are likely having similar experience to your own.

 

As always, many thanks to Heesoon for her most skilful help with this Note.

 

And for your further enlightenment possibilities, I am looking at having some guest Field Note authors in the future, particularly at times when I am on a break.

 

Shalom to you all,

 

Avraham

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