Archive for the 'empathetic experience' Category

Taking something back, or sharing?

March 19, 2014

There’s this spiritual story about an adolescent who really feels strongly that a grown man has stolen from her her jewels.  He feels equally convinced she has robbed him of something equally valuable, namely, something required to maintain his stature and status in the community.

So how to restore equilibrium?

There’s an attempt, which doesn’t succeed, in which he returns something and she returns something, but they both accuse the other of returning a false approximation of what was stolen.

There are attempts at partial returns, there are empty promises, there are claims nothing was stolen — lots of adversarial attempts to restore without actually completely participating.

In the meantime, they are each using some “ill-gotten gain” from the other to try to maintain themselves.  They each end up in situations in which they are ill-equipped in some way, and this does not serve the greater good, either.

A lot of the trouble reconciling was probably a trust issue — “If I give to you, will you really give to me or will it just be throwing good money after bad, as they say?”

So here’s how it got resolved:  they both were agreeable with sharing with a disinterested third party, and through something like the mathematical transitive principle or something like a concept of mixing cooking ingredients, eventually they both ended up with a portion of what they felt they were missing.  What they shared with the intermediary included the “stolen good,” and through sharing with the intermediary, they had access again to what they considered the good stolen by the other.

Footnote:  disinterested third party did not have an easy time of it, as they were often treated as if they were actually the other person in the dispute.

How it feels from different perspectives

January 4, 2014

My “day job” interfered with my responding to some of the replies I got to my comment on how people without faith sometimes deride the perspective of people who do have faith, which I wrote in response to Charles Blow’s column today.

I can see from other people’s perspectives.  Being capable of having empathetic experiences is a gift, but it also comes with its difficulties.  One of them is keeping one’s bearings while experiencing another’s perspective.  I would say the most challenging instance of this is when the other person has no religious faith — I experience the world as they do, and it is quite flat — quite flattened in comparison with what I usually see.  I have learned that I just (!) need to be aware that I am (temporarily) seeing the world as somebody without faith sees it.  Eventually their perspective dissipates for me, and I go back to my usual perspective.  Similar to what happens when I am having an empathetic experience with a shopkeeper trying to sell me something — I can see it their way, temporarily, too;  there, I have learned not to make decisions while that is going on.  (This may sound similar to good shopping habits for everybody, and to some extent it is.)

So, I can see the world both with faith and without.

If I lose my bearings, though, I “lose my legs”  — like a dancer who forgets to “spot” when she executes turns.

Holding two perspectives

December 29, 2013

Last night my cousin let me know his perspective on my putting a statue of the Buddha in my home.  Not only could I read his words and understand their content, but after I replied to his comment, I could actually see how the statue could look like an idol.

I can’t know whether what I perceived was actually what my cousin sees, but it certainly was a version of seeing the statue as an idol and not seeing the statue as I usually do.

I was reading Father Rohr’s Daily Meditation for today, about holding in tension what we know and what we don’t.

For me, a big lesson and challenge has been to recognize what is my perspective and what is someone else’s, instead of just getting swamped by someone else’s, which I am perfectly capable of doing, just as we are somewhat susceptible to effective sales techniques even when we don’t realize it.  And that’s just it; just as savvy shoppers are aware of advertizing manipulation or sales associates’ techniques, I can become aware of when I am picking up someone else’s perspective.

For me, in my context, what can be difficult is when the other person is completely dismissive of my own point of view, when there is no room in their perspective for mine.  It can happen when I interact with people who hold their atheism strongly, for example, or even with people who judge my family members or my life in strongly negative terms.  It can leave me, in a way, gasping for air; maybe it’s like a guitar player hearing from someone that a guitar is just a wooden box with strings with which they are making noise.

But there is something helpful about this experience.  It shows me how a perspective is just that, a perspective, my own included.  That helps me with detachment and with understanding our world and how we see it.

But with all due respect to feedback from others and from visiting their perspectives, in the end I have to find the view that supports my greatest good, not adopt one that suits somebody else out of people-pleasing or trying to reach some other social goal.

So I go back to seeing my statue as an encouraging reminder of how, while we may go from dust to dust, we also go from enlightenment to enlightenment — we have been enlightened before, we will be so again.  And that is a source of joy, that we can be reborn into that consciousness.  This stream of thought for me gets collapsed into just being thrilled when I see my Buddha statue.  I don’t see it as an idol but as a concrete reminder of an ethereal process in which we each can become a buddha.

I come by my joy not easily, whether that’s intrinsic to me or a result of my experiences.  But when I do encounter joy, the deep, child-like kind, it feels like a blessing.  And part of the ability to encounter it seems to come from having found the perspective that allows me access to it, so I am not in a hurry to give that up in favor of the perspective that allows someone else access to it.  It’s not de gustibus non disputandum est (tastes cannot be argued about) exactly, but that is the phrase that keeps bubbling up in my mind, and I think the concept is something similar.

Regional office

October 25, 2012

I was on my way back from taking a walk in the woods yesterday, in the late afternoon, and I took a turn down a street I don’t usually walk on and ended up at Mass. Ave. at the Lexington town line.  I turned east to go home, and I found myself passing a regional Democratic Party campaign office.  I stopped in for campaign buttons to wear and the volunteer asked me about volunteering.  I had an interesting emotional experience that I don’t connect with my own usual ways of interacting.  I couldn’t bring myself to be forthright about how much of my time and energy I was willing to contribute.  I didn’t lie but I didn’t give the response in my heart, I gave socially acceptable superficial responses.

In this context I don’t think it’s a particularly damaging behavior to have engaged in, but I suspect other people do it in personal interactions in which it is.  It gave me a window into how other people may be feeling on the inside when they politely make excuses on the outside.  I have to say it made me acutely uncomfortable, like wearing in public an outfit meant for a teenager.  For people who do it without discomfort, I want to say, “Honey, you’ve drifted way off course.”  I suspect they are not even aware of it.  But since I can’t change other people, I am grateful to have had an experience of what they may be experiencing so that I can at least understand it.

What I see is a very large need to be thought well of, one that overrides judgment, and that the persona whom the person wants to be thought well of is very different from the person within.  When that difference is exposed to others, it’s actually more damaging than having used the true inner person and their preferences to begin with.  I think in the end, everybody is more damaged by the fallout when the disjunction between external behavior and internal position is exposed, not to mention the ongoing damage to the person from living with the disconnect.

More on floating

October 19, 2012

I was driving home from somewhere recently and saw a hawk floating high up in the sky, having one of those moments when it looks motionless but easily aloft.  I thought, “Maybe that’s why I’m so taken with hawks, I am trying to figure out how to float (metaphorically).  How to hover easily above or in or otherwise with regard to the moment.”

For me, having a sense of how to arrange my mind to do that has not come through someone telling me about it; that may have set the stage, but actually “getting” what the note sounds like (to mix the metaphor) has come through what has felt like an empathetic experience with someone who has the skill or well-developed ability already.

When my mother was working with me to overcome my mispronunciation of Ks and hard Cs and hard Gs when I was about five or six, I didn’t get for a long time what I was doing differently.  Suddenly I realized it was where in my mouth or throat the motions or contractions or whatever were being done — in the floor or back of my mouth, not behind my teeth as I had been doing.  With this floating and not pressuring the moment it’s a similar issue of figuring out what it entails.

The other day I was waiting in my son’s dentist’s waiting room and there was a baby in a caregiver’s arms (my son thought she was a nanny) drinking a bottle and falling asleep.  I got this really peaceful feeling inside myself and starting feeling sleepy, too.  It was quite lovely.

It was similar when I shared the feeling of floating through a same sort of vicarious experience of someone else’s experience.  The other person may have learned to do this floating through prayer and meditation, I don’t know.  I do know that what was encumbering me was basically anxiety and its sequelae.  But anxiety can be a mindset that seems real, that crowds out all other, non-anxious ways of interfacing with the world.  So changing it through wanting to doesn’t always work, I think, whereas having a “pace car” of somebody else’s floating can.

That’s I think what I did.  Not that I’m doing my own floating continously and wonderfully now, but at least I know what it feels like.  I wrote before about how for me it helps to think about not applying so much pressure to the moment itself and letting the natural rhythm of the situation establish the beat for me to follow.  Having experienced the experience, I can practice it myself, kind of re-find the note to sing after having heard it, and matched it, from somebody else’s pitch pipe.  (Well, at least the last couple of metaphors were both musical, even if I am mixing them.)

I am extremely grateful to whoever shared with me their floating.  I don’t know whether that happens as a gift or an exchange; if the latter, I hope they got back something equally helpful from me, although I’m not sure what that would be.  (Maybe I helped someone else similarly and this is part of a bigger and more complicated system?)  If the former, that too is an ability I would like to develop.

I suspect my recent extra-awareness of things that float, like islands and hawks, is related to my working on learning to float myself.


April 23, 2012

Yesterday I had a bunch of not very remarkable things to do, including mowing the lawn.

I still needed a walk, though, because a walk airs out my brain in a way lawn mowing doesn’t.  I had decided to walk down to Menotomy Rocks Park, which is probably about a mile east of me.  I had never walked there before — we used to drive down with the dog so he could frolic with some canine playmates.  I had learned last week that a young woman, a teenager of 16, had killed herself in the pond there, on Patriot’s Day, I think.  Jordan hadn’t known her, although some friends of friends of his had.  I felt I should go down there.

It was a beautiful walk down, down Gray Street.  So many flowers and ornamental trees in bloom.  The park wasn’t particularly crowded, and I quickly noticed a memorial area at some stone steps going down to the water’s edge.  There were some candle stubs, a photo, some origami-type things hanging in tree branches, and flowers.  I sat down on the steps.

What happened next was an example of one of things I do.  I took on the emotions I encountered there, I felt them as my own, I processed them, I kept company with their bearer(s).  I did my best to understand what else might be needed and prayed for help with that.  When I felt things were arranged sufficiently, I got up and continued walking around the pond.  It was so fragilely beautiful, a dragonfly, some birds, new cattails, the first leaves unfurling.  I ran into some neighbors of mine with their little dog, and we chatted briefly.

As I left to go home, I realized that I had had no clear idea of being called to the pond to “do” something, I only developed the thought to take my walk there.  When I got there and saw the memorial and sat down and felt what I felt, I did what I do, and in retrospect I can understand it as my having been summoned there to do that.  All I did in the first place was to listen to what I could hear.  Doing that was enough to lead me to the next step, and that step to the next, and so on.

That’s how “listening” works for me most of the time: I hear a piece and I follow it without really knowing what it will lead to.  Once I have gone through the episode, I can see what it was about pretty much, but prospectively I don’t.

For me, listening involves faith, the faith involved with taking a step I may not fully understand.  It also for me includes relief, the gratitude that I don’t have to understand it in order to do it.  I just need willingness, and enough ability to listen to hear the first step.

A way empathy helps the empathizer

February 14, 2012

I was thinking just now about someone I used to know years ago, and about how I see how things fell apart.  I’m pretty sure now that he took why I did what I did differently from how I thought about it, and I think he underestimated how his behavior impacted me before I left.  What occurred to me suddenly is that if he lacks a way of understanding how other people may feel as a result of his own behavior, then he is missing information to help him understand their responses to him.  Which then produces more misunderstandings and supports an inaccurate model for predicting behavior, too.  So, while empathy may be painful in some ways, in the long run it is probably a benefit, the way feeling pain is when touching a hot stove.

The components of “empathy”

December 28, 2011

I have the impression that I am not au courant with what people mean when they use the word “empathy,” so I may be examining here something that should be given a different label, but it is, at the very least, the point of departure for my thinking.

I think about this subject as an adult in part because I have finally figured out that one of the reasons I often find myself in difficult relationships is that I was taught to regard people without empathy as no different from people with empathy — both sets were to be treated the same and as normal, even if in fact the dynamics of the relationships with each set bore no resemblance to each other.  So, I have had unrealistic expectations of long-standing about people.

On top of this, the people without empathy and who also had other issues behaved in ways that I found damaging to me, and this subset of people without empathy has loomed larger in my life than the subset of people without empathy who would be aghast to discover they had inadvertently caused damage or harm.  So, I have probably developed an aversion to dealing with people who have difficulty with empathy, and I know I have a developed coping mechanisms to deal with one subset of them that may actually not be appropriate for dealing with other subsets of them, only I’m too tired of incurring the damage that seems to come with interacting enough to find out to which group a person belongs, especially since for me the type who persist in damage even when given feedback have predominated in my life (this type I think is often labeled “narcissistic” or something similar).  I tend to cut and run when it looks to me as if the pattern is repeating with a new person.

But I am wondering whether for people who have trouble with empathy but really would like to behave more like people who have it, it is worth my while to try to figure out what happens when the relationship seems to founder over a lack of empathy, and how that might be helped.

The NYTimes articles on the couple with Asperger’s trying to negotiate a romantic relationship and one on Mitt Romney’s awkward conversational gambits have led me to try to tease apart a number of the strands that seem to be involved.

If Person A steps into the shoes of Person B, all that really has to mean, I suppose, is that they have picked up some information, not what emotional aura they may have cloaked it with.  It is quite possible that most of us empathizers immediately jump to a common emotional cloak for the same information: Person B is distraught, therefore I feel a certain way about them, out of which arises my desire to comfort them, which I can then can go about doing with one of the behaviors I am familiar with that accomplishes that goal.  If Person A (the “I” here) does this almost instantaneously, the whole thing may get labeled an empathetic response.

But the information that the distress exists is actually separate from the other pieces (and of course reading the distress in the first place is a whole other kettle of fish).  A person could have trouble with attaching emotional aura and thence consequent response to their perception of the other person’s distress (including helpful behavioral strategies for reaching a goal of resolution).  They could need a point by point road map for what for others is almost an intuitive linear route from perception to behavior.  I’ve known people who have required me to explain exactly how their body weight squishing my arm at an angle against the couch hurts before they can figure out to reconfigure what they’re doing (with the dogs, I think “Move” was the operative command, with more intuitive people, “Ouch” would suffice).

So, I guess I’m wondering with people who are said to “lack empathy,” which of these components are compromised.  And then there’s what to do about it.  Because it can be hard for me to step into their shoes to figure out their view of me — how do I figure out what their reaction to me should be and then explain that to them in little increments?  I’ve had people ask me to do that very thing, but those people have, at least in the past, all been people who would not use that information to behave any differently in the future or even then — for them, it turned out to be just a way to learn what behaviors to fake in the future, and so I eventually refused (not just to continue supplying information, but to continue interacting with them).  But if I had the impression that explaining more, even if it’s just from my point of view, would actually help the relationship proceed in a way helpful to both them and me, I would probably try it again and continue it for longer.  Although at this point in my life it would take a huge leap of faith in the face of many attempts at this that turned out to be futile — being able to parse the other person’s good will unequivocally would probably be a big help to me.

Empathy with animals

December 26, 2011

I am trying to figure out how to harmonize the claim in one part of the NYTimes front page article about “people with Asperger’s” that “People with autism, Dr. Grandin suggested, can more easily put themselves in the shoes of an animal than in those of another person because of their sensory-oriented and visual thought process,” with the last part of the piece, in which the protagonists are requiring a cat to chase a laser beam and wondering about whether it is smart enough to recognize its reflection in a mirror.  I don’t see the behavior as consistent with “put[ting] themselves in the shoes of an animal,” let alone having an increased facility for doing so.  Dr. Grandin’s fascination with cow slaughtering I have never understood, either, for that matter.  These kinds of apparent inconsistencies leave me with the impression that we have no idea what we are trying to map, and we exchange one set of biases and inaccurate model for another.  Maybe eventually we will have a more objective understanding of what the symptoms we can observe arise out of, of the rest of the iceberg beneath the water, so to speak.


December 1, 2011

I was reading what the NYTimes is calling “Pinkerisms,” and my reaction is to listen to Neil Diamond’s song “Men Are So Easy” to remind myself to locate my compassion before I finalize my reaction.

I can’t say I know for certain that it really has anything to do with gender, but I do associate it with gender; maybe it’s an issue overrepresented among men.  There’s more to us than our “monkey minds,” a “language” more basic than verbal language.

This morning I discovered in the shower, in the sea sponge I’ve been using for quite some time, a tiny little shell buried inside.  I worked it out, it’s quite sweet.  I felt moved to put it with my little piece of meteorite, in one of its crevices.  A harmless but maybe eccentric thing to do.  But it allows me to tell the ending to a story that needed telling, and it represents for me an example of things I could never have understood had I insisted on trying to understand them through verbal language.

Shell creatures don’t have verbal language, nor do geese nor rabbits nor the earth itself.  We talk about horse whisperers, joke about squirrel whisperers, probably as pet owners acknowledge non-verbal communication with them.

Why is non-verbal communication important?  Well, maybe it was the normal currency for millennia, maybe it’s still a lingua franca in this world.  Why is it important for humans to be conscious participants in non-verbal communication?  For me, it is the way I happen to understand, and it allows me to help others with whom there is no other means of communication.  This could be a severely distressed adult, a disabled baby, someone who speaks another verbal language, someone who has no verbal language.  By translating their communication from a more basic mode of communication, I can do kind of what I think a talk therapist does — help bring the issue into the light of day, where it can be seen for what it is, re-framed and re-interpreted as necessary, stripped of it emotional tyranny by stripping it of emotional baggage.  The intellectual stratum that’s left is the pure “information” of the situation that produced the emotional response.  At higher levels of understanding, that’s all there is.  But to begin the process, one must start at the level of communication of emotion.

So, why not, “de gustibus non disputandum est,” or rather, de gustibus linguarum non disputandum est?  Because we need to use that more basic mode of communication more than we do if we are to improve our world.  We keep going off in a particular direction of control it, fix it, change the material world to suit our fears and desires, and we all agree to go down that path, congratulate one another for accomplishments along those lines, but ultimately it’s a dead end.

My saying so is not going to change much if anything.  Nor would my gussying up this blog or acceding to other people’s sense, so far, of what would help me.  It’s like the way people say work for peace, don’t wage a war to try to produce peace; if I were to go back to same-old, same-old, for sure nothing would change and I would feel I had wasted my opportunity to serve and what I have accomplished so far.  If all I can do is maintain what ground I have gained for another to use further, then that will have been my contribution.  If I can figure out a further way to develop the ground I have recovered, I’m open to it.