“Perhaps the most important thing we bring to another person is the silence in us, not the sort of silence that is filled with unspoken criticism or hard withdrawal. It is the sort of silence that is a place of refuge, of rest, of acceptance of someone as they are. We are all hungry for this other silence. It is hard to find. In its presence we can remember something beyond the moment, a strength on which to build a life. Silence is a place of great power and healing.” – Rachel Naomi Remen
We are all hungry to be heard and understood. But, we often get criticism and negativity from loved ones, friends, and coworkers who are unable to empathize with what we feel and say, because their ego is unable to stay silent long enough to listen.
It’s hard to find people who know how to be a sanctuary of silence, for you. But, you know it when you find it. Your whole being relaxes; you feel safe and open, because you are in the presence of a person who really wants to know YOU, what you think, feel and believe.
But, perhaps, even harder than finding people who allow you to be you without criticism and negativity is being able to provide it to other people. You have to be able to put yourself aside to appreciate others’ point of view. But, doing this isn’t an easy thing to do, especially when you don’t agree with what you are hearing. You may have the capacity for empathy, but are so caught up in your own thoughts, ideas and problems that it is hard to focus your attention outside of yourself. Or, you have a developmental incapacity to appreciate others’ feelings and viewpoints—an underlying narcissistic order borderline personality style.
Each of you is born with the capacity to empathize with the suffering of others, to feel other people’s pain. In fact, empathy begins, as a fight-or-flight response to threat that allows you to sense if a person is a friend or foe. Over time, empathy grows from a sense of threat to an appreciation of people’s feelings, sufferings, and state of mind. Hence, empathy becomes the way we connect to people on an intimate level.
Additionally, empathy helps you to see that beneath our racial, cultural, and religious differences we are one, striving to be understood, to relate, and to have our worlds known by each other.
Empathy: Birds, Bees, and Even Mice Do It!
You can learn much about empathy through animal behavior. Empathic behavior has long been observed in apes and monkeys, and described by many owners of pets, especially of dogs. Although, that’s no surprise to animal lovers.
But, primates aren’t the only ones with feelings. It seems that mice have feelings too. According to neurobiologist Peggy Mason and her team of researchers, mice can detect and feel their cage-mate’s pain. Upon hearing the cries of their cage mates confined to a restrainer, the free mice focused their attention on releasing them. But, their empathy didn’t stop there. The mice left their newly freed friends a paw-full of chocolate chips, to eat upon their release.
Researchers called this empathic response in mice “emotional contagion”; a situation in which one animal’s stress leads to stress in another and activates what psychologists call “pro-social behavior”. The researchers concluded that what they were seeing was empathy; selfless behavior driven by the experience of another.
Research on mirror neurons helps us to better understand how distress in one creature can activate distress in another and lead to helping behavior. We are hard-wired with mirror motor neurons that allow us to experience other people’s pain simply by seeing them in distress. Their pain is mirrored in our bodies at a deep sensory level. This is why you shrink back or cringe when you see, for example, a person roller skate into a wall, fall off a bike, or get hit in the head with a baseball bat. Ouch! Why do you think so many commercials today show you people getting punched in the face or running into walls? They want you to feel their pain, so that you are more apt to buy what the commercial is selling. “I feel your pain” takes on a whole new meaning to you now, right?
Hence, empathy, at first, involves recognition of other creature’s pain at a body level. It seems so simple. You see another creature in distress; his distress is contagious; you help. Perhaps, it is easy for mice, but not so much for us. Because we develop ideas, beliefs, and values (identity) that can get in the way of our natural response to people’s suffering and pain.
I recall a time in my early twenties that speaks to this. I saw that a well-known Monk would be speaking at a local event. I didn’t know what to expect, as I had never attended something like this before. But, I let my intuition guide me and decided to attend. The Monk was already in the room when we started to arrive that evening. I was noticeably different than the other attendees who were older than me, of the intellectual, academic type, and dressed in hippie-style clothing. Everyone sat down in a lotus-meditative posture encircling the wise Monk. Then, he spoke. “What do you do when you see a person who is hungry?” He began to scan the room, searching for a response to his question. Then, his eyes landed on me. “I’d feed him,” I said to myself silently. I couldn’t believe this was right. That is too simple an answer, to be right. There were so many learned people in this room, I thought; this has to be a trick question. Then, I nervously blurted out, “Don’t feed him“. He smiled and chuckled a bit. “Feed him“, I blurted out. He smiled so kindly to me and nodded yes.
My youthful insecurity had led me to distrust my natural inner wisdom, that day. The Monk was essentially saying, be like mice. Put aside your learning (the ego) and open yourself fully to the need of others. Don’t be afraid; let another person’s suffering spread through you. Herein lies compassionate understanding and action.
Can You Strengthen The Empathy Muscle?
Yes! The brain is flexible. You can rewire and strengthen its connections, to set new learning into place. It just takes practice. Even a narcissistic or borderline personality can learn to empathize with other people, with enough practice. Although, admittedly, this can take a lot of effort and time.
In large part, empathy is a matter of awareness. By putting conscious effort into setting aside fixed beliefs and values, empathic responding stands a chance. You have to turn your focus outward, in order to activate your mirror neurons, so that you can feel people’s pain. Then, as your awareness increases, you begin to move beyond merely mimicking the pain of others, solely, at a physical level. You start to mirror internal states, which is the gateway to empathy (Dan Siegel). Unlike mice, our higher level brain functions allow us to set aside our emotions, so that we can mirror other people’s inner worlds accurately (Columbia University Researchers).
There are mindfulness practices that teach you how to notice a wide range of thoughts and feelings that rise from inside of you, so that you can learn how to set them aside in service of empathic responding. Now, you can notice when your neurons are mirroring another person’s suffering, and through mindfulness, stay focused on this empathic awareness, without having your ego circumvent the process.
Unfortunately, many people act out of unawareness. They let predetermined scripts for what certain experiences mean guide what they think they see and hear. Then, they regurgitate understandings that come out of these automatic thinking scripts. This leads to inaccurate perceptions and understandings, and frustrated social interactions. Empathic responding doesn’t stand a chance, here.
Mindfulness is the way to strengthen the empathy muscle.
Feeling other people’s pain doesn’t mean you have become them, or drop what you believe or value. Empathy is simply a bridge to understanding and respecting our differences. By becoming more deeply aware of the way your mind works, you can exercise greater control over it (Become Mindful). You can choose to be less self-absorbed and more open and empathic to people. Just put your ego aside and let the mirror neurons start to work for you.
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