Jun 23, 2008
Anne Morrow Lindbergh: “If one is estranged from oneself, then one is estranged from others too. If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others…”
Lindbergh’s comment reminds me that being fully aware of others involves awareness of oneself. There’s nothing particularly mystical about this — it’s just a question of psychology and neurophysiology. And without this awareness of oneself, friendship is simply impossible.
On a psychological level, next time you’re interacting with someone, pay attention to what’s happening on a gut level. You’ll notice that there are sensations in the body, mostly focused on the abdomen, that arise in response to the other person. In Buddhist terminology these are vedanas, which are often translated as “feelings.” Vedanas are not emotions, but are a basic response to perceptions. These responses are traditionally categorized as pleasurable, uncomfortable, or neutral.
Have you ever had an intuition about another person? Perhaps you’ve suspected they’re not telling the truth, although you can’t quite say why. Or perhaps you’ve had a sense that there’s something wrong, even though the other person hasn’t said anything overtly to indicate that. What’s happening is that you’re noticing, although perhaps not very consciously, vedanas that are arising in response to your contact with that other person.
I dreamed that I went to visit him in hospital, and as I got close to his bedside he turned into a demon
At one time I was running a retreat center which was short-staffed. While I was on retreat elsewhere, I had a conversation with a very charming man who not only had all the qualifications and experience we needed, but who really wanted to move to a retreat center. I was really thrilled to have had such a chance encounter. That night, though, I dreamed that I went to visit him in hospital, and as I got close to his bedside he turned into a demon who grabbed hold of me and started twisting my limbs in all directions — much further than they could move in real life. I was completely helpless and worried that I was going to be severely injured. Needless to say, I woke up in a panic.
Unfortunately I ignored my instincts and we hired him. And my dream turned out to be remarkably prescient. He turned out to be a former drug addict with something of a split personality. Some days he was charming, kind, and thoughtful. Other days he was brooding, unreasonable, and cynical. You never knew whether you were going to meet Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. And life with him (or them) felt just like being grabbed by a demon who was twisting me around.
I’d ignored my intuition. Looking back I realize that I’d had a sense of unease right from the start. He’d been too charming. Something was a bit unreal about the way he interacted. I’d known that, but I’d ignored it. I’d ignored it because we we so desperate for staff. My subconscious had decided to step things up a gear and to make the message very clear in the form of a dream image — but then on retreat you can often have odd dreams, and a lot of my dream life featured demons at that time in my life.
Being out of touch with myself was a big mistake. Had I paid attention to my initial unacknowledged vedanas, which were whispering “there’s something wrong here — look deeper” I’d have saved myself, and others, from a lot of suffering.
In any given situation the mind is busy evaluating, on an unconscious level, what’s going on.
In any given situation the mind is busy evaluating, on an unconscious level, what’s going on. When you’re with another person you’re picking up on cues such as their tone of voice, the things they say (and don’t say), their posture, and even their breathing rate and the bloodflow to their facial skin. Research by Paul Ekman has also shown that we can pick up on what he calls “micro-expressions” — brief movements in the muscles on the face that reveal what’s going on inside, even if the other person is trying to disguise their true emotional state, and possibly even if they’re unaware of some of their emotions.
We can train ourselves to notice such things on a conscious level (and therapists and law-enforcement officers often do), but mostly we process all of this below the level of consciousness. While we’re busy concentrating on the actual content of a conversation there’s a whole world of activity going on below. It’s as if the conscious mind is the office of the CEO, up on the 20th floor, while down below there are another 19 floors of workers, busy collecting and processing information, having meetings to decide what’s important, and — where necessary — sending memos to the boss. Those memos are our vedanas, which might manifest as a feeling of unease, or discomfort, or frustration, or anxiety, or a feeling of pleasure, or a warm glow, or boredom.
And we may or may not pay attention to those feelings. Sometimes we’re so caught up in rational thought that we don’t pay attention to the messages from below. Sometimes we’ve even developed a habit of ignoring the body and its feelings.
Being in touch with our feelings can be a way of connecting more deeply with others, however, and not just a way of avoiding getting into painful situations! Sometimes when talking with others there will be a pang at a gut level — something akin to a feeling of pain. And if we pay attention to this we may be impelled to ask the other person if there’s something wrong. An opportunity for compassion has arisen. It’s this sensitivity to our responsiveness to others that makes friendship possible. Awareness of self — at least in a certain way — is awareness of the other. Awareness of the other is awareness of oneself.
Sometimes we’re so caught up in rational thought that we don’t pay attention to the messages from below.
On a neurophysiological level, what’s happening is that our mirror neurons are providing us with information about the other person. Mirror neurons are what allow us to connect with others — without them we’d effectively be autistic. I watch with amazement as my 19-month-old daughter sees and hears me saying a word and is able to reproduce it for the first time. How does she do this? How is she able to have a visual and auditory impression of me speaking and translate that into a physical pattern of movements in the diaphragm, larynx, tongue, lips, etc — all beautifully coordinated. It’s her mirror neurons that allow her to do this. And it’s my mirror neurons that allow me to share her joy at mastering a new word, or to empathize with her when she’s scared. Mirror neurons, it seems, are what allow us to connect with each other. I have no doubt whatsoever that they are involved in generating vedanas.
One last word of caution, however. Vedanas may be messages from the intel agents, analysts, number crunchers and committees that inhabit floors 1 to 19. But the memos they send up to the executive suit on the 20th floor are often cryptic: “sadness,” or “hurt,” or “this is fun!” Our executive levels have first of all to notice those messages and then to interpret them. Why do I feel uncomfortable at a given moment in a situation? If it because the other person has said something I have doubts about? Perhaps they’re making an assumption I disagree with? Or perhaps they’ve hit on an uncomfortable truth, something I’d rather not hear? The inarticulate speech from the lower floors needs careful interpretation. And this is something best done in dialog: “There’s something I feel a bit uncomfortable with here — can you say a bit more about what you mean?”
This too brings us closer to others. In noticing our vedanas and expressing them skillfully, we learn to look deeper, and come to know others more deeply. Awareness of self is awareness of the other. Awareness of the other is awareness of oneself.
Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.
As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com