empathy

No more (Buddhist) Mr. Nice Guy!

Recently Euan, whom I don’t know, wrote a comment expressing his dismay at a girl turning him down because he was “too nice.” Here’s what he wrote:

I only started meditating in December 2014 and was seeing this girl for a while, we went on a couple of dates, the first went well and the second went ok. We continued messaging each other but she seemed less keen, then today she told me she felt we didn’t click and didn’t want to meet again. She said I paid her too many compliments and was too nice. I’m just so angry because I felt like she was leading me on and we had been speaking for at least two months as I first met her in December but I went home to university and so didn’t see her again until 2 weeks ago where we had the two dates and I thought things seemed to be going well. I just want to know what I’m supposed to think I guess. From what I’ve learned for my short period of meditation is that we should love each other, but when someone tells me they don’t want a relationship because I’m “too nice” it makes me question what I’m doing. Like should I stop being nice to girls I want potential relationships with, and how am I supposed to not get angry at her for me being too nice. What is so wrong with the world that people don’t like being treated nicely, it perplexes me.

Sorry if this doesn’t read smoothly, I’m writing this immediately after I found out and my almost immediate reaction was to question how I am supposed to think like a Buddhist when bad things happen to me for being too nice.

Euan’s comment raised questions that I thought are worth exploring in a blog post.

Euan’s experience is not unique. I’ve been there myself in the past, and when I was young I found myself astonished and sometimes angry at the way some women I’ve been interested in gravitated to men who seemed to me to be jerks. And although my anger never turned into a general hatred of women, this evidently happens with some men. But I still had a lot to learn.

So I want to talk about “being nice,” from the point of view of a man who’s realized that “being nice” is not as “nice” as “nice men” like to think it is. I’m not advocating being unkind, and certainly not advocating ill will or hatred. I’d like to talk about how “being nice” is not actually kind, is a form of manipulation, and is not, in most cases, what women need or want. And I’m sorry, Euan, but some of this may be hard to read. I don’t mean to be unkind or to hurt your feelings, but instead want to act as a kalyana mitta (spiritual friend) who points out things we need to know but may not want to know.

What’s a “nice guy”? A “nice guy” is a man who thinks that the way into a girl’s heart (and bed) is by being agreeable and flattering. Here are a few characteristics of “nice guys,” drawn from a Wikihow article:

  • They offer to do things for a girl they hardly know that they wouldn’t normally do for just anybody else they know.
  • They avoid conflict by withholding their opinions or even become agreeable with her when they don’t actually agree.
  • They try to fix and take care of her problems, they are drawn to trying to help.
  • They try to hide their perceived flaws and mistakes.
  • They are always looking for the “right” way to do things.
  • They have difficulty making their needs a priority.
  • They are often emotionally dependent on their partner.

The psychology of “nice guys” has been written about a lot. Here’s a great analysis of the whole phenomenon from Geek Feminism Wiki.

Being a “nice guy” is a strategy. It’s not who someone fundamentally is, although “nice guys” are very conscious of and attached to their identity (self view) as “nice guys.”

The purpose of the strategy, as I’ve said, is to attract and keep a woman. A cartoon by Callmekitto about “nice guys” shows a woman jubilantly holding up a card, similar to one of those “Buy ten cups of coffee and get one free” cards. She’s saying to the young man beside her, “That’s the eight stamp on your Nice Guy Card! Now you can stop pretending to care about me as a person and we can have all that sex you deserve!”

Cartoon by Lauren Dombrowski, @callmekitto at Tumblr

Cartoon by Lauren Dombrowski, @callmekitto at Tumblr

The cartoon is brutally frank, but it’s making the point that acting as a “nice guy” assumes that relationships are a form of transaction: I’ll pretend to be the kind of person I think you want, and then you’ll give me sex and approval.

As the cartoon indicates, the man who is playing at being a “nice guy” isn’t actually relating to the woman as a full human being. He’s not being himself, and may even have lost touch with who he is. He doesn’t want to express his needs and won’t challenge his intended partner in any way because he thinks that risks pushing her away. In fact the opposite is the case. Few women want a partner who doesn’t express himself and who avoids conflict. A conflict-averse partner is neither going to stand up for you not stand up to you.

The “nice guy” is far from practicing metta, or kindness. Metta is based on empathy (anukampa), which is an awareness of the other person as a person — as a feeling being who has needs. In fact the “nice guy” role is based on craving. You desperately want something (sex, companionship, approval, the status of “being in a relationship”) and you go through the moves that you think will get you that thing. But there’s no actual awareness of the other person, which is unattractive, and so as a “nice guy” you’re constantly finding that you don’t get what you want. In fact it’s not just that you want the things I’ve mentioned: you deserve them. After all, you’ve given the endless compliments, you’ve refrained from expressing what you really want in just about any situation (“No, any movie you choose is fine with me!”), you’ve studiously avoided expressing any needs (“No, it’s not a problem that you stood me up”). You’ve been nice. You’ve cranked the handle on the machine, and how it’s time for your reward!

When the reward doesn’t come the first few times, you might be depressed. But then you get angry — but not just at the girls who rejected you, because you start to realize that almost no girl is going to give you what you deserve. And you do, you think, deserve the sex and the love you want, because you’re not even conscious that “nice guy” is a role you’re playing, and you think it’s who you are. So you both want and hate women, or “bitches,” as you may think of them. As another cartoon (actually it’s more of a “meme”) says, “Women never date nice guys like me. I hate those bitches.” Frustrated craving turns to hatred.

I want to re-emphasize that the “nice guy” is a role that men play. It’s not who they fundamentally are. So in criticizing the actions of “nice guys,” I’m not saying that there’s something irretrievably flawed about them. Just that they need to so some work in becoming more self-aware, braver, more honest, and more genuinely empathetic and loving.

The Wikihow post I linked to above has some advice for stepping out of the “nice guy” role, but I’ll say just a few words about developing the qualities I just mentioned.

  • Become more self-aware: Realize when you’re acting out of craving and expectation. Let go of the label of “nice guy.” Seriously, never refer to yourself or think of yourself as a “nice guy” ever again. The role has become a trap for you, and it’s preventing you from seeing who you really are. Take responsibility, and take a good look at yourself: if your attempts at relationships all end up the same way, the common denominator is you, not “women.”
  • Be braver: Don’t cling to your preferences, but don’t be afraid to express them. Express how you feel. If you’re upset or afraid or hurt, it’s OK to express those things. And I mean express them directly, in words (“When you stood me up I felt really hurt”), not throwing a tantrum or trying to punish the other person. The Buddha was not a “nice guy.” He called people on their bullshit.
  • Become more honest: Stop trying to be “nice” all the time. But being honest doesn’t mean saying whatever happens to be on your mind. For example, Euan said that this girl has been “leading him on.” He may think that telling her that is “honest.” Actually, saying “I think you’ve been leading me on” is technically honest, because he has had that thought. But saying “She’s been leading me on” isn’t the truth, but a story. What from Euan’s point of view seems like being led on, might well be, from the girl’s point of view, giving the relationship a little time in order to see if she actually likes this guy. When you take your interpretations and present them as if they were the absolute truth, you’re not being honest.
  • Become more genuinely empathetic and loving: Ah, right: there are all these tips you’ve read on “how to show empathy.” You nod, and look concerned, and ask questions, and reflect things back to the other person, and make little “uhuh” noises to let the other person know you’re listening. But those things are not empathy. They’re what empathy looks like, and they can all be done without any real empathy at all, without any real appreciation that the other person is a fully human being with needs and desires, who in all likelihood wants to be with another person who has needs and desires, and not with someone who is going through the motions of “being nice” and “being empathetic.” To be genuinely empathetic you have to be self-aware, prepared to take risks, and to be honest. Ask yourself, would you want to be with someone who was acting the whole time?

Euan said, “From what I’ve learned for my short period of meditation is that we should love each other, but when someone tells me they don’t want a relationship because I’m ‘too nice’ it makes me question what I’m doing. Like should I stop being nice to girls I want potential relationships with.”

Buddhism does teach us to have metta (kindness) and karuna (compassion) and to be empathetic, but that doesn’t mean “being nice” and it certainly doesn’t mean “being manipulative.”

The men a “nice guy” thinks of as “jerks” — the ones they see girls with all the time — are more enjoyable for just about any human being to be with, let alone a romantic partner, than any self-consciously “nice guy.” They aren’t acting. They’re more inclined to be honest about what they want and feel. When they give compliments it feels sincere because they’re not doing it all the time. They offer challenge. They call out bullshit. We all need that.

I’m not saying that every “jerk” is really a good guy. Some jerks cheat or are violent. Those are real jerks. But even a real jerk might be more fulfilling to be in a relationship with than someone you don’t know because they’re constantly playing a role, and when there’s the underlying threat, which isn’t that hard to pick up on, that they’ll turn nasty when they don’t get what they want. Better the devil you know than the one pretending to be “nice” all the time, perhaps.

So being a “nice guy” isn’t nice. It’s fake. So yes, “nice guys” should stop being “nice.” But that doesn’t mean being unkind. It doesn’t mean treating people badly. It means becoming self-aware. It means “manning up” and having the courage to be honest so that you can be in a genuine relationship with another human being rather than acting out a role in order to get a reward.

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How stress kills our ability to feel compassion

Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post: Stress isn’t just bad for our physical and mental health — it may also inhibit our ability to empathize with others, according to new McGill University research.

The study, recently published in the journal Current Biology, found that a drug that blocks stress hormones can increase the ability of both humans and mice to “feel” others’ pain.

The researchers studied the phenomenon known as “emotional contagion of pain,” a key component of empathy which has to do with our ability to experience the pain of strangers.

Previous research by …

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Meditation may physically alter regions of the brain

Sravanth Verma, Digital Journal: Harvard researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital reported that the practice of mindfulness meditation can physically alter regions of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.

The study, to be published in January 2015, in “Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging” indicates that the brain’s gray matter may change as a result of meditation.

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” said …

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New research proves that not only does meditation calm you down, it actually alters your brain

Caitlin White, MTV News: Mindfulness exercises are even more powerful than we previously thought.

Many people swear by meditation and mindfulness exercises as a way to increase happiness and peacefulness, but now Harvard researchers have discovered that these exercises might also increase growth of the brain’s gray matter and have measurable changes upon brain areas that are associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.

The study will be published in next January’s issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, but the Harvard-affiliated research team at Massachusetts General Hospital …

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Empathy versus compassion

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva

On the Boston Review, Paul Bloom has a provocative article titled “Against Empathy.” It’s not advocating an uncompassionate approach to life, and in fact central to his thesis is that there is a distinction between empathy, which he says can limit and exhaust us, and compassion, which he points out is more sustainable.

There’s one particular section where there are several references to Buddhism and to Buddhist practitioners:

It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.

Or consider long-distance charity. It is conceivable, I suppose, that someone who hears about the plight of starving children might actually go through the empathetic exercise of imagining what it is like to starve to death. But this empathetic distress surely isn’t necessary for charitable giving. A compassionate person might value others’ lives in the abstract, and, recognizing the misery caused by starvation, be motivated to act accordingly.

Summing up, compassionate helping is good for you and for others. But empathetic distress is destructive of the individual in the long run.

It might also be of little help to other people because experiencing others’ pain is exhausting and leads to burnout. This issue is explored in the Buddhist literature on morality. Consider the life of a bodhisattva, an enlightened person who vows not to pass into Nirvana, choosing instead to stay in the normal cycle of life and death to help the masses. How is a bodhisattva to live? In Consequences of Compassion (2009) Charles Goodman notes the distinction in Buddhists texts between “sentimental compassion,” which corresponds to empathy, and “great compassion,” which involves love for others without empathetic attachment or distress. Sentimental compassion is to be avoided, as it “exhausts the bodhisattva.” Goodman defends great compassion, which is more distanced and reserved and can be sustained indefinitely.

This distinction has some support in the collaborative work of Tania Singer, a psychologist and neuroscientist, and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, meditation expert, and former scientist. In a series of studies using fMRI brain scanning, Ricard was asked to engage in various types of compassion meditation directed toward people who are suffering. To the surprise of the investigators, these meditative states did not activate parts of the brain that are normally activated by non-meditators when they think about others’ pain. Ricard described his meditative experience as “a warm positive state associated with a strong prosocial motivation.”

He was then asked to put himself in an empathetic state and was scanned while doing so. Now the appropriate circuits associated with empathetic distress were activated. “The empathic sharing,” Ricard said, “very quickly became intolerable to me and I felt emotionally exhausted, very similar to being burned out.”

One sees a similar contrast in ongoing experiments led by Singer and her colleagues in which people are either given empathy training, which focuses on the capacity to experience the suffering of others, or compassion training, in which subjects are trained to respond to suffering with feelings of warmth and care. According to Singer’s results, among test subjects who underwent empathy training, “negative affect was increased in response to both people in distress and even to people in everyday life situations. . . . these findings underline the belief that engaging in empathic resonance is a highly aversive experience and, as such, can be a risk factor for burnout.” Compassion training—which doesn’t involve empathetic arousal to the perceived distress of others—was more effective, leading to both increased positive emotions and increased altruism.

These are important considerations for spiritual practitioners. An ancient commentary, The Vimuttimagga, states that “sorrow is failed compassion.” What I take that to mean is that real compassion can’t arise when we’re caught up in our own suffering, which is what happens when we experience empathic distress.

I would say, though, that there are different meanings of the word empathy. A person completely lacking in empathy doesn’t care about others. In Bloom’s example of long-distance charity, a person without empathy will simply not give. Why should they? They have no interest in the wellbeing of others. The person who gives because they hear that others are starving is motivated by empathy. It’s not empathic distress; they don’t have to imagine starving, because they already know that starving is horrible, and because they care about people they want to help.

Bloom’s stance “against empathy” is only against a certain kind of empathy, and his arguments don’t apply to this other form, which happens to be the kind that’s most important in the practice of compassion.

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Is mindfulness the key to being a better boss?

wildmind meditation newsHCOnline: We’ve all done it. In a fit of fury or just plain annoyance, we’ve hastily typed a snarky email to a colleague and hit ‘send’ – without first thinking of the repercussions.

It’s known as action addiction – often when things happen we want to fix it, immediately. There’s even a neurological incentive to do so – we get a hit of dopamine from feeling like we’ve taken quick, decisive action.

It’s human nature to act before thinking, right? It is, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. The concept of mindfulness is not new – in fact as a concept it …

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Love freely

Heart.In my early 20’s, I went through Rolfing, a form of deep-tissue bodywork, and I nervously anticipated the 5th session, the one that goes deep into the belly. But instead of gobs of repressed emotional pain, what poured out was love – waves and waves of love that I’d pushed down due to embarrassment, fears of closeness, and my struggles with my mother.

It felt fantastic to let love flow freely. Compassion, empathy, kindness, liking, affection, cooperation, and altruism are all in our nature, woven into the fabric of human DNA, the most social – and most loving – species on the planet. Love is a natural upwelling current inside us all. It doesn’t need to be pushed or pumped, it needs to be released. If authentic love in any of its forms is bottled up, it hurts. For example, one of the greatest pains is thwarted contribution.

Has any aspect of your own love stopped flowing freely?

Besides feeling good in its own right, opening to love heals psychological wounds, builds resilience, and supports personal growth. In your brain, love calms down the stress response and reduces activation in the neural circuits of physical and emotional pain. It nourishes moral behavior and helps keep you out of needless conflicts with others. And cultivating a loving heart is central to spiritual practice in every tradition.

Begin with the experience of love in any form, such as caring, goodwill, friendliness, support, appreciation, seeing the good in others, compassion, fondness, kindness, or cherishing. Can you soften and open to this experience? In a particular relationship or in general, can you make room in your body and mind for love?

Is it painful to feel love because it stirs up old frustrated longings . . . so that you dial down the love to suppress the longings? If so, this is understandable and common. Try to help yourself by letting the longings flow, too, so that they gradually ease and release. Meanwhile, bring awareness back to the love itself, which will lift and protect you. Amazingly – flowing in or flowing out, love is love; wounds from not receiving love are often soothed and even healed by giving love.

Sometimes people feel overwhelmed when they connect to others with love. Repeatedly sensing into your breathing and body can help you feel stable as “me” while opening to “we.” See what it’s like to feel both loving and centered in your own strength, respecting and sticking up for your own needs; fences make for good neighbors.

Since the brain gradually tunes out what it’s used to, try to see others newly, taking some seconds at least to recognize the being behind the eyes. For example, I’ll imagine another person laughing with friends, or feeling hurt, or as a young child.

No one can stop you from loving. I once had a difficult relationship issue and I finally realized that I could simply love this person even if the love needed to be mainly if not entirely internal to me. Not coincidentally, I began feeling better in the relationship and over time, the other person became more comfortable with me.

You can offer your compassion and good wishes even if there is nothing you can do to make a situation better. Your love is still sincere and still matters. What others do with your love is on them, not you. All you can do is make the offering. You can love even as you disengage from sticky entanglements, wishing people well even if you need to step back from them.

Love comes from an inner freedom in which you’re not controlled by negative reactions. It also leads to a greater freedom in your mind, relationships, and world. Love is a kind of solvent, gradually dissolving the neurotic knots inside your head. In touch with love, you feel less vulnerable and have more room to breathe, speak, and act with others. And walking through the world – whether down a busy street or out in the woods – as no one’s enemy, giving others no cause to fear you, with good wishes and kindness in your heart and face, you feel more like stepping freely into today, and into tomorrow.

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Could an awareness of the heartbeat be a vital component of empathy?

Corazon de PiedraAn awareness of the heart (the physical organ, not the metaphorical seat of emotion) and its role in empathy. Noticing the heart concerns a process called interoceptive awareness (IA), which is just a fancy term for how we monitor the body’s internal state. There’s evidence that interoceptive awareness is important for social cognition, including empathy.

Neuroscientists think we detect our own heart-beats via two routes. One is “somatosensory” — that is, we feel the movement of the heart’s beat through our sense of touch. The other route is via the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain down to the heart and beyond, and which carries electrical impulses in both directions.

The British Psychological Society reports that researchers Blas Couto and Agustin Ibanez and their colleagues, at the University of Cambridge and INECO (Instituto de Neurologia Cognitiva, in Argentina), studied a man who is awaiting a heart transplant and who has a kind of “artificial heart” to support the function of his failing left ventricle. This assistive device beats out of sync with he man’s natural heart, and when asked to tap in time with his heartbeat the man would tap in time with the device, not with his own heartbeat.

An EEG showed that brain activity associated with interoceptive awareness was reduced in the man’s brain compared with control subjects. He seemed to have lost touch with his own heart, presumably because the sensory input from the artificial heart was much stronger in comparison.

The interesting thing, though, is that this subject’s empathy was impaired in comparison with control subjects. He also had greater difficulty understanding other people’s mental states) and with decision-making. These impairments are consistent with past research showing how interoceptive awareness is important for social and emotional cognition.

Now of course a sample of one patient is not necessarily representative, but it would be an interesting practice to pay more attention to your heartbeat — both during meditation and in other activities — and to see whether this brings about any changes in your level of empathy. There’s lots of scope for subjectivity here — how exactly do we measure our own empathy — but subjective evaluations are an inherent part of meditation experience.

I’d suggest just noticing the beating of the heart, and seeing what, if anything, happens.

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Compassion is inherent to us all (Day 27)

100 Days of LovingkindnessTalking about cultivating or developing compassion can have the unfortunate side-effect of giving us the idea that compassion is something we don’t have, and need to create. Actually, the words cultivate and develop are meant to imply that we already have compassion as a natural attribute, and that what we need to do is to connect with this innate compassion and make it stronger. Really, karuna bhavana is “strengthening compassion.”

Compassion is part of our genetically inherited mental tool-kit. Other animals show compassion: primatologist Frans de Waal (one of my personal heroes) points out that chimpanzees take care of the sick and elderly, for example by bringing water to older females who are crippled by arthritis. The much less brainy capuchin monkey also shows empathy, and will help others when they have nothing directly to gain themselves. Even mice show the capacity for empathy.

Compassion is part of our evolutionary heritage. We may think of moral emotions as being handed down from on high (on a mountain-top, engraved on stone tablets) but actually they are to a large extent handed up from below, inscribed in our DNA.

We often take our compassion for granted, or ignore its whisperings. But it’s there all the time, even if we’re not aware of it.

Certainly, we often act in ways that are uncompassionate — even unkind or cruel (that harsh word, the judgmental thought, the unkind glare, cutting someone off in traffic) — but our uncompassionate instincts and our more compassionate ones coexist. The brain, and hence the self, is not unitary, but modular. The brain has not been designed from scratch as a smoothly functioning system, but has evolved piecemeal and is full of cooperating, competing, and antagonistic modules.

We therefore find ourselves morally divided. One part of us believes that showing dominance or anger is a valid means to find happiness or peace; if we’re aggressive, we hope, the troublesome object of our aggression will stay away from us and trouble us no more. But another part of us recognizes that conflict is painful and that compassion and kindness are more likely to lead to peace within our minds and in our world. In our everyday behavior we swing from one set of motivations to another.

So we need, sometimes, to let go of a whole layer of behavior and assumptions about how the world works, and how happiness is brought about in our lives, in order to connect with our innate compassion.

As with lovingkindness meditation, I have some simple reflections that help me reconnect with my innate ability to feel compassion.

As I’m beginning the practice of cultivating compassion, I recognize the truth of the following:

  1. I don’t want to suffer.
  2. But suffering is hard to avoid.

I drop these thoughts into the mind, and give them time to sink in. I give myself time to respond to the truth of these statements. I don’t have to make a response happen. I don’t have to think about these concepts — and in fact thinking about the concepts will get in the way os acknowledging their essential truthfulness. The response, like compassion itself, will come up from below.

These thoughts are deceptively simple. As you’re reading them, your eyes skimming the marks on this page, they may have no perceptible effect. The left brain understands the concepts, but perhaps isn’t touched by them. It’s just data. But let them sink in and the right brain can relate. These words reflect a fundamental reality of your life — something deep, primal, and moving. Be still, and let the words ripple through the space of the mind and see what happens. Listen.

Often the response is in the form of a mild heart ache, a tenderness in the center of the chest. This feeling of tender vulnerability is not something to avoid; it’s something to accept. It’s the stirring of compassion within the heart.

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When I reflect in this way I recognize something I often overlook because it’s so obvious. Life is a difficult thing to do. We want happiness but keep stumbling into suffering instead. This being human is a hard thing.

And having let these thoughts drop into the heart, and having felt the heart’s response, I let the part of me that wishes me well speak. I strengthen the innate compassion that’s been revealed by dropping phrases into the mind, just as I do in lovingkindness practice.

There are other traditional phrases that you can use, like

  • May I be free from hostility
  • May I be free from affliction
  • May I be free from suffering
  • May I live happily.

The exactly wording of the phrases doesn’t matter too much, but they have to be meaningful for you, short enough to remember, and said with sincerity.

You can just use phrases like “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be free from suffering.” At the same time you are aware of the fact that you suffer. You don’t have to think about this or dwell upon it. You just have an awareness of this fact in the back of your mind. It’s like if you’re talking to a friend and you know they’re going away for a few weeks and this is the last time you’re going to see them for a while; you don’t need to keep saying to yourself “My friend is going away. My friend is going away.” Instead, you just get on with your conversation, and in the back of your mind you know the truth of the situation. And that truth affects everything you say. Similarly, having established that you don’t want to suffer, and yet to, everything you say to yourself is touched by that awareness. You get on with having a conversation with yourself — a conversation that turns the heart to kindness and compassion.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Practicing mindfulness of faces

Handsome young man different facial expressionsAs our ancestors evolved over millions of years in small bands, continually interacting and working with each other, it was vitally important to communicate in hundreds of ways each day. They shared information about external “carrots” and “sticks,” and about their internal experience (e.g., intentions, sexual interest, inclination toward aggression) through gestures, vocalizations – and facial expressions. Much as we developed uniquely complex language, we also evolved the most expressive face in the entire animal kingdom.

Our faces are exquisitely capable of a vast range of expressions, such as showing fear to send signals of alarm, interest to draw others toward an opportunity, or fondness and kindness to increase closeness and the sense of “us.” These expressions include seemingly universal signs of six fundamental emotions – happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, anger, and disgust – as well as more culturally and personally specific expressions. For example, I know that very particular look that crosses my wife’s face when she thinks I’m getting too full of myself!

Of course, there is no sense in having evolved an extraordinary transmitter – the face – unless we also developed an extraordinary receiver: our remarkable capacities to recognize, sense, and infer states of mind in others from subtle and fleeting facial expressions.

So here’s the question: how often and how well do we use this great receiver?Walking down a busy sidewalk, standing in an elevator, waiting in line at a deli: people usually don’t look very much at the faces around them, and if they look, it’s briefly and without really seeing. Or we grow familiar with the faces around us each day at home or work and then tune out, make assumptions – or are simply uncomfortable with what we might see, such as anger, sadness, or a growing indifference. With TV and other media, we’re also bombarded with so many faces from around the world, and it’s easy to feel flooded by them, and increasingly numb or inattentive.

But as natural as this is, you pay a price for it. You miss important information about the wants of others, and their hot buttons, true aims, anxiety or irritability, or good wishes toward you. You lose out on opportunities for closeness and cooperation, and you learn too late about potential problems, including misunderstandings, ruffled feathers, saying yes but meaning no, or simply boredom with what you’re saying.

More generally, you lose out on the chance to feel connected and part of an “us” – which has been so crucial for well-being, stress management, regulating negative emotions, and coping with life throughout our long history on this planet. Further, when you are not attuned to the faces of others, you can’t give them the deeply important experience of feeling recognized, seen, and understood – which, besides not being kind to them, will often boomerang back to hurt you. And in the broadest sense, receiving the faces of others across the world is an important step toward stitching the fabric of humanity closer together, using the ancient threads that bound us to friends and family long ago on the Serengeti plain.

For all these reasons, try to open to and receive the faces of others.

How?

Look at people in passing you do not know, on the sidewalk, in the mall, in a restaurant, etc. Try this also with people you interact with, where it’s natural to have some eye contact. And experiment with recalling or imagining the faces – or seeing them in photos or videos – of key people from your past.

When you look:

  • Don’t stare or be invasive. Look with respect.
  • Just take a few extra seconds to get past superficial features – young or old, male or female, stiff or smiling, handsome or not – and take in more of the person. Let him or her come into focus as a unique individual, with specific qualities, such as weariness, good humor, firmness, residues of anger, kindness, perkiness, hopefulness, looking for things to like in life, etc.
  • In particular, look at and around the eyes and mouth, which are major regions of social signaling in our faces.
  • Let yourself not know about the person – especially with people that are familiar to you. It’s OK to note to yourself what you see – “stress” . . . “kindness” . . . “determination” – or to reflect a bit, but mainly be like a child looking at a human face for the first time, startled and delighted by its magnificence.
  • Have a sense of receiving, of letting in, of registering the other person in a deeper way than usual. As it happens, let yourself be moved by the experience.

As you look in these ways, notice any difficulty with taking in faces, which inherently involves opening to others. For example, it could feel a little overwhelming, since a face is such an intense stimulus for human beings as a profoundly social species. Or painful longings for more closeness could be stimulated. Help yourself by receiving faces in small doses, and by staying centered in yourself “here” while knowing that face is over “there.”

Also open to any positive experiences – such as compassion, kindness, humility, connection, or even love – that are stirred up by receiving faces. Enjoy these and take them in. They are wonderful – and a fundamental, vital, and lovely part of your human endowment.

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