empathy

The trance of the “Unreal Other”

Two shadowy human figures on a road, looking like ghosts.

The truth is: without a genuine willingness to let in the suffering of others, our spiritual practice remains empty.

Father Theophane, a Christian mystic, writes about an incident that happened when he took some time off from his secular duties for spiritual renewal at a remote monastery. Having heard of a monk there who was widely respected for his wisdom, he sought him out. Theophane had been forewarned that this wise man gave advice only in the form of questions. Eager to receive his own special contemplation, Theophane approached the monk: “I am a parish priest and am here on retreat. Could you give me a question to meditate on?”

“Ah, yes.” The wise man answered. “My question for you is: What do they need?” A little disappointed, Theophane thanked him and went away. After a few hours of meditating on the question and feeling as if he were getting nowhere, he decided to go back to the teacher.

“Excuse me,” he began, “Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Your question has been helpful, but I wasn’t so much interested in thinking about my apostolate during this retreat. Rather I wanted to think seriously about my own spiritual life. Could you give me a question for my own spiritual life?”

“Ah, I see,” answered the wise man. Then my question is, “What do they really need?”

Like so many of us, Father Theophane had assumed that true spiritual reflection focuses on our solitary self. But as the wise man reminded him, spiritual awakening is inextricably involved with others. As Theophane focused on the needs of those he had been given to serve, he would recognize their vulnerability and longing for love—and realize that their needs were no different than his own.

The question the wise man suggested was wonderfully crafted for awakening in Theophane the true spiritual depth that comes from paying close attention to other human beings.

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Like Theophane, whenever we are caught in our own self-centered drama, everyone else becomes “other” to us, different and unreal. The world becomes a backdrop to our own special experience and everyone in it serves as supporting cast, some as adversaries, some as allies, most as simply irrelevant. Because involvement with our personal desires and concerns prevents us from paying close attention to anyone else, those around us—even family and friends—can become unreal, two-dimensional cardboard figures, not humans with wants and fears and throbbing hearts.

The more different someone seems from us, the more unreal they may feel to us. We can too easily ignore or dismiss people when they are of a different race or religion, when they come from a different socio-economic “class.” Assessing them as either superior or inferior, better or worse, important or unimportant, we distance ourselves.

Fixating on appearances—their looks, behavior, ways of speaking—we peg them as certain types. They are HIV positive or an alcoholic, a leftist or fundamentalist, a criminal or power-monger, a feminist or do-gooder. Sometimes our type-casting has more to do with temperament—the person is boring or narcissistic, needy or pushy, anxious or depressed. Whether extreme or subtle, typing others makes the real human invisible to our eyes and closes our heart.

Once someone is an unreal other, we lose sight of how they hurt. Because we don’t experience them as feeling beings, we not only ignore them, we can inflict pain on them without compunction. Not seeing that others are real leads to a father disowning his son for being gay, divorced parents using their children as weapons. All the enormous suffering of violence and war comes from our basic failure to see that others are real.

In teaching the compassion practices, I sometimes ask students to bring to mind someone they see regularly but are not personally involved with. Then I invite them to consider, “What does he or she need?” “What does this person fear?” “What is life like for this person?”

After one of these meditations, a student approached me to report that a wonderful thing had happened since she’d begun doing this practice. When seeing colleagues at work, neighbors walking their dogs, clerks at stores, she’d been saying in her mind, “You are real. You are real.”

Rather than being backdrops for her life, she was finding them come alive to her. She’d notice a gleam of curiosity in the eyes, a generous smile, an anxious grinding of teeth, a disappointed and resigned slope to the shoulders, the sorrow in a downcast look. If she stayed a moment longer, she could also feel their shyness, their awkwardness, or their fear. She told me, “The more real they are to me, the more real and warm and alive I feel. I feel a closeness in just being humans together. It doesn’t matter who they are … I feel like I can accept them as part of my world.”

When we stop to attend and see others as real, we uncover the hidden bond that exists between all beings. In her poem “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes:

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

We are all journeying through the night with plans, breathing in and out this mysterious life. And, as my student discovered through her practice, the more we can learn to pay attention to others, and truly see them as “real,” just like us, the more we can allow the “tender gravity of kindness” to naturally awaken and bloom.

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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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The Mind, the Brain and God – Part II

In Part I we discussed the meaning of the words mind, brain and God and saw how the mind and the brain are interdependent.

In this segment we’ll go into the popular arguments for and against God and further into the link between the mind and the brain.

Proofs and Disproofs

Lately, numerous authors have tried to rebut beliefs in God (e.g., The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins), while others have tried to rebut the rebuttals (e.g., Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins’ Case against God). The intensity of these debates is often startling; people commonly talk past each other, arguing at different levels; and the “evidence” marshaled for one view or another is often hollow. (A delightful exception is the dialogue between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris.)

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For example, it’s an error to conflate religion and God. Whether religions are wonderful or horrible or both is not evidence for or against the existence of God. Critiques of religion (e.g., the Crusades, fundamentalism) are not disproofs of God. It’s also an error to think that biological evolution is evidence for the nonexistence of God. Just because a creation story developed thousands of years ago turns out to be inaccurate does not mean that God does not exist. Evolution does not need to be attacked in order to have faith in God.

Then there are so-called proofs of the existence of God within the material universe (e.g., burning bushes, miracles, visions, psychic phenomena). But that “evidence” must be experienced via the brain and mind. Therefore, in principle, that experience could simply be produced by the mind/brain alone, without divine intervention. (You could assert that God is known by some transcendental faculty outside of materiality, but then you’d still have to explain how the knowing achieved by that transcendental faculty is communicated to the material brain, so you are back to the original problem, that the ordinary brain could be making up information purportedly derived from a transcendental source.) So you can’t prove the existence of the transcendental through material evidence.

On the other hand, since any God by definition extends beyond the frame of materiality, nothing in the material universe can disprove its existence. You could endlessly rebut apparent evidence for the existence of God, but those rebuttals can not in themselves demonstrate that God is a fiction. At most, they can only eliminate a piece of apparent evidence, but in terms of ultimate conclusions, so what? As scientists say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Further, a God outside the frame of materiality (particularly a playful one) could amuse herself by fostering rebuttals of seeming evidence for her existence in order to bug some people and test the faith of others: who knows? Most anything could be possible for a transcendental being, ground, something-or-other.

Bottom-line: You can’t prove or disprove the existence of God. So the fundamentally scientific attitude is to acknowledge the possibility of God, and then move on to working within the frame of science, which is plenty fertile as is, without resorting to God.

Let’s explore an illustration of how these issues often play out in the media.

Is the Mind “Just” the Brain?

Recently a friend sent me an article on the National Public Radio (NPR) website, titled “Study Narrows Gap between Mind and Brain,” about some new research. The investigators had found that suppressing neural activity in a part of the brain (on the right side, near where the temporal and parietal lobes come together) changed the way that subjects made moral judgments: they became less able to take the intentions of others into account.

The study itself is interesting, and takes its place in a growing body of research on the neuropsychology of moral reasoning and behavior. But the article about it on the NPR site contains comments from a scholar from a leading university that are worth examining. He is initially quoted as saying: “Moral judgment is just a brain process.” Hmm. What does the “just” mean? He could have said something like, “Moral judgment involves processes in the brain,” but instead he seemed to assert that the psychological subtleties of ethics, altruism, hypocrisy, and integrity, are just epiphenomena of the brain. Whether this is exactly what he meant or not, let’s consider this idea in its own right: that our thoughts and feelings, longings and fears, and subtle moral or spiritual intimations are “just” the movements of the meat, to put it bluntly,between the ears. This is a common notion these days, but there are numerous problems with it.

First, neural processes certainly do underlie mental processes. For example, as the study showed, normal right temporal-parietal function underlies reflections about the intentions of others in moral reasoning. But those neural activities are in the service of mental ones. That’s their point. We evolved neural structures and processes in order to further psychological adaptations that conferred reproductive advantages, which is the engine of biological evolution. Mind is not an epiphenomenon of brain: mind is the function of the brain, its reason for existence.

Second, mental processes pattern neural structure. Morality-related information – in other words, mental activity – has shaped the brain of each person since early childhood. As Dan Siegel puts it, the mind uses the brain to make the mind. In a basic sense, it would be just as accurate to say that “the brain is just the mind writ in neural tissues.”

Third, the neural substrates of conscious mental activity are continually changing in their physical details (e.g., neurons involved in a substrate, connections among them, and neurochemical flows). This means that the thought “2 + 2 = 4” on Monday maps to a different neural substrate than it does on Tuesday; in fact, that math fact would have a different substrate if you re-thought it only a few seconds later on Monday! Similarly, reflections on the Golden Rule on Monday will have a different neural substrate than on Tuesday. Consequently, it is the meaning of the thought that is fundamental, not its neural substrate. Taking this a step further, the ideas that two and two are four, or that we should treat others as we would like them to treat us, can be represented in many sorts of physical substrates, including marks on a page, patterns of sound waves, and magnetic charges on a computer hard drive. Here, too, it is the information, the meaning, that is the key matter, and the physical substrate, whether brain or something else, recedes in significance.

Fourth, and most fundamentally, the mind and the brain co-dependently arise. It’s kind of
silly to make one causally senior to the other. Psychology shapes neurology shapes psychology shapes neurology, and so on. These two are distinct – immaterial information is not material neural tissues – but they are also interdependent and cannot be understood apart from each other. There is indeed a dualism between mind and matter, but they also form one coherent system. When people try to de-link mind and brain, and then argue that one rather than the other is primary – The mind is really just the brain at work! or The brain is really just the mind at work! – there is usually some sort of agenda going on: typically either an attempt to argue a strongly materialist, even atheist view, or to argue a fundamentalist spiritual view. But arguments about the primacy of either mind or brain are just not productive: all they produce is smoke and heat, but no light.

In the last part of this series we’ll discuss neural correlates and morality and summarize this discussion.

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

Heart shape drawn in condensation on a window. Outside it is dark and we see out-of-focus lights in white, yellow, and red.

An 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 Lovingkindness

Talking 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

Eggs with comical faces painted on them. Each one has a different facial expression.

As 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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What kind of life would it be, never to rain on a parade?

Let’s say you’ve had an interesting idea or moment of inspiration, or thought of a new project, or felt some enthusiasm bubbling up inside you. Your notions are not fully formed and you’re not really committed to them yet, but they have promise and you like them and are trying them on for size. Then what?

If a family member or friend responds in a neutral or positive way, even if they also raise some practical questions, you likely feel good, supported, energized. But if that same person were to lead with a mainly negative response, focusing on problems, constraints, and risks – no matter how valid they are – you’d probably feel at least a little deflated, and maybe misunderstood, put down, or obstructed. Take a moment to reflect on how this may have happened to you, as a child or an adult.

This works the other way as well. If people come to you with an idea, passion, or aspiration, and you put their fire out with doubts and objections, they’re not going to feel good, period – and not good about opening up to you in the future. Take another moment to consider how this could have happened in some of your relationships.

And this works the same way inside your own head. If you pour cold water over your own hopes and dreams, you’ll live cautiously between the lines, sure, but you’ll never know what warmth and light might have spread if you’d let them catch fire. Do you back your own play, cheerlead your own parade? Or are you too quick with doubt, limitations, cost analyses, reasons why not?

What kind of life would it be, never to rain on a parade, your own or anyone else’s?

How?

The points here apply both to when you’re reacting to the (even harebrained) ideas of others, and when you’re responding to your own inspirations and enthusiasms; you can also use them to stick up for yourself if someone starts drizzling on your parade.

Notice any reflexive pulling back, naysaying, or buzz-killing when you or someone else gets happily excited about something. Be aware of any personal history with parents or others who got into an elevated mood or a bit of grandiosity that led to trouble later – and how that history could be shaping your reactions to people and situations today that are actually quite different.

Remember that you can always still say no. In other words, just because there’s some new scheme on the table doesn’t mean you’re locked into doing it. You can trust in your capacity to explore the idea fully – even if you or others are full of passion about it – while simultaneously knowing that you’re reserving your rights.

It’s OK to be quiet, spacious, even silent. OK to take some time to let things air out and take more shape before you respond. Even if your deep-down view is that this idea is insane, disastrous, or worse – often you don’t have to say anything at all and it will collapse on its own.

When you do communicate – to yourself or to another person – try to start with what’s true and useful in whatever is hatching. It’s often fine to stay with that theme.

If you have concerns, expressing them usually goes best if they’re both timely and wanted. (Ignore this suggestion if there’s a compelling reason to do so.) Keep them relevant to the matter at hand; for example, if the cost of an idea is a few hundred dollars, whatever problems it has don’t include the specter of poverty in old age.

Look at your family and friends. Look at yourself. What parades – what longings of the heart, big dreams, promises deferred, crazy ideas that just might really work – are eager to get started?

What could you do this year to open paths for them?

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Synesthesia may explain how some healers can see auras

Researchers in Spain have found that at least some of the individuals claiming to see the so-called aura of people actually have the neuropsychological phenomenon known as “synesthesia” (specifically, “emotional synesthesia”). This might be a scientific explanation of their alleged ability.

In synesthetes, the brain regions responsible for the processing of each type of sensory stimuli are intensely interconnected. Synesthetes can see or taste a sound, feel a taste, or associate people or letters with a particular color.

The study was conducted by the University of Granada Department of Experimental Psychology Oscar Iborra, Luis Pastor and Emilio Goez Milan, and has been published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. This is the first time that a scientific explanation has been provided for the esoteric phenomenon of the aura, a supposed energy field of luminous radiation surrounding a person as a halo, which is imperceptible to most human beings.

In basic neurological terms, synesthesia is thought to be due to cross-wiring in the brain of some people (synesthetes); in other words, synesthetes present more synaptic connections than “normal” people. “These extra connections cause them to automatically establish associations between brain areas that are not normally interconnected,” professor Gómez Milán explains. New research suggests that many healers claiming to see the aura of people might have this condition.

The case of the “Santon de Baza”

One of the University of Granada researchers remarked that “not all ‘healers’ are synesthetes, but there is a higher prevalence of this phenomenon among them. The same occurs among painters and artists, for example.” To carry out this study, the researchers interviewed some synesthetes including a ‘healer’ from Granada, “Esteban Sanchez Casas,” known as “El Santon de Baza”.

Many local people attribute “paranormal powers” to El Santon, because of his supposed ability to see the aura of people “but, in fact, it is a clear case of synesthesia,” the researchers explained. According to the researchers, El Santon has face-color synesthesia (the brain region responsible for face recognition is associated with the color-processing region); touch-mirror synesthesia (when the synesthete observes a person who is being touched or is experiencing pain, s/he experiences the same); high empathy (the ability to feel what other person is feeling), and schizotypy (certain personality traits in healthy people involving slight paranoia and delusions). “These capacities make synesthetes have the ability to make people feel understood, and provide them with special emotion and pain reading skills,” the researchers explain.

In the light of the results obtained, the researchers remarked on the significant “placebo effect” that healers have on people, “though some healers really have the ability to see people’s ‘auras’ and feel the pain in others due to synesthesia.” Some healers “have abilities and attitudes that make them believe in their ability to heal other people, but it is actually a case of self-deception, as synesthesia is not an extrasensory power, but a subjective and ‘adorned’ perception of reality,” the researchers state.

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Mindfulness is good for doctors and their patients

Training physicians in mindfulness meditation and communication skills can improve the quality of primary care for both practitioners and their patients, University of Rochester Medical Center researchers report in a study published online this week in the journal Academic Medicine.

As ways to improve primary care, the researchers also recommend promoting a sense of community among physicians and providing time to physicians for personal growth.

“Programs focused on personal awareness and self-development are only part of the solution,” the researchers stated. “Our health care delivery systems must implement systematic change at the practice level to create an environment that supports mindful practice, encourages transparent and clear communication among clinicians, staff, patients, and families, and reduces professional isolation.”

Medical education can better support self-awareness programs for trainees while also promoting role models — preceptors and attending physicians — who exemplify mindful practice in action, they wrote.

The Academic Medicine article, which will be published in the journal’s June print edition, is a follow-up to a study by the researchers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2009. That study found that mindfulness meditation and communication training can alleviate the psychological distress and burnout experienced by many physicians and can improve their well-being.

Seventy physicians from the Rochester, N.Y., area were involved in the initial study. The physicians participated in training that involved eight intensive weekly sessions that were 2 ½ hours long, an all-day session and a maintenance phase of 10 monthly 2 ½-hour sessions. For the new report, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 20 of the physicians who participated in the mindfulness training program.

The findings in the new study include:

  • For 75 percent of the physicians, sharing personal experiences from medical practice with colleagues was one of the most meaningful outcomes of the program.
  • A nonjudgmental atmosphere helped participants feel emotionally safe enough to pause, reflect, and disclose their complex and profound experiences, which, in turn, provided reassurance that they were not alone in their feelings.
  • Sixty percent reported that learning mindfulness skills improved their capacity to listen more attentively and respond more effectively to others at work and home.
  • More than half of the participants acknowledged having increased self-awareness and better ability to respond non-judgmentally during personal or professional conversations.
  • Seventy percent placed a high value on the mindfulness course having an organized, structured, and well-defined curriculum that designated time and space to pause and reflect — not something they would ordinarily consider permissible.
  • Participants also described the personal struggles they have with devoting time and energy toward self-care despite acknowledging its importance.

The researchers have developed and implemented required mindful practice curricula for medical students and residents at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. They also are studying the effects of an intensive, four-day residential course for physicians.

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Entrepreneurs’ secret anti-stress weapon

Jessica Stillman, Inc.: A new study shows even small amounts of meditation relieve stress and boost health. No wonder many business bigwigs turn to it.

Science and religion are often at odds, but at least occasionally there is convergence. Buddhist monks and devoted yogis have long contended that meditation reduces stress. A recent study agrees, even if the practice is stripped of any particular spiritual belief.

The randomized, controlled study was carried about by a team including a Duke university psychologist and an Aetna executive among others and was recently published in Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. The research assigned 239 employees to either weekly …

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