empathy

“Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.” Ann Landers

ann landers

In the long run we inevitably hurt ourselves more than others do. Someone in the past did something that we found hurtful. They did or said something, or failed to do or say something, and we experienced physical or emotional hurt. It’s bound to happen. Each instance of hurt only happened one time in our past, and yet we have the faculty of memory that allows us to recall that incident over and over, and thus hurt ourselves over and over again. That’s how in the long term we can end up hurting ourselves more than the other person did.

Of course we often don’t think of this is as hurting ourselves. We tend to take the mini-dramas that unfold in the mind as being real, and indeed we respond to them as if they were real. When we recall someone saying something cruel to us we feel hurt in much the same way we would if they were here, now, speaking those words.

It’s absurd, really, that we do this — that we keep running through painful scenarios in the filmhouse of the mind. We watch the same movies over and over again, experiencing the same pain over and over again. It’s a form of self-torture.

In fact we often embellish the hurt, imagining whole scenes that never actually happened or imagining that we know the thoughts and motives of another person, as if we were omniscient. Sometimes we even invent scenes that might take place in the future, rehearsing for conflict. These imagined arguments and conflicts may never happen — the future is always uncertain — but we manage to feel the pain of them right now. Self-torture.

I sometimes find myself replaying clashes from the past. Sometimes I think I’m doing it to try to convince myself that I was in the right: “Look how awful he is. Hear the terrible things he says. I’m the injured party. I deserve sympathy.” But when I notice that I’ve slipped into one of these resentment-fests I often try to break out of it by thinking “Who’s arguing with whom?”

It’s obvious when I think about it that I’m arguing with myself. The figure in my imagination who looks like that Fred isn’t really him. It’s not a real person. It’s just neurons firing in my brain, creating a virtual reality representation of Fred (that weasel!) through which I can talk to myself. I create a virtual representation of Fred (the louse!) from one set of neurons and one of myself from another set, and the two parts of my brain have a battle with each other. Isn’t it crazy! And yet we do this all the time.

And it’s so hard to let go of our resentments sometimes. We can keep noticing resentful thoughts arising and try to let go of them and we can keep doing this literally for years and the thoughts will still keep emerging.

Ann Landers’ quote (Esther Lederer was her real name) is a good reminder about the ways in which, through resentment, we give space in our minds to people we have conflicts with. Although of course it’s not really them we’re renting space to.

As well as stopping myself short by reminding myself that both parties in these resentments are myself, I’ve found that I need to have empathy for myself. That, ultimately, is what I think I’m looking for in harboring these resentments. I want sympathy. The drama I’m imagining in my mind is played out for an audience. So who’s the audience? It’s me. But it’s not the same me who’s involved in the argument. That me, remember, is a virtual reality version of myself, conjured up to play a part in a struggle with the virtual Fred (that no-good hound!). No, I think who I’m looking for sympathy for, ultimately, is my real self. And it’s because I’m not giving myself empathy that I have to play the fantasy over and over again.

So why am I not giving myself empathy? Generally it’s because I’m too busy identifying with the virtual-reality me who’s busy fighting with Fred (the snake!). I’m too busy taking his part, thinking I’m being attacked by someone else, to realize that both actors in the drama are parts of me.

So what does it mean to give myself empathy? It means that rather than taking the part of the virtual me against the virtual Fred (the bounder!) I need to realize that I am in pain. The whole drama is unfolding because I, for some reason, am in pain. This isn’t the virtual me I’m talking about, but the real me. So I need to empathize with my pain.

First I need to acknowledge the pain and accept that it’s there. That’s often hard to do because we can feel a sense of shame around feeling pain, as if it’s a sign of failure or weakness.

Next I need to accept the pain. Pain is not something “bad” that has to be banished from our experience. Pain is unpleasant, but it’s simply another experience. So we need to allow pain to be there.

Next I need to send metta (lovingkindness) to the pain. I have to love my pain. Loving my pain doesn’t mean that I want more or it. It’s not a masochistic act to love your pain. Rather, it means relating to the part of ourselves that is in pain, not blaming ourselves and not seeing the pain as something to be gotten rid of, but simply offering the hurting part of ourselves our compassion. Sometimes this is wordless, and other times I use phrases from the Metta Bhavana (lovingkindness) meditation practice: “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.”

I find that in doing this I’m addressing the underlying sense of hurt that gives rise to the recurrent resentment. When I wish my pain well in this way I find that there’s a sense of reconciliation and even of relief, because I’ve finally realized exactly what it was I was looking for. When instead of simply appealing for sympathy we actually give it to ourselves we start to become healed. We’ve begun to address the underlying cause of our inner dramas and we realize that we no longer have such a need to rent out space in our head to conflicts.

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Marguerite Young: “Every heart is the other heart … the individual is the one illusion.”

Marguerite Young, from the cover of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling

“Every heart is the other heart. Every soul is the other soul. Every face is the other face. The individual is the one illusion,” wrote Marguerite Young in her novel, “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling.”

One of the great paradoxes of spiritual practice is that when we empathize with others — sharing their happiness but also their pain — we feel more fulfilled. We’re more alive. We’re happier.

You’d think it would be the other way around: that if we shared another’s pain we’d be more unhappy, and that if we were to steer clear of getting involved in other’s difficulties then we would be happier.

But we don’t seem to be built like that. Humans are inherently social beings, and need one another in order to be fully human.

We all seem to be equipped with brain cells — mirror neurons, they are called — that allow us to empathize with others. A mirror neuron is a brain cell that is active when we perform a certain task, like drinking a cup of coffee, and that also fires when we see someone else performing the same task. When Bill or Belinda picks up a cup of coffee these little mirror neurons start buzzing away like crazy, and we have the experience — without even realizing it, often — that we know what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it, and we know what that experience is like. Mirror neurons are empathy cells. They mirror in your mind what I am doing. They give you the capacity to understand the situation that another person is in.

Empathy goes a lot further of course than knowing what it’s like to pick up a cup of coffee. When Bill picks up his cup and waves it around with excitement, I know what it’s like to be excited. My “being excited” mirror neurons are tingling in response to Bill’s excitement. I perhaps feel a little excited myself, as I recreate his experience in the mirror of my mind.

When Belinda picks up her cup of coffee dejectedly, I know what it’s like to feel dejected. I know Belinda’s depressed, but I also feel this because the mirror neurons that fire up when I get depressed are pulsing now. I feel an inner ache and I wonder, “What’s up with Belinda?”

But Bill and Belinda have their own mirror neurons, and so things now get really interesting. Bill sees me responding to his excitement with my own excitement and he feels his own mirror neurons jumping up and down, as it were, yelling “Look! He gets it too! He understands what it is I’m thrilled about.” Belinda’s mirror neurons respond to the shared pain I’m experiencing and she knows that I understand. Circuits have been completed. Emotions are flowing from one consciousness to another.

We’re connected to each other. We’re not alone. And our experience becomes richer and more satisfying when we connect. Each one of us contains a million half-loops that only come to life when they meet their other half in another person and complete a circuit of emotion and understanding.

In meditation — especially in the Brahmavihara practices (the cultivation of love, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity) — we actively cultivate our ability to resonate with others. These meditations are a kind of mirror neuron workout in which we practice overcoming some of the cognitive barriers that so often prevent us from connecting emotionally with others. They’re mirror neuron aerobics in which we exercise our ability to empathize.

This, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet been tested in the lab, but I’d be willing to bet that the signals that mirror neurons give out can be suppressed by negative emotions such as fear, envy, and resentment. (I should mention that mirror neurons have been studied in macaques and in birds, but because of practical and ethical difficulties they haven’t yet been directly observed in human brains. All the evidence, however, suggests that we have them too).

These negative emotions are the very things that we’re working to counteract in meditation. In the Brahmaviharas we work at connecting with the basic sense we all have that we want to be happy and want to escape suffering. In doing so we of course encounter ill will, attachment, resentment, etc. Those emotions manifest, and we practice acknowledging them, letting go of them, and then allowing our natural sense of empathy to kick in once again. In this way we allow the half-circuits of our own consciousness to connect with the half-circuits of another consciousness. In taking on others’ joy we become happier, and in taking on others sufferings we become more complete and more fulfilled.

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Altruism hard-wired to pleasure centers in brain

Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman

Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman of the US government National Institutes of Health have shown that helping others makes us happy and that altruism is hard-wired into the brain, according to the Washington Post.

When volunteers were asked to imagine two scenarios — keeping a large amount of cash for themselves or giving it away — the more generous scenario activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex.

Altruism, the study suggests, arises not as the result of high-minded philosophy, but is wired into the brain.

The study represents one more way in which scientific research — and particularly brain-imaging — is illuminating the way in which human beings are inherently wired for moral decision-making. Research by Professor David Richardson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has shown that cultivating lovingkindness and compassion leads to a greater sense of wellbeing.

Neuroscientist neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio and his colleagues have also recently shown that patients with damage to an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack the ability to feel their way to moral answers. Such brain-damaged patients lacked the moral qualms most people experience when making choices that harm some people but bring benefits to others, and adopted a cold and clinical form of decision-making.

As a results of other studies Harvard researcher Marc Hauser has proposed that people in all cultures have similar moral processing mechanisms, although the way that these manifest is culturally conditioned.

The sum total of these research studies suggests that empathy is not only the key to moral behavior, but that it is also a way of becoming happier. By performing or even just imagining acts that benefit others we directly benefit ourselves. This confirms the experience of generations of meditation practitioners who have found that lovingkindness and compassion meditation brings feelings of happiness and even bliss.

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