Stranger danger

Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else – doesn’t come naturally to everyone in every situation. While we might flinch if we see someone get slapped – our mirror neurons reacting as if we had been hit – that’s not the same as feeling what they feel. And it turns out that true empathy might even be repressed if the person who is affected is a stranger to us.

A new study out of McGill University demonstrates that the social stress of being around strangers restricts our ability to feel and express empathy for them. Participants were subjected to a painful experience (plunging their arms into ice water) alone, with a friend or with a stranger. The level of pain reported was the same when people were alone or with strangers, but increased when the experience was shared with a friend. Empathizing with the friend’s pain actually increased the amount of pain the participants felt, but they did not have the same reaction when the person across from them was a stranger.

We know that empathy has benefits for society. The Greater Good Science Center lists studies showing that people with empathy are more likely to help others and to be heroic; empathy reduces prejudice, racism and bullying; it increases intimacy in relationships; and it helps managers to foster happier workplaces.New York (2)

At Psychology Today, Guy Winch writes that to build empathy, we have to direct our mind “to a place it does not go of its own accord” —  the other person’s perspective. We have to mindfully “paint the landscape” of that person’s situation in detail, so that we can feel what it’s like to walk in their shoes, look through their eyes. That takes intention and plenty of practice.

The Dalai Lama has said, “On the basis of [shared humanity], you then can learn how to empathize with others beyond your boundaries.” In the McGill study, it took surprisingly little for participants to overcome the boundary of social stress. When the participants spent just 15 minutes playing a video game (Rock Band) together before the experiment, they were able to feel and express empathy for each other during the cold water plunge. Those 15 minutes of shared experience turned strangers into friends, or at least made them familiar enough to lower stress.

Diplomatic efforts and peace talks between countries and factions are often an effort to build familiarity and empathy between people. Sometimes they are successful, like the Camp David Accords, but often they are not. Maybe we need to start smaller and sooner to building familiarity, trust and empathy in order to avoid the kinds of conflict that are so prevalent in the world today.

Jeff Brantley has a practice called “Look deeply at another” that helps alleviate feelings of separation and isolation from others. It starts with mindful breathing, and then selecting an image of someone to focus on. The next steps are:

See the person as if for the first time. Drop all the old stories about him or her. Notice as many details as you can.

Imagine this person moving through the stages of life, as a child, adolescent, adult, in old age, and at death.

See in this person the same wishes and fears everyone has. See the desire for love, safety and peace.

End by releasing the image and noticing your own thoughts and feelings without judgment.IMG_2320

If we look for common values and recognize that most of us want the same basic things from life, we can strengthen our capacity for empathy. Even if we start with something as simple as playing a game together, or saying hello in an elevator, we’re on the right path. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

 

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Our essence

Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person? Do you have only the vaguest idea of what that means? Does it matter?

Spirituality is one of those amorphous words that mean different things to different people. That’s part of why it’s a mistake to draw too many conclusions from the new religious affiliation study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. While the number of people who say they are not affiliated with any religion has grown to 20% of adults, 37% of those people say that they are spiritual; and even among those who do affiliate with a religion, many say they are “spiritual, but not religious”.

Spirituality is important for health, which is why it is one of the Six Dimensions of Wellness. Its role is to bring together the other dimensions by providing meaning and purpose to our lives. It is not enough to be physically, intellectually or socially healthy if there isn’t an overarching “world view” supplying significance to our actions. Herbert Benson, in his book, Timeless Healing, discusses the idea that humans might be the only species with a sense of our own mortality. If our brains were not wired to “harbor beliefs” that there is a deeper meaning to life, we could easily be overcome by dread and fear.

More and more research shows that people who are religious or spiritual are healthier and live longer than those who are not. The problem is that most studies are based on religion rather than that vague “spirituality” because it is easier to measure. So it’s somewhat unclear where the health benefits come from – the belief itself, the healthy behaviors required by some religions, or the social support that comes from belonging to the religious community?

Unlike religion, each of us can personally define spirituality. At its core, it is about feeling connected to something larger than ourselves. As we become more spiritual, we focus on others more than just ourselves, and move away from material things as a source of meaning. So how do you tell if and how you are spiritual? One good way is to ask yourself where you are and what you are doing when you have feelings of spirituality. In the Pew study, about 58% of people said that they have a deep connection with nature and the earth. For many, spirituality can be found most easily in nature.

What are your beliefs and values? Are you putting them into practice in your life? For many of us, stress results when there is conflict between our values and our actions. The Dalai Lama says, “I don’t see any difference between religious practice and daily life. One can do without religion, but not without spirituality.” He calls spirituality “the full blossoming of human values that is essential for the good of all.”

Other characteristics of a spiritual nature are compassion for others, having the capacity to love and to forgive, altruism, and the ability to experience joy. Even if you feel that you are lacking in one of these areas, they can all be developed and enhanced through practice. Whether it’s volunteering in your community or engaging in compassion meditation, there is a way to cultivate greater spiritual connection.

The root word of spirituality, spirit, comes from the Latin word for breath. A sense of spirituality may be as natural to us as breathing. We not only need it to live, we need it to live well.

Cicada vs chain saw

Sounds I hear while meditating:

Cicadas

The hum of something – traffic? A lawnmower?

Yipping of a small dog

A hammer

A chain saw

My breath

There’s something incredibly comforting about the sounds I hear on an average day in my neighborhood: the insects, the birds, construction on a neighbor’s house, the sound of children playing. Like a baby who becomes accustomed to its mother’s voice while in her womb, these are the sounds that tell me everything is “normal”, life goes on.

But when I sit down to meditate, these sounds can also serve as a focal point. Following the breath in mindfulness meditation is very popular, but sometimes I find it difficult to stay focused on the breath. So what I like to do is to just sit and experience the sounds in my environment, especially in the spring and summer. If the windows are open, I can hear a lot of sounds from outdoors, both natural and manmade. Today, with the windows closed and the air conditioning on, most of the sounds were distant and muffled. My house was silent; I couldn’t hear appliances, air conditioning or computers from where I was sitting. So I became very aware of what was happening outside.

Most of the time, we don’t focus on the sounds around us, unless they are exceptionally pleasant or irritating. Sound just becomes a background for whatever we are thinking or doing at the moment. But when I stop and listen to each sound separately, it’s easier to find the quiet spaces between them. Deepak Chopra has said that, “Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there.” Although it seems counterintuitive, paying attention to sound helps me find silence.

While there aren’t many rules for meditating, having a passive attitude (nonjudging) is recommended. One way to achieve this is by becoming the observer rather than the thinker: I am not my thoughts, so I can note them and watch them pass with a sense of detachment. Observing the sounds around me helps with this, because they seem so remote and apart from me. The sound of the chain saw is no worse or better than the sound of the cicada; they both merely exist.

Heightening my awareness of sound, and observing it passively, can lead, I hope, to becoming a less judgmental observer of myself and others. Can I apply that kind of awareness to my own emotions and attitudes, learning to see and identify them before I act on them? The Dalai Lama says that “It is really a matter of habit…the more habituated you are to this awareness of the rising of emotion, the awareness in itself creates a separation between you and the emotion…”

So I listen to the sounds of my neighborhood, and hope to create a habit.