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Posts Tagged ‘Empathy’

rs53576 AA (not GG)

I’m so lonely sometimes, but I never want to go out. I have 2 “A” alleles at rs53576 (link to science).

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We all have a story.  You know, the narrative of you … your life, its twists and turns … the person you are inside, the person you want(ed) to be … the special, unique person that you are.  Your story is something you naturally think about … a lot.  Is this who I am? … is this the way I want my life to be?  In some ways, our personal narratives are our most prized possessions … the one thing we hope will never be lost, even long after we are gone.

Everyone has a story.  Each parent, sibling, friend, co-worker and stranger you meet has a story.  When you see them in passing, you can be sure that some part of their mind is dwelling on their own personal narrative … whether it be the clothes they selected, the food they prepared or perhaps the job they are quitting or new place they are moving away to.  Just like you and me, their own personal narrative matters.

Sure, you might know personal or genetic information about those close to you … but do you know their stories?  Do you know how they came to be who they are? and who they want to be?  Do you know how their parents shaped their view of themselves?  What major experiences shaped their view of themselves?  Do you know what they think is special about themselves?  Do you know what they feel afraid of? what they think are their best and worst traits?  Do you know their narrative?

Mind you … knowing a person’s story is not the same thing as knowing “them”.  Knowing someone vs. knowing someone’s narrative can be  two separate things … one being their story, and the other, your story (about who you perceive them to be).  Do you know the inner story; the one that they tell to themselves, about who they are?

Think of the person you love the most in this world … the person you long to be closer and closer to … to share everything with.  How well do you really know their inner story?  Not “them” as you perceive them, but the way they perceive themselves.  How well do they know your inner story?  If you know their inner story, ask yourself if you feel motivated to help them develop into the person that they long to be.  Do you?  Do you think they wake up each day and try to help your inner story blossom?  Do they protect and preserve your story so that it remains alive in the world?

We all have a story … an epic adventure … of love, fulfillment, loss and failure … with a beginning and an end.  We are surrounded by a myriad of these epic tales everyday and one of the most humane and loving things you can do for another person is to just listen … listen to their story … let their voice be heard … and let them know their story is amazing and that you will never forget it.

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Here’s an excerpt from William Vollmann’s book Poor People … of an exchange between two men … one, a passerby, and the other, homeless “young, bearded, well-clad, his his bluejean legs sewn into pockets around his stumps“.

He expressed through his noninsistence my right not to give him anything, and the little that I did give was simply my recognition of him as he was.  The more I write about this moment, the more I degrade it; for making it significant cannot but seem a pretension to generosity or superiority on my part, or at least a magnification of his deformity.  But the significance was precisely in the insignificance.  We saw each other; I gave; he accepted; we forgot each other.

Man, Vollmann is such an awesome writer and I feel grateful for all the feelings of empathy, acceptance and forgiveness that his book book is stirring up in me.  Somewhere inside “me” is a part that is really inspired by Vollmann … that wants to speak with the same empathy, clarity and attention to human dignity and emotion.

Is this part of “me” – my favorite part of who I am – partially encoded in my genome?  Genes to facilitate a deep desire for social connection and acceptance? Genes for helping me see clearly and honestly through all my cognitive biases and filters?  Genes that underlie my sense of fairness and trust?  These would be my favorite genes … ones that I would study in depth.

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A young woman and man embracing while outdoors.
Image via Wikipedia

Please forgive the absurd title here … its just a play on words from a flabby, middle-aged science geek who is as alluring to “the ladies” as an old leather boot.

Like a lot of males (with active fantasy lives I suppose), my interest was piqued by the recent headline, “What Do Women Really Want? Oxytocin” – based on a recent lecture at this years Society for Neuroscience annual conference.

Oxytocin is a small hormone that also modulates brain activity.  Many have referred it as the “Love Hormone” because it is released into the female brain during breastfeeding (where moms report feeling inextricably drawn to their infants), orgasm and other trust-building and social bonding experiences.  So, the premise of the title (from the male point of view), is a fairly simplistic – but futile – effort to circumvent the whole “social interaction thing” and reduce dating down to handy ways of raising oxytocin levels in females (voila! happier females more prone to social (ahem) bonding).

Of course, Mother Nature is not stupid.  Unless you are an infant, there is no “increase in oxytocin” without a prior “social bonding or shared social experience”.  Mother Nature has the upper hand here … no physical bonding without social binding first!

So, what the heck does this have to do with yoga?  Yes, its true that yoga studios are packed with friendly, health conscious females, but, the practice is mainly a solitary endeavor.  Aside from the chatter before and after class, and the small amount of oxytocin that is released during exercise, there is no social bonding going on that would release the so-called “love hormone”.  Thus, even though “women want yoga”, yoga class may not be the ideal location to “score with chicks”.

However, there may be one aspect of yoga practice that can facilitate social bonding (and hence oxytocin release).  One benefit of a yoga practice (as covered here, here) is an increased ability to “be present” – an improved ability to pay closer attention to your own thoughts and feelings, and also, the thoughts and feelings of another person.

The scientific literature is fairly rich in research showing a close relationship between attention, shared- or joint-attention, trust and oxytocin, and the idea is pretty obvious.  If you are really paying attention to the other person, and paying attention to your shared experience in the moment, the social bond will be stronger, more enjoyable and longer-lasting.  Right?

Soooo – if you want the oxytocin to flow – look your partner in the eye, listen to their thoughts, listen to your own reactions, listen to, and feel their breath as it intermingles with your own, feel their feelings and your own, slow-down and enjoy the minute details of the whole experience and be “right there, right now” with them.  Even if you’ve been with the same person for 40 years, each moment will be new and interesting.

Yoga will teach you how to do this.

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Have you ever lost track of time in yoga class?  On a good day, I’ll get so into the practice that my awareness of “how much time still to go?” comes at the very end.  Other days, I might feel time dragging as if the class is taking forever (best not to glance at a wristwatch).

We – as human beings – have a very poor sense of time.  Intensely new and wonderful experiences may pass too quickly, but remembered years later, seem greatly expanded.  In flashes of intense fear, time has a way of moving very slowly, yet un-recallable in repressed memories.  Sitting and waiting for a bus makes time pass so very slowly, until an attractive or interesting person sits next to you.

Somehow its not time, per se, that we measure, but rather the intensity of our emotional experience that makes time expand and contract.

Yoga texts are chock full of references to “consciousness” and the “illusions” of everyday thinking.  Sometimes, these notions can sound hokey when spoken in the NJ suburbs where I practice, but that doesn’t mean they are not true.  Just consider how illusory your perceptions of time are.  Your sense of time is just a by-product of your experience – its not an absolute “thing” you can measure.  Your sense of YOU and the events in your life – as they stretch out over time – the mere jumble of memories – is very far from the objective reality you might want think.  We all live in the illusions created by our own minds.

When it comes to the illusions of time, somehow, it seems, our perception of time is tied mainly to the intensity of our emotional experience.   People seem to understand this.  Folks like Marcel Proust who wrote, “Love is space and time measured by the heart.”   And folks like Craig Wright who wrote the play – Melissa Arctic – that made me acutely aware of the illusion of time in our all too brief lives.  Check it out if you ever get the chance.  The play – wherein a young child plays the role of “time” – pulls you through the course of one man’s tragic life and deeply into your heart to realize that time is, indeed, measured by the heart – captured and measured by the intensity of emotional experience.  Consider how Time, the young child, invokes the audience at the start of the play, “Everything be still. Can everything be perfectly still?”

Needless to say, this all sounds much like the common yogic counsel to “stop thinking and start feeling” and “live in the present moment“.  Perhaps its worth recognizing how fallible, illusionary and fanciful our sense of time really is.  Perhaps also, emotions are the key here.  Perhaps I should try harder to engage my heart in life (and in yoga class) –  the key to really experiencing now and living in this present moment.

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Are they practicing breath control?  No.  Are they practicing postures?  No.  Are they desperately seeking meaning and a connection with divinity?  Yes.  Are they pulled in one direction by the wants of the body, and in another direction by the wants of the spirit?  Yes.  Do they cope day to day with grim realities of suffering and loss in a place where, “gravity is stronger and you can feel it pulling you closer into the earth everyday”.  Yes.

These are the very themes of yoga.  Beautifully captured in picture and sound in the 2003 film “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus“.

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Gita Chapter 11:32
Image via Wikipedia

Pointer to a neat lecture on humans’ natural predisposition toward empathy which seems to be rooted deeply in our species’ need for social belonging as well as “grounded in the acknowledgment of death” (related post here).   The virtue of compassion is obviously deeply rooted in Bhagavad Gita and certainly a mental and emotional capacity that should grow and flourish with yoga practice.  Nice to see its biological roots under investigation in mainstream science!

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