A Bright, Vibrant Blue Diamond
A Bright, Vibrant Blue Diamond
John Æonid, Reflections in a Personal Web Site
John Æonid, Reflections in a Personal Web Site

Empathy and the Divided Culture

December 25, 2016, John Æonid

There has recently emerged an interesting shift in our cultures.  Curiously, this is the culture becoming aware of a problem in the nature of itself.  It is becoming more aware of the divisiveness that drives the turmoil in the World.  This seems to me to be the evidence that a greater expansion of human consciousness is both possible and likely.  So, I am essentially in agreement with those who are predicting this expansion and saying that this is the time to put forth the effort to grow and expand our consciousness—particularly in that much suffering is about to be forced upon the World.

The focus that I want to place on this is towards a sense of connectedness.  I've already written an article on the amazing amount of connectedness that can be created in a simple greeting with “Happy Friday Eve”.  And, I want people to make that part of their life's practice—to put their heart into their greetings and to embrace the hearts of others as they offer us their greetings.

But, the big problems that people face come from the divisiveness that exits across all cultures.  It's something that arises from the nature of consciousness and empathy.  And, it's something that needs to be recognized and understood before we can expect to make our divisive impulses manageable.

Empathy plays a funny role in this.  Empathy is our ability to know how others feel, and it does so by mirroring the feelings of others.  That is, we experience feelings that resemble those we imagine that others are having.  This essentially a product of theory of mind—which is the evolved capacity to imagine what others are thinking.  It evolved because of the survival advantage it provides.  It functions from the perspective of both competition and collaboration.  It allows us to anticipate the actions and desires of others.  It is essentially the ability to put ourselves in the perspectives of another—whether we fear some competition or whether we anticipate an advantage in collaboration.

But, I find a particular frustration with the empathic capacity.  While, I am primarily a rational person, I am also a highly sensitive person (HSP), and this includes having an empathic, emotional side—one that I generally value highly—even to the point of being a soppy sentimentalist.  Note that Elaine Aron is a researcher who has done extensive work on sensitivity.  She has a free online self test for this, and there is now a documentary, Sensitive — The Untold Story on the subject, featuring Alanis Morrisette.

The problem with this kind of sensitivity is that it's hard to turn it off.  We feel compelled to feel what others feel—even when that person is not such a nice person.  For instance, we end up with an intimate knowledge of a horrible thing like racism, because we can not imagine the existence of a racist without an unavoidable impulse to imagine the ugly, dark feelings within a racist.  This includes the bitter and ugly words they use.  And for a sensitive person, to imagine the feelings of others is to have those feelings and hear their words—regardless of how uncomfortable it is to have such experiences.

This provides and intensely strong motivation to oppose anything that propagates such a thing as racism.  I can certainly understand why some would like to eradicate certain words from our language, though I am not a believer in censorship.  It is the culture that needs to outgrow those dark perspectives.

Note that, technically, empathy and theory of mind are not exactly the same thing.  But, I do feel that they are tied to the same evolutionary development and purpose.  Interestingly, psychopaths do not have an impaired theory of mind.  In fact, testing shows that on this capcity they fair as well as most adults—even above the level of impairment found in those on the autism spectrum.  But they are considered to have impaired capacity for empathy.  Think about the fictional character Dr. Hannibal Lecter, identified as not being a true psychopath, but is portrayed as a genius psychiatrist with no conscience.  This portrayal plays on both our empathy and our theory of mind—as we puzzle over the thoughts and motivations of such a person.

Divisiveness, as it manifests in cultures and between cultures, is a problem of limited perspective.  However obvious this statement, it bears closer examination.  Elsewhere, I have written that, in my late teens, I began to see that I could learn anything from anybody—regardless of their status in society or background.  It's simply a matter of not immediately judging a statement as right or wrong—as there is no need to judge a statement until it might be put to use.  So, all ideas find their merit upon their utility or usefulness.  However, this is not a perfect rule, and there is an efficiency problem with this, as there is simply too much to remember.  But over the decades of employing this concept, what I have found is that I can easily shift perspectives—without become overly entangled with any one perspective.  In fact, I'm quite certain that, in this ability to easily shift perspectives, I am simply incapable of being locked into any single perspective, at least not consciously.  It also seems unavoidable that this would tie to my sensitivity and my empathic nature.

This is essentially the basis for how I have come to have these views—that the World is divided primarily because of limited perspective.  However obvious that statement, it needs to be understood that there is a fundamental problem with having any perspective—especially ones that involves the self.  To get to the root of this and take us beyond the associated limitations, let's examine the spiritual perspectives of non-dualism and universality—or at least some limited examples of them.

I am fascinated by the rather unique experience of one particular self-help guru, Byron Katie.  She had at one point been so miserable and depressed that she ended up in a halfway house for over-eaters.  But in her bitterness, she had become such a scary person that the other residents of that halfway house didn't want her there.  The other residents ended up making her live in the attic, and they were so afraid of her that they placed pots and pans on the stairway to the attic—so that they would be able to hear her, in case she came down the stairs unexpectedly.

Her awaking came one morning as she literally awoke from a night's sleep.  She had been sleeping on the floor—because her self loathing had her thinking that she wasn't worthy of a her bed.  She awoke to a cockroach crawling across her foot.  She got up and went to the mirror.  But that morning, she was not looking at herself in the mirror, at least not in the way most conscious people would.  She had awoke with absolutely no sense of self.  She didn't even have a sense of having a name.  It wasn't until someone called her by name that she remembered she even had a name and what that name was.  It was out of this event that Byron Katie's entire self-help program was founded, and it was on the recognition that in that moment, of having no self—there was no suffering.  As see gazed at the image in the mirror, all of the self loathing and dark bitterness that made her such a fearsome person was simply not there.  Just think, the World can't be against you if there is no you, nor can you or your thoughts be against you—without any you.  There is no perspective, no opinion, and no divisiveness when experiencing the absence of self.

It was from that experience that she began the self examination and meditation that allowed her to develop her self-help program—the one she calls “the work”.  The important point for this discussion is simply this: “the work” is a method for people to comfortably examine their own perspective and the suffering it brings them.  But more importantly, our perspective—as she well came to understand—has an immense effect on how we treat others and how we are viewed.  Perspective is the fundamental basis of all conflict.  That is, you can't be in conflict with someone else without a conflicting perspective.  Again, a fairly obvious statement—but this hints at a fundamental and pervasive essence for the problem of perspective.

People come to feel very isolated in a limited perspective.  And, most limited perspectives are nothing more than logical traps.  We come to be enslaved by our own viewpoints and opinions.  Knowing this makes me value highly the ability to see many viewpoints and recognize ones that can connect people in collaboration and have us step outside conflict.

Notice, however, that the ultimate perspective is the one that embraces all perspectives.  Well, some might say it is a perspective of non-duality or of being one with everything.  But, to retain a sense of humanity, consciousness must have a sense of human perspectives.  There would be no compassion with out it.

This embracing of all perspectives is very difficult for some people.  This is a World in which there has been horrible suffering, and we feel we must oppose the perpetrators that inflict such suffering.  This makes us very attached to very particular perspectives—ones that identify and seek to “fix” the perpetrators.  However, those that seem to need “fixing” are generally those with conflicting perspectives—and they will resist such “fixing”—often violently.  So, perspectives that view some as perpetrators are also limited perspectives—and thus also create suffering.  Even my animosity towards racism presents a problem.  That is, I can see that we will not be able to eliminate it by attacking those spreading it—or anything of that nature.  And, the recently emerging cultural backlash shows quite clearly that there would be a horrific war if there was any attempt to eliminate racism by attacking racists.  Essentially, it would just be fighting hate with hate.

Instead, we must approach it with positivism.  We must show that the negativity is much ado about nothing, and we must do that by showing the joy that can be achieved—beyond the limited perspectives.  Byron Katie titled the most important her books “Loving What Is”, because anything that isn't embraced will annoy you at some level.  Ignoring it won't work; tolerating it won't work.  Any annoyance in perspective is a seed that triggers more suffering.  Instead, all that exists must be embraced.  Anything less is a limited perspective, and engaging in a limited perspective, particularly through conflict, only creates more limited perspectives and suffering.  Connecting people at the level of the heart is always at the essence of stepping beyond an isolated realm.

Mind you, I don't think this is easy.  I find racism, as well as other limited perspectives, to be extremely uncomfortable, frustrating, and angering.  Yes, I have my tirades on the evils of the World.  In fact, I once aspired to become a crusty old curmudgeon—until I realized that aspiration is inherently optimistic.  But despite being an optimist, I've long been a fan of clear-thinking, angry curmudgeons, and I admire those able to see the suffering and the causes of suffering.  But, I am an optimist by nature, and I have to allow that I only get to be a curmudgeon on rainy days.  So, I know that this is hard—but conflict will continue to persist until all perspectives are sufficently broadened.

Also, many of those dark or limited perspectives demand that they be adopted by all.  And, I do not really want to listen that kind of insistence.  Nor will I allow myself to linger in such perspectives, let alone wallow in them.  Still, we are unavoidably confronted with them and their insistence.  And, I think that leaves you with this: the best you can do is open your heart.  That doesn't guarantee that people will connect.  But, if people don't see that you're heart is open, they will only be that less willing to connect.

So, why Love?  There is plenty that has already been written on what Love is.  Here, Love is an aspect of self that seeks wellbeing for others.  This is not in sacrifice of the self, but rather an awareness that wellbeing for the self is degraded if others suffer.  That is, conflict reaches us whether we are in the midst of it or not.  This concept of Love does not have to be grandiose; it can be very subtle.  But when it grows into joy, it creates its own grandeur.

Note that, from what I'd mentioned before, the aspect of theory of mind that contrasts with collaboration is competition.  It's one that puts us in conflict with others.  The fundamental reason for this is a problem of limited resources.  But, notice that we have beliefs about such scarcity.  And, our belief in scarcity leads us to create a society the functions from that perspective—one that assumes that limited resources are the unavoidable nature of the Universe.  Out of this, we've created a Worldwide economic system that assumes that scarcity is unavoidable and justifies the perspective that some will have to lose out.  The result is that such an economic system hordes resources to the point that it creates scarcity, and thus becomes self justifying.  That is, our perspective gives it the power to create a balance between supply and demand that will always require us to struggle to keep afloat.

Even wealthy people are driven by a fear that they might drop a rung on the ladder—even though the rungs consist of the shoulders they stand upon.  If the World culture were to ever lose the perspective and cease to support and participate in the illusion of scarcity, then we would find that feeding everybody is really not all that hard.  We would find it easy to change the way we consume resources so competitively.  Or at least, we would stop feeding a machine that insists upon keeping us divided, weak, and at each others throats.

Love is part of the evolved advantage we achieve in collaboration, along with the faculties of empathy and theory of mind.  Our World is becoming more crowded.  This is both a matter of filling up the empty spaces and the way that technology spurs a spreading cultural change.  This growing closeness is unavoidably creating cultural friction and backlash.  Collaboration then becomes essential to resolving this friction.  So, we must engage our collaborative faculties in order to survive.  And, it is in the fundamental nature of these faculties that divisiveness is an impediment.  Theory of mind and empathy are what brings us a shared understanding, and this is most easily and directly achieved through the connectedness of our Hearts.  And, the word for this is Love.

There are terms other than Love that people may prefer to engage as key to this discussion.  “Clarity” is an important one, and one that I've used myself.  Real clarity is that which sees all perspectives, and therefore ties back to empathy and theory of mind.  Clarity is a major focus of Zen, and practitioners of Zen should know that the common conclusion that arises in clarity is the importance of Compassion.  In Christianity, Love is a major focus.  It is named as the greatest of all things.  But, institutional dogmatism clearly leads to limited perspectives.  Such institutions often place an enormous emphasis on Faith—even to a degree that eclipses Love.  But, the essential purpose of Faith is to address fear—which is also a product of limited perspectives.  Remember, Religion is not a game that we win and someone else loses.  If Love does not cross institutional boundaries, then the institution is lacking.  And, the Planet is too crowded for this to stop at institutional boundaries.  Love must reach around the World and out through and beyond all of the galaxies.

That is the nature of the connectedness, and this is what is necessary to prevent a World-wide collapse.  Limited perspectives and divisiveness will only push us closer to the brink.  Stop fighting for a perspective; instead, strive to consciously expand your capacity to connect with anyone's and everyone's viewpoint—with the Universal Connectedness that is only possible through Universal Love.

Ultimately, this problem with perspectives is in the World culture, it ties to our fundamental nature, and we infuse it into or Political and Economic systems.  We cannot achieve any further improvement solely through political referendums.  This is not a top down issue; it's a bottom up issue.  Unless the people expand their conscious ability to see and experience multiple perspectives, the people of the World will continue to create societies that are at odds with each other—both internally and externally.

Expanding our conscious capacities is essential, and it must result in a lasting change in the fundamental nature of human culture.  Use clarity to see beyond all boundaries; use compassion to connect at the level of the heart.  And, end the belief, as well as the fear, that we lose unless we beat others.  Otherwise, everybody loses.  Start with your own expansion of consciousness and the capacity for connectedness.  Then, show others how this is possible.  Let this be how those that suffer find the way.

Peace, Blessings, Insight, and Clarity

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