Sunday, October 18, 2020

Cultivating Empathy

                                                                                               written 11 October 2020

                                                                                           published 18 October 2020


            Prompted by William Russell's October 4th UDJ letter to the editor, I re-read Roberta Werdinger's August 19th essay "Poetry and empathy: The power of individual story", where she urges more sharing of personal experience through storytelling and empathetic listening as a mode for healing the divisions in our culture.

            Werdinger suggests that ideas are used to beat up the "other".  But it is the identification of "self" with specific ideas, that is the fuel for conflict, not the ideas themselves.  This is made worse by a cultural devaluation of empathy.  We have only to look at our current president to see that our political system does not prioritize empathy, and in economics, rational analysis is considered a virtue, while empathy is considered a liability. 

            For decades, I searched for the root of social ills, and eventually settled on the myth of separation which sees the "other" as enemy.  But it took longer to find how this become so endemic.  Leonard Shlain's book, "The Alphabet Versus The Goddess" suggests the rise of alphabetic literacy tipped the scales, prioritizing left-brain processes of differentiation and sequence.  Ideas, concepts, time, and the individual sense of self reside in the left brain, preoccupied with the past and the future.  The right brain processes whole systems, operating in the eternal now of experience, and is the seat of emotions, empathy, creativity, and inspiration.  

            In his recent book, "Leonardo's Brain", Shlain points to Leonardo Da Vinci as an example of an integrated left and right brain producing creative genius.  The two hemispheres are connected by a massive nerve bundle called the corpus callosum, which tends to be larger in women, artists, left handed people, and gay men.  That goes a long way to explaining our current social distress! 

            We rarely just experience the world as it is, but immediately interpret each experience within a framework of concepts, or stories.  Our internal story accumulates over time, beginning from the moment we are born and learn to speak, for language is a synthetic symbolic structure, processed in our left brain.  We constantly harmonize our collection of stories to maintain a unique, coherent worldview, which shapes how we view ourselves, and how we relate to others.  Werdinger's solution relies on strengthening right-brain qualities of empathy, overcoming left brain patterning, transcending the internal story.

            Much of our conceptual story is unconscious.  Without noticing we have identified with a story, we become trapped in its limited conceptual framework, internalizing the fears and biases of our family and culture, perpetuating misunderstandings and prejudices, while believing we experience reality clearly.  Racism, misogyny, tribalism, and classism are passed from generation to generation, an enduring legacy of sorrow, misery, and hatred.  

            Jill Bolte Taylor, author of "My Stroke Of Insight", described her experience of a massive left-brain stroke and her eight-year recovery.  When it happened, she lost all sense of her individual self and all her stories, including her language.  With the left brain quieted, she experienced a deep feeling of peace and a profound connection with everything in the world.  This is the domain of the right brain.  As her recovery progressed, her stories returned to her, but from her right brain perspective, she was able to evaluate which ones she wanted to reintegrate and which she could eliminate as no longer useful.

            For those of us dominated by left-brain concept, short of a stroke, how can I intentionally shift?  With attention, I can begin to notice the stories I am operating within, without judgment, just recognition.  The very act of noticing creates a slight distance between my awareness and my story, and begins the process of de-identification.  With practice, this space expands, and I have an opportunity for choice.  In this space, something new can arise.  Sitting meditation helps me cultivates this aware presence, increasing possible access to the domain of my right brain: empathy, inspiration, and creativity.  

            We face a world where old patterns are breaking down, and there is need for more creativity.  Intentional cultivation of greater cooperation between our left and right brain perspectives will help.  Humans are a young species, and have yet to experience the fullness of human potential. 

            Rumi summarized this beautifully.  “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field.  I will meet you there."