People do terrible things. In this blog I am exploring one of the reasons why that might be.
A man gets killed by a police officer, because he has the wrong skin colour. Another man knowingly produces substandard silicon implants and tens of thousands of people end up with terrible health issues. Every day several square miles of rain forrest get chopped down for short term profits. When you look at the headlines of the news you might sometimes ask yourself: How can anybody do something like that?
For me these are all symptoms of the same underlying problem. The problem that we are living in a culture that fosters disconnection. The dominant view especially in the Western culture for many centuries has been that we are separate from nature. We do not see ourselves as part of nature. We see ourselves as above nature. Nature is there for us to do with as we please. It is there to be exploited and treated as we see fit. And the crucial thing here is that we include our physical nature in that. There is a deeply held narrative in our culture that the body is bad, sinful, less than the mind. We mistrust our body. We do not listen to it. It needs to be avoided and controlled. Descartes famously said: “ I think, therefore I am!” It encapsulated and also cemented the prevailing view of his time. And more importantly, it has significantly influenced our relationship to nature and our bodies ever since. Why did he say this? Why did he not say: I feel therefore I am? Or: I sense therefore I am? Because he did not trust his body. He was a child of his time. A time when witch hunting was at its hight. Witches were the antithesis of what man stood for: rational, objective and in control. His analysis of existence told him that he could not trust his senses or his emotions. They did not seem reliable. Or, more to the point they did not seem to be in his control. Why he thought his thoughts were is a mystery to me, but there it is.
What has that to do with the headlines I mentioned?
Our senses and our emotions play a vital part in our ability to read the world around us correctly and respond in a way that is appropriate to what is in front of our noses. It is an intricate feedback system that constantly learns and adjusts. For example we have these amazing mirror neurons that activate when we watch someone else doing something. We automatically start to mimic their gestures and movements and thus feeling into what it is like to be that person. Try it out yourself, if you do not believe me. Sit opposite someone who is smiling and see if you do not find it hard not to smile yourself. The classic one for this is of course yawning. How hard is it to not start yawning when someone in front of you starts to yawn? We automatically wince when someone drops something heavy on their toes. Mirror neurons help us to understand the world from the inside out. They are the prerequisite for empathy and that is the precursor for compassion. Empathy is the ability to feel with, to feel as if what happened to the other is happening to you. Compassion on the other hand is the ability to feel what is happening to the other and then to want to do something about that. When we are connected to this amazing system, it allows us to know and understand what is happening on a deep level within ourselves and around us. We have a sense of belonging and connectedness.
Sadly in our upbringing this feedback loop gets cut off. We get loads of messages that feeling emotions is bad, or dangerous; that trusting your intuition is stupid and only the objective and rational mind is valid in interpreting and assessing the world. From very early on in our lives we cut off from our own inner world, from our own bodies and the wisdom it has. A wisdom that kept us as a species alive and thriving for millennia. And the result? We have very little empathy or compassion for ourselves or others. We fear others and dehumanise them, we disconnected from the world around us and treat it with contempt and disregard. If we don’t know what we feel or sense, how can we know what others feel? If we are not in harmony with our own nature, how can we understand or even care about what the world needs? For me the whole tragedy of where we are just now with all the urgent crises in our world and injustices starts with how I relate to me.
So, if you are like me and ask your self with horror: “How can anybody do something like that?” (Whatever, THAT is) Then you are already ahead of the game of those who do these things and don’t feel there is anything wrong with that. Your feedback loop works. At least it works well enough for you to know that something is wrong. How wonderful is that? Celebrate your ability to feel connected. It’s what we need, if we want to find a way forward with all of the issues humanity is facing just now. But don’t stop there. If you feel the wrongness of something but do not feel compelled to do something about it, then you are not quite there yet. You have empathy, but not compassion. There is definitely a need to strengthen the system. Empathy alone can easily make you feel hopeless and helpless.
What is needed to be able to feel compassion? Try gratitude and appreciation. For a month every morning think about three new things every day that you are grateful for, or that you appreciate. Write them down and really connect with why you feel grateful. For example you could think: I am grateful that I can see. And then reflect on what a wonderful thing it is to be able to see and how different the world would be for you, if you could not. Or you could think: I appreciate the song of the blackbird that wakes me up every morning. And then you could reflect on what a marvellous being a song bird is and what the world would be like, if they were no longer here. Try it out and notice how this practice helps you to feel more connected and also how it fosters your ability to have compassion.
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May you thrive in life!