Wednesday, February 25, 2015


“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”  Lao Tzu

Over the course of the past couple of weeks, in various things that I've been reading, I've come across the concept of empathy. I decided to research the topic further and found myself WAY out of my depth. I had assumed there was quite a bit of research on it but not as much as I found. Initially this made me feel overwhelmed but then a question popped to mind. Why is this? I think it might be because we have this idea in our culture of empathy as some kind of magic power. Maybe the volumes and reams of writings on it are an attempt to show that it is not magic at all. The common thread in many of the things I read though is that empathy, in the simplest sense, just means identifying someone else's feelings or emotions and relating them back to your own.

As Brené Brown so eloquently stated, there is difference between sympathy and empathy. In her words “empathy drives connection and sympathy drives disconnection.” In other words sympathy is being an outside observer. Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Sian Bielock talks about the concept in terms of embodied cognition in that emotions contain outwardly visible cues and part of empathy is reading and identifying with someone else’s “body language.” In her research she talks about how being able to identify with someone’s feelings actually makes our brain behave similarly to having those feelings ourselves. Think of being embarrassed for someone or being sad for someone that you don’t even know. This is not a detached “feeling sorry” (i.e. sympathy). In these cases you are putting yourself in the shoes of the other person and actually feeling sad or embarrassed on a chemical level. This goes for positive emotions too.  

When I think about what all of this has in common with my concept of the “fluid normal” it is about being present. When I talk about being present I'm not talking about it as some sort of mystical meditative present. I'm thinking it was more of it in terms of the Lao Tzu quote above. Living in the past or the future means you are not being observant of the present. Remember from a past post I talked about how Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that the brain has a finite amount of processing power. Spending brainpower thinking about the past and future takes away from the attention you can spend on the present.  Spending more brainpower on the present can mean seeing something in another person but more importantly in might mean seeing something in yourself that you can reflect on and relate to others. If your emotional reaction to things is muted, then so will be your ability to be empathetic to the feeling in someone else. 

As a digression, I think smartphones are an empathy killer... but there is probably an app for that.

So then empathy is not magic at all. Quite the contrary. I think we see it as some sort of witchcraft because we are so disconnected with the present that our ability to see ourselves in others is compromised. Remember, we are all sides of the same coin or reflections of each other. There is a great Alan Watts quote, “the relationship of self to other is the complete realization that loving yourself is impossible without loving everything defined as other than yourself.” To me love in this context is not an “I Love You” kind of love but rather a love of the moment. Brené Brown talks about it as experiencing the moment non-judgmentally. Think of love then as a non-judgmental acceptance of the moment. This certainly doesn’t mean that you have to LIKE every moment, but the moment is the moment and you can only influence the future by how you deal with the now.  

In all of this the key in my mind is being in the moment with yourself. This deepens your connection with others.  

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