The universality of my experience

Whatever I experience, I can be certain that it’s shared with innumerable humans. Innumerable humans now, in the past, and in the future will share this experience in a very similar way.

It may also be that innumerable beings of many different species have experienced something very similar, are experiencing it, and will experience it.

We are in it together.

SINGLED OUT VS FELLOWSHIP

If I tell myself this is only happening to me, it’s easy to go into “poor me” and “why me” thoughts. I feel isolated and alone. I feel singled out. I feel especially unlucky. I feel that others have it better than me, and I can find any number of examples. (Based on comparing imaginations of me and them.)

If I remind myself of the universality of my experience, I realize that this experience is shared by a vast number of beings. Perhaps most experience something like that at some point in their life if they are lucky to live long enough. We are in it together.

It gives me a sense of fellowship. It gives me a sense of connection. It removes the feeling of being singled out, whether my personality sees that as good or bad.

Reminding me of this naturally deepens my empathy with myself and others. They are like me. And this empathy especially deepens when this noticing becomes a habit, a part of daily life.

EXPERIENCES MY PERSONALITY LIKES AND DOESN’T LIKE

This applies to the experiences my personality doesn’t like – physical or emotional pain, overwhelm, struggle, confusion, illness, discomfort, and so on.

It also applies to the experiences my personality does like – pleasure, joy, excitement, calm, comfort, contentment, peace, and so on. This too is experienced by innumerable humans and likely innumerable beings of many different species.

This too ties us together. This too is a reminder of our fellowship. This too deepens my empathy when I notice.

WHAT IS AN EXPERIENCE?

It’s important to clarify for ourselves what we mean by “an experience”.

Our initial response may be that we know. And when we look a little closer, we may surprise ourselves.

When I explore this for myself, I find that my experience is whatever is happening in my sense fields – sight, sound, smell, taste, movement, physical sensations, and an overlay of mental representations making sense of it all. (Sometimes in painful ways.)

It’s especially the combination of physical sensations and mental representations that creates my experience.

And in this context, it’s mainly the physical sensations with most of the conscious stories stripped away.

These are what my personality responds to with likes and dislikes. (And, of course, the likes and dislikes have stories behind them, many not conscious and learned early in life.)

For me, the focus is mainly on my physical sensations and how my system responds to these. How is it to remind myself that this experience – these physical sensations and the way my system responds to them – is universal? Is shared by innumerable humans and beings?

This is the essence of this exploration, and honing in on the physical sensations simplifies and gives a more clear focus.

A SIMPLE EXPLORATION

This can be a simple exploration in daily life.

What happens when I remind myself of the universality of what I am experiencing now?

What happens when this becomes a new habit? When I do it whenever I remember through the day?

What happens if I use difficult experiences as a reminder of this? And enjoyable experiences? And more neutral experiences?

How does my relationship with myself and others shift?

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How we interpret the behavior of others

I have a covid patient in my life, and a nurse told her: “you may be OK now but you can get worse and die at any moment”. In that vulnerable situation, this was understandably experienced as unnecessary and frightening by the patient.

How do we interpret the nurse’s behavior? Do we assume the nurse scared the patient intentionally? And if so, that she is cruel, sadistic, stupid, or something else?

Or do we acknowledge that we don’t know? We don’t know much about her or her intention. Nor do we know much about her life or the situation she is in. She may have had the best of intentions and not realized how it could be received. It may be that she is frightened and stressed, and said it in a way she wouldn’t if she was in a different situation and state. Even if this is a pattern for her behavior, it’s very likely a response to her own fear, stress, frightening stories, and perhaps trauma.

Whenever we are drawn to judging someone, it’s good to remember that we know very little about the person and their situation and history. It’s good to remember that situations often play a bigger role in people’s behavior than “who they are” as a person. (If we broaden the definition of “situation” to their history, culture, biology, evolution, and so on, it explains most or all of our behavior.) And it’s good to remember that even what many would judge as heartless or cruel is people’s reaction to their own pain, fear, and trauma.

The more we get to know ourselves and how we respond to our pain fear, stress, and trauma, the more we find empathy and understanding for others and how they behave. We relate to others as we relate to ourselves.

Of course, none of this is an excuse for inappropriate, unprofessional, or unkind behavior. It’s important to point it out when this behavior happens and take steps to make it less likely to happen in the future. But if we keep this in mind, we can do it with a little more kindness and perhaps wisdom.

And if we can’t find that empathy and understanding in the moment, that’s a reason for finding empathy with ourselves. We may be caught up in our reactions to our own fear and pain.

Types of empathy

Empathy seems to have different facets.

A basic differentiation is how the empathy is experienced and the source of the empathy.

It can be experienced in a more cognitive or reasoned way. I imagine you must feel this way based on the situation you are in. Or in a more felt way. I imagine myself in your situation, and feel this emotion or state based on it. Often, there is a combination of both of these.

And it can come from a very human resonance. I recognize in myself what I imagine you feel, or what I would feel in the situation I imagine you are in. Or it can come from a perceived oneness where there is less or no separation. My center of being is more in the awareness that everything happens within and as, and the imagined separations has less charge to them. There is no real or substantial separation between you and me. Here too, there is often a combination of both of these. Even if we are not aware of the oneness that’s already here, and even if it’s covered up by a charged sense of separation, it’s still already here so it will have an impact on our experience.

So empathy can be more or less thought out or felt, and it can happen from a very human recognition or also from an intuitive or obvious sense of oneness and no real separation.

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Muscle relaxants and painkillers, and what we feel

Their conclusion: Acetaminophen, the most common drug ingredient in the United States, can reduce a person’s capacity to empathise with another person’s pain, whether that pain is physical or emotional.

Popular painkiller ingredient can reduce empathy, study finds, The Independent, May 12 2016

Recent research shows that common painkillers reduce empathy. Having worked with clients who are on different types of medication aimed at reducing emotional or physical pain, I am not surprised. It seems that reducing our ability to feel physical sensations reduces our ability to feel emotions as well. And that’s what we would expect knowing that sensations are an essential component of emotions and any experience that we experience as having a charge.

As I have mentioned in other posts, sensations lend charge and a sense of reality and solidity to imaginations. They make the content of stories seem real, true, and charged, whether these stories are just a label (sadness, anger, happiness, pain), or a more elaborate story about the world, others, or oneself.

I assume something similar is happening with muscle relaxants. Body contractions are a part of anxiety, depression, trauma, and addictions, so when the body contractions soften, the intensity of these emotions and cravings are likely to soften as well.

No wonder people get addicted to painkillers and even muscle relaxants. They help us not feel feelings we would rather not feel.

Painkillers and muscle relaxants numb us. There is nothing wrong in that. For some of us, it may be the best solution in the situation we are in. And it’s also not a lasting solution. It doesn’t solve the underlying issues which is that we take our experience as real and solid, we take our painful stories as true, and we fight and struggle with our painful stories and how they make us feel. For that, we need to address these underlying issues more directly. For instance through inquiry.

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Empathy towards those low on empathy

There are many reasons why some of us are low on empathy. It may be partly genetic. Partly life experiences. Sometimes trauma. (Trauma can get us in survival mode, which puts empathy on the back burner.)

These days, there is a lot of very understandable anger towards a US dentist who killed (“hunted”) a lion. Yes, I also don’t support it. I also see hunting as pretty lame. I also support animal rights. (And the formalized rights of ecosystems, species, and future generations of humans and all species.)

And yet, I can have empathy for this man, even if he is low on empathy. If he is low on empathy, which seems likely, that in itself is a good reason to have empathy for him. I can find it in myself. I sometimes am low on empathy too, especially when I am caught in fear.

Empathy can very well coexist with disagreeing with someone’s actions, and even actively work to prevent certain harmful actions to take place. It even supports it. It helps me come from a more clear and heartfelt place.

Release of others

Release of others through self-familiarity.

As I get more familiar with myself, there is a natural release of others from my expectations and shoulds.

There are several ways this happens:

I respond to my own images and beliefs, not to what others do or what life comes up with. I even trigger my beliefs through my stories of what is happening. And that’s how it is for others as well. I trigger my own beliefs. They trigger theirs. I take responsibility for my own choices and actions, aim at acting with as much kindness and wisdom as possible, and can be there for others. But how they respond and relate to it is their responsibility. Again, it’s their process and learning.

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Picky eaters

Scientists at Duke University in North Carolina are compiling the first global registry of “picky eaters” in the hope of discovering why some people have trouble with food. They believe it may help find a genetic reason for some eaters’ intense dislike of certain foods, like broccoli, or beans with a “fuzzy” texture. They note some eaters’ pickiness is so deep-seated it interferes with their jobs, their relationships and their social lives. – Hate fish? Can’t eat veg? Doctors study picky eaters from BBC.

Empathy through evolutionary psychology: Picky eaters may survive better in some circumstances and omnivores in other, which is why we as humans have both possibilities, and why we as individuals are genetically predisposed to one or the other, and our environment brings one or the other out more prominently. It’s all natural.