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Beyond the Mirror newsletter theme may 2013

~ Beyond the Mirror

Recently a scientific study accidentally found empathy in a monkey.

The monkey's brain was all wired up for an experiment to show how much activity was happening where and when. A human, not part of the experiment, walked in and found the bag of snacks intended for the monkey experiment. The human happily opened and ate.

The monkey's brain cells mirrored the human's surprise and enjoyment.

A conclusion was that primates (and we) are "wired" with mirroring neurons that prepare us to directly experience the emotions others go through.

Empathy is in the press these days. This is good.

Empathy saves lives every day.

To feel we are not alone; to know that whatever we feel is a pattern of the mind* that others also go through; to realize that shame is extra, and unhelpful--these experiences via empathy save us from ourselves. Less alienated from our experience and from the world, we can simply feel what we feel, and the aliveness of the experience finds a way through.

Sometimes all we want and need is a mirror. Being with it together, without resistance or judgment. And that is all. Not mine, not yours, but our human situation.

And sometimes this permission--to feel what we feel--allows the next level of honesty and freedom to emerge. A contraction unfolds a bit. The mirror helps reveal more than what we saw at first.

But I'd like to suggest ways we can take greater care with our ability to mirror each other.

First, we need to take care that we don’t just "feel better by feeling together," occupied with feeling only. That we don't get so into feeling the negative that we forget to act, or to feel the positive, or to go deeper. Journalist Stephen Marche writes of media reports on a mass shooting in a school for small children: "Calling the massacre a tragedy makes everybody feel better. It purges the emotions…But it solves nothing." (Marche is pointing to the need for a policy change regarding gun control in the US.)**

The easiest way to get attention or make a "deep" connection or "helpful teaching" is to talk about pain. Julia Watts Belser writes: "Tragic tales of suffering often intensify the vulnerability of people who are already on the margins, showcasing their pain in a way that generates pity, stripping their agency and playing into negative stereotypes of difference." Pity, disempowerment, and separation multiplied by "empathic" communication.

Let's not use the biological capacity to mirror for limited ends. Let's find ways to walk together through pain and joy, hand in hand, in a way that is transformative and freeing. Let's learn together what is empowering, what is not separating, what is true compassion without pity, what is really going through life together in a way that does not repeat past sufferings, mine or yours.

And especially as people interested in freedom, we also at times need what can feel like the opposite of empathy.

We exactly don't need confirmation. We precisely need someone else not to enter the same emotion that we feel stuck in. We need that much respect, that much subtlety, that much depth.

We need a friend who, yes, has no problem with what we are feeling, but who goes so far as not to take our problem as a problem. To be in touch with what we are notfeeling, with how the past does not define us, with a brightness we may even be unconscious of in ourselves in that moment. We need another human being to meet us shamelessly beyond emotion, beyond story, beyond reason, beyond emotional blackmail, beyond "helper" and "helped."

This simplest of meetings can, in a moment, heal the separation and alienation that look for reflections and mirrors and confirmation. Sometimes our best support for each other is our genuine, buoyant, brave trust in each other’s capacity to do what needs to be done--and to keep doing it till it is done.

Shameless and self-luminous, we meet each other beyond the mirror.

* "Pattern of mind" is a phrase of Chogyam Trungpa.

**Stephen Marche in Kathryn Dodgson's article, "Defining Our Humanity," page 1 ofHarvard Divinity Bulletin,Winter/Spring, 2013.

*** "The Ethics of Representing Disaster," by Julia Watts Belser, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Winter/Spring, 2013, page 26.

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