Thursday, October 27, 2011

Compassion, empathy, suffering, striving, love and heroes

Compassion and empathy arise from putting yourself in the circumstances of another person. If you do not make this mental attempt, you will not understand the situation of another.

Some of us are good at this and others a less skillful, but most us, except for the sociopath, have this ability built into our neurology, the sociopath does not.

Unfortunately, culture can create a partial sociopathic behavior, or pre-sociopathic behavior that also has characteristics of insensitivity, lack of empathy, lack of ethics, extreme selfishness, the need to dominate etc.
Media and entertainment create conditions of alienation and disconnection, and can then send messages that are very negative such as narcissism, violence, control, manipulation and so on. The cultural sociopath is not as bad as the standard sociopath in degree but is much more widespread.
(And note that the standard sociopath does much better when the social background is populated with many cultural sociopaths -- for he can hide in plain sight...and even be a “leader”. Extreme example: Adolph Hitler and Nazi culture. Message: Cultural sociopaths provide opportunities for extreme sociopaths…….)

Identity Trading
Compassion and Empathy are increased by a skill, that of Identity Trading.

Identity Trading allows us to embrace the feelings of others, to merge with them emotionally. With this skill we put ourselves in their shoes, so we can feel their pain and know their complaints and hopes. We substitute our identity with theirs. We become them, at least for moment, to feel what they feel. And with more information about these individuals we can feel more of what they are feeling. Identity Trading is about the Duplication of Emotion.

This ability is of course enhanced by direct contact, travel, working and living together and so on.

But direct contact is not actually necessary though. One can read about another person or see a video about this individual and experience a wave of empathy. Of course, direct contact will yield stronger emotions based upon factual details about someone’s suffering, more observed points of similarity between the observer and the sufferer, extended continuous connection, more forms of communication.

But one can experience empathy more as an internal process.

The Duplication of Emotion
The basis of this technique is, ironically, a kind of self-centeredness. To undergo what someone else experiences we must make this experience happen to ourselves. If we do not, then we cannot sense their emotions. We must go through ourselves, through our own psyche to understand another psyche. If not, we have no way of knowing what they are feeling. So
Identity Trading is about the Duplication of Emotion.

In a situation, we may suffer horror, a sense of urgency or a compelling need to act but we may not feel their pain, instead what we are feeling is built into our neurology and might be another sensation and drive.

The Hero
Take the example of a “Hero”, the hero may not have developed a strong sense of empathy but may be compelled by some other inner response.
We need the hero just the same, but the hero might be responding to another trigger embedded in its DNA.

The hero who saves and then must interact with those who are suffering, may later have an education in empathy, love and caring. The hero’s motivation may come more out of a realm where danger, war, bravery, action, adventure, selflessness and other behaviors live.

The heroic act is merely the first step of the journey to more fundamental Human emotions. We need her or him just the same -- for the hero is responding to another trigger and fulfills another social need. But the hero’s journey is to save and second to attend to the saved. This would mark the path of his or her emotions’ progress, from one level of social response to another, from one relationship to another, from one type of embrace to another.

The hero may indeed create a new social environment in which empathy and compassion can bloom. The hero is necessary and somewhere in our DNA there is a personality provided to assume this task.

About Love vs Empathy
In addition to heroism are other emotional behaviors, the most interesting is love. Love and empathy are different. You can love your mother and father but not really understand them and their struggles. And this love can evoke great actions. Empathy is not necessary. Nature has provided us with multiple approaches to caring for other Human beings: empathy, love, heroism and more, for example, the connection between mother and child.

But love when raised to the level of the philosophic, the love of all humankind, becomes somewhat abstract and faceless. It nevertheless is powerful in the best of us but without some direct and concrete connection, universal love has a tendency to elevate into the world of ethics. Ethics is actually an intellectual perspective, and is not so much based in emotions. Ethics, the golden rule, principles of social harmony etc. flow from reason and more from wisdom -- which is higher than the logic of the left hemisphere.

Ethics concludes there is great intelligence in Human unity while universal love does not deduce, it feels the oneness of all Humanity, it seeks the joy of affection, care and cooperation.

Universal love makes a leap from specific love and applies it to all people. In this way it is like empathy, it requires some effort at breaking out of your separate self.

Empathy is produced by a duplication of emotion. We cannot possibly feel what someone else feels unless we feel something similar ourselves. So when we substitute ourselves for another, we are performing a psychological trick – we are not feeling their pain, we are feeling our pain. So to have empathy for another we must make the experience happen to us. And that is a Skill.

Empathy and Human Nature
Today in most case, Humans do not automatically feel much for strangers or foreigners. And the degree of empathy drops as the sufferer shares fewer points of commonality with the observer. As we get to the outer margins of the Human family far beyond the familiar nuclear family, then empathy, love, care drops accordingly.

This does not have to be, it is simply a current tendency that manifests itself in a culture of self absorption and alienation. It is not necessarily “human nature”, it is more specifically “human nature” in this epoch.

There is another process operating too. There is an aversion among many to the different. Cultures which stress fear and aversion of the different, of different people will certainly drastically cut down on the outpouring of Human empathy. Cultures that celebrate the joys of the similar, the love of the same will extend care and compassion only to the like.

A conflict between love of the different and love of similar is rising in this age. And the solution is to actually utilize both so that love of the different becomes a widespread attitude, and love of the similar rises to the level of love for all Human beings.

There is nothing wrong in a diverse world if one is more comfortable with a particular subculture, that is part of diversity, but at the same time we must respect and appreciate differences. We have a bias but this bias has limits. The trick is in the duality of opposites.

Empathy and Individuality
On the idea of diversity, another point is raised. Empathy is highly individual. We do not share a collective mind, we are not hive species. To feel your feelings I must feel my own feelings which are trying to emulate yours. And if I cannot feel my own feelings then no empathy is possible, if de-sensitivity reigns then care is not possible.

Empathy affirms the diverse nature of Human beings, the universality of multiple perception in our species. Each of us must feel the world with our own feelings.

In fact, in group cultures where there is no individuality, individual feelings are not allowed. Only the leader feels and the citizen is supposed to focus on the feelings of the leader. This is a sort of cult empathy that bonds the lofty boss with the regimented populace – where, first, the individual could not possibly know what the leader is actually “suffering” from, but she or he imagines it with the help of media; second, the leader pours out his heart to his subjects, at least in public pronouncements and rituals. Cult empathy reverses normal empathy, individuals are trying to feel what a leader feels like, which they cannot, and this creates a level of distance and mysticism in regards to the group culture figure.

The idea of individual perception is a fundamental theme applied to a host of life issues: learning is a direct and individual process, power and action are also direct and individual processes based upon personal participation, there is identity formation and so on.

In the case of empathy, things work out because in the end we are all Human beings, we have the same set of feelings, and suffer the same sorts of pain. So when I model and parallel yours, I will feel something pretty close to what you are experiencing. We all are human beings, so we have common behaviors.

The gap between is the difference, and it is real, but the reality is also the similarity that can bridge the gap. Empathy is a tool of creating the similarity. Appreciation of difference, which brings us joy, stimulation, curiosity, endless variety and a sense of spiritual wealth, is a tool to bind together the disparate world of our species.

Memories of Pain
However, for the technique of empathy to work, we must have suffered in some way. This first means that we must preserve memories of pain. Of course, it is important to manage painful experiences because how they are interpreted is key, this determines our future psychological health. So pain must be managed, addressed head on and “spun” with the right lesson and story.

But we do not want to delete the pains, to wipe them out, or avoid them.
We want to translate the pain into a beneficial language, so we do not become dysfunctional. We want to remember the pain because it makes us Human.

Pain reminds us of our fragility as living entities, of our imperfect natures, of the random cruelty of chance. Pain shrinks our ego, it teaches us to be humble, it reduces the arrogance of the shielded, the spoiled, the comfortable, the unharmed, the undamaged. There are people who in their naivety cannot process suffering and so they must blame the suffering for their problems.

Memories of pain give us the raw material to feel empathy for another person for without them. Without these essential imprints how can you feel for someone else? You cannot. If you have existed in a world without pain, you cannot comprehend the suffering of another. Inside you are a blank slate not yet registering the impressions of life, the battle of life, the beatings of life.

Yes, one may be shocked at seeing suffering, but there is no true empathy involved. And shock without empathy does not necessarily lead to decision, action and sacrifice. And with repeated events, shock can decline and one can become insensitive to tragedy. And when we get to a state of low or no shock and low or no empathy, we are ready for business as usual in our alienated culture.

Culture of Positivism
In the culture of Positivism that we now surrounds us, anti-depressants dissolve away pain. We seek pleasure and not pain, we stress the positive exclusively, we avoid suffering, we avoid depression, we delete memories of suffering, we are disconnected from our own feelings, psyches and souls.

Drugs have taken us to a new stage. We now have created a new chemical infrastructure of alienation. Upon this infrastructure we may build cultural superstructures of a new type.

Upon this new infrastructure sets a citizen, an individual who has an internal alienation to herself or himself, disconnected from all things internal and external, floating in a form of new consciousness – which is not a whole, compete consciousness.

Already we live in a culture of disconnection, insensitivity to violence. Today we add to social institutions and behaviors, chemical phenomena.

If in the future scientists could design an intelligent being, would we really eliminate pain, depression, self awareness? No, not likely, because we actually need these capabilities. A sentient being is a package deal which includes the negative and the positive, and where the negative has positive characteristics, and the positive has negative characteristics.

A culture of positivism and pharmaceuticals will lead to even less empathy in the world than today. And that will be a disaster.

A Library of Emotions
In any case we have methods to develop empathy. So far in this article, some techniques have been pointed out.

It also certainly helps to have a rich library of emotions. If you are to feel what another person feels then it would help to have a large inventory of emotions and experiences. We want more emotions, a greater range of emotions, degrees and nuances of emotions, the interconnection of groups of emotions and so on.

Being self aware of one’s own emotions helps. Being attuned to your feelings gives you consciousness of them – why they arise, how they develop, interconnections with other emotions. Knowing your own emotions is key to knowing those of another.

So compassion and empathy arise from personal experience and the development of skills. And the more experience and skill, then the greater the compassion and empathy. The less then we get a vaguer basis of commonality.

Emotional Imagination
An experience partly like our own can be amplified and widely applied.
We can use Emotional Imagination. The experience of a suffering individual may be in a lesser degree or in another form but we can begin to understand as best that we can.

For example racism, imagine an instance in your personal life of disrespect, false accusation, prejudgment of you etc. -- prejudice comes from “pre-judgment”.

If you have been treated shabbily because you are part of subcultural trend, then you can simply amplify that experience to try to comprehend what racism is.

So we can take a lesser experience or a different experience and then apply it to many realms of life and increase the intensity of it, the degree of it.
Then one begins to get at least a minimal understanding of the pain caused by racism -- the anger, the fear, the hypertension, the depression, despair and the lack of confidence it produces.

With emotional imagination you may try to understand the situation of the disabled, the poor, the sick, emotionally ill…

The key to this is to imagine the pain, and not so much ideas, not the principles of ethics involved. Morality is a set of concepts. Suffering is feeling and emotion. A violation of a moral codex may produce horror, urgency, anger but it does not necessarily produce empathy or compassion for the victim. Morality is intellectual and abstract, empathy is not an idea or theory, it is not ethereal, it is heartfelt, intense and immediate and action oriented.

What about extremes like death, famine, disease? We react with a kind of shock, but shock does not necessarily result in feelings or action. And if seen enough, we actually become numb, desensitized.

Emotional imagination goes further, to develop the feelings, to delve into them, to deliver action.

In emotional imagination we are imagining the feelings themselves, using the psychological material that we have and our emotional skills.

If this is added to our shock and anger then we have a powerful set of perceptions that can completely change conditions. Working on our empathy and emotions helps us escape the sleep of self absorption and its trivial pursuits and self satisfaction.

Aloofness toward pain in developed societies
The historical question we must ask is, “What if suffering and pain is reduced in developed societies?” If we have less anguish, then is the basis or raw material of empathy and compassion less? Then, is it more difficult for people in affluent cultures, where much pain has been made obsolete, to feel for other human beings?

As affluence increases we do find less love and caring for others. This cannot be doubted in this age. Rich nations are unaware of poor nations. The rich in developed countries are aloof to the pain of their lower classes.

The middle class is oblivious to the suffering of the poor and minorities, why else would this continue in a rich country like the USA?

And in the current recession, some middle class people blame the poor and minorities for their current suffering because they are supposedly too much of a burden on society. (The Tea Party)

And all of this is against the general lack of empathy for each other within all classes and groups, this is created by the alienation and disconnection of our civilization, founded on a blend of technological things and lifestyle whims.

This is a dangerous historical trend that threatens to lead the world into even more pain and suffering. And perhaps also threatens to cause caring and love to become an extinct set of emotions.

How can we stop this? As said above we have these tools:

·         Teaching identity substitution and emotional duplication
·         Grasping the individuality of emotions
·         Knowing the distinct roles of love, heroism and empathy
·         Developing emotional imagination
·         Teaching emotional self consciousness and skills
·         Building a library of emotions
·         Preserving memories of pain
·         Ending a culture of Positivism.

There is also educating individuals about suffering in the world. And bringing these people into direct contact with those suffering, thereby increasing information, communication, feelings, relationship.

But if the declining experience with pain is the problem, and if personal pain is the basis of compassion and empathy, then we have are in a predicament.

Then a fundamental solution to this evolutionary tragedy is in something else.

The issue has to do with types of suffering:

Types of Suffering
Suffering of course arises in a psychological form in the modern age, the physical types are waning but the varieties of mental illness are great.
And note that most forms of personality disorder do not enhance empathy.

There are two different forms of suffering: Voluntary and Involuntary.

Involuntary suffering arises from chance, accident, mistakes in the learning process etc. Voluntary suffering is what we choose, it comes from our values and lifestyles and beliefs, it comes from the social systems we endorse.

A Third category of suffering is Striving.

Striving is voluntary in a sense because we choose to strive. It is involuntary in a sense too, because it brings with it failure, despair and pain.

Striving is necessary because it is part of our very nature.

It is not the same as the “will to survive” which inhabits all living things, striving is a drive on a much higher order, it is a very Human trait. It involves struggle but its goal is not simply survival but reaching higher plateaus. You might even point out that mental and spiritual survival for a Human being may be one and the same with striving.

Striving and struggle are the essence of Human life. An individual and whole cultures have to keep going. We have to go higher because we have brains that accumulate memories and experience, brains that analyze, learn, theorize, build up skills. And this process is invigorating, joyful, creative and very rewarding.

And who would want less knowledge, less information, less skill, less control, less creativity? Most would not. Striving disallows this.

On the other hand, marketing and consumerism are not committed to striving and struggle because they promote dummy down, dependence, instant gratification and the easy. Politicians do not want people to strive because they want to provide all the answers to you. And so on.

Between social institutions and individual choice, we are always going to find some people who do not want to strive, who are quite happy to be stagnant and comatose. And these people are dull, apathetic, dim and turn out to be remarkably disappointing senior citizens with little to say or teach.

For most of us the brain is a progressive device. It is not a regressive organ that wants to be static and does not want to explore and learn, plan and achieve.

A progressive organ is driven by:

·         Meliorism
·         Perfection
·         The Higher
·         Accumulation
·         Synthesis
·         Coordination
·         Learning
·         Correction
·         Revolutionary Leaps
·         Evolution
·         Creativity
·         The New

How does this relate to empathy, the primary theme of this article?

Striving and Empathy
One of the paradoxes of ethics is around the issue of personal suffering leading to compassion toward others, that empathy for another’s suffering arises from your own. But if you live in a culture where ethics has been successful and suffering has been reduced, then how can compassion arise?

If suffering is absent, then how can we feel, sympathize and more empathize with other human beings?

This is the problem of moral evolution and social history, when affluence and freedom have developed to such a point that suffering wanes and threatens to disappear.

Of course we are not there yet in the developed world because we are still suffering in many ways. And the current recession has put in crimp in civilization’s march to numbness.

But hypothetically one day we may arrive at this point and face this new problem of a society of ex-suffering.

What are the sources of suffering in culture of ex-suffering? Still there are accidents and bad luck and illness. There are the usual, ever present mistakes in the course of learning something new.

Perhaps, the greatest source of suffering in the future will arise from our own strivings and struggles. We will suffer because we want to get better, we want to learn, develop new skills, achieve more self knowledge and control, expand our creativity, strengthen our moral skills, achieve the next level of our identity growth and increase our spiritual awareness.

The work and the errors we make in this process will certainly increase our pain and anguish.

This process will introduce people to suffering, and after having experienced it themselves, they will recognize it in others and be moved to pity and kindness and relief.

So self growth of an individual is key to awareness and compassion, and likewise so is the evolution of a society to its next stage.

For if we have a society where there is no suffering, then people will not understand what it is, and ignore it, as some already do today.

Cage Innoye

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