Mindfulness and Empathy Create Conscious, Compassionate Connection
The Dalai Lama suggests that we “aim for our highest happiness” if we wish to be happy in all the realms of our daily living and being. As we set our intentions for the coming year, I hope you find the reflections and resources in this month’s newsletter inspiring and helpful.
Reflections on Mindfulness and Empathy
To Create Consciousness and Compassionate Connection
I spent the day with Dan Siegel at Spirit Rock Meditation Center last Saturday.
Dan proposing that developing our capacities for Mindfulness – paying attention to our inner experiences moment by moment without judgment – strengthens precisely the same neural circuits in our brains that we use for Empathy – our capacities to feel our way into an other’s experience moment b y moment. We become aware of each other’s pain or exuberance of the moment using the same “resonance circuits” in our brains that we use to mindfully attune to our own affliction or joy.
If modern neuroscience proves Dan’s hypothesis is right, (see his newest book The Mindful Brain for details) anything we can do to cultivate mindfulness will increase our ability to compassionately connect with those we love, with those we are trying hard to love, even those we’re not sure we could ever love. And anything we can do do cultivate empathy – feeing another person’s reality exactly as they are experiencing it, will increase our own awareness or consciousness.
I experience the power of this resonance often working with clients, working with my self, friends, family. Just two weeks ago Jill was in tears in my office, bereft at the imminent break-up with her boyfriend, feeling lost in despair and alone in the world.
As I felt her sorrow resonate in my own heart, I simply offerend a gentle holding presence and loving awareness of the moment. “So much grief, so much pain, this is so so hard.”
We sat together in the silence for a few moments. When Jill looked up and saw tears in my eyes reflecting the tears in hers, she sat up a little taller and smiled faintly. When I asked what was happening inside, she sighed and said, “I was remembering what you said a few weeks ago, that no matter what finally happened with me and Jeff, I could use the experience to become more aware of my own feelings, needs, all that good stuff. I am aware. Even sitting here in this —aagh! – mess! Something is stirring…something deep inside is not going under. I can tell…something is pushing up through all this.”
“Any sense of what’s ‘pushing up’?” I guess it’s just another part of me that’s gonna get through this no matter what. “And the sadness?” Another round of sobbing and tears, head bowed over her knees. Then…”This sucks, big time. I want to hole up and die. But…I’m not going to drown. I’m going to deal with this. I feel so yucky! But I’m gonna deal.”
With mindfulness and empathy, mine for Jill, Jill’s for herself, Jill can remain aware of her experience without beating herself up over it. She can feel it deeply, moment by moment, but not drown in it. She can stay compassionately connected to herself and all that she is going through.
Poetry and Quotes to Inspire
Ah, the comfort,
The inexpressible comfort
Of feeling safe with a person.
Having neither to weight out thoughts
But pouring them all right out, just as they are,
Chaff and grain together;
Certain that a faithful hand
Will take them and sift them;
Keeping what is worth keeping and,
With the breath of kindness,
Blow the rest away.
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“The roots of resilience are to be found in the felt sense of being understood and existing in the heart and mind of an empathic, attuned, self-possessed other.”
– Diana Fosha, founder of Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy
* * * * *
“We heal by being seen.”
– Jack Kornfield, co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Stories to Learn From
When my neighbor’s 8 year old granddaughter Samantha gave her favorite doggie buddy a big, warm hug last week, she was overwhelmed by the 125 pound Malamut’s exuberant licking his face in return. She burst into tears at the suddenness – and wetness – of his doggie buddy showering her with affection in such a rough and tumble way.
I immediately felt in my own the rush of “Oh, no!” and Oh, ick!” As you might feel in this moment, too, as you remember or imagine what such a startle and ick would feel like. My face scrunched up as I moved in to protect and comfort Samantha. And in a matter of seconds, as she calmed down and recovered her OK-ness in the moment, I became aware of my own initial reactivity and then resilience as my reaching out soothed Samantha, me, even the sorrowfully bewildered dog.
Our innate capacity for empathy allows us to become instantly aware of what’s happening in another, and triggers the natural tendency to move toward – to ask for or offer comfort in a moment of startle.
Remember a moment of startle you have experienced yourself – the car door slammed shut and just missed your finger; a friend came up behind you unawares to give you a friendly pat on the back. When we startle, we naturally turn to another for comfort and empathy, “Oh! That was scary, wasn’t it!” The empathy soothes our nervous system and we can quickly recover our equilibrium and larger awareness of all of the big picture in the moment.
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I love this story of mindfulness and self-empathy I heard from Guy Armstrong, an experienced meditation teacher. Guy was sitting a long retreat himself, his settling into the silence disturbed at first by a vague, troubling, nagging something-or-other he couldn’t quite put his finger on. After sitting/wrestling with his experience for several days, up bubbled up the dawning awareness, Oh! This is despair!” The simple naming of the experience, acknowledging it without judgment or moving to fix it, allowed Guy’s mind to settle into quite a peaceful serene state, holding the despair compassionately when needed, resting in spacious awareness otherwise.
Exercises to Practice
Guided visualizations, guided meditations, are powerful tools to re-wire the brain. Neuroscientists have discovered that the same neurons fire in our visual cortex if we imagine seeing a banana as fire when we see a real banana. Using our imagination can harness the neural plasticity of the brain to create new pathways, just as new experiences in reality do.
Settle comfortably in your seat, allow your eyes to gently close, focus your attention on your breathing, rest comfortably in the awareness of the inner presence of Being. When you’re ready, let yourself become aware of how you are holding yourself in this moment, are you kind toward yourself? Are you uneasy with yourself? Are you feeling critical of yourself? Just noticing, just awareness and acceptance of what is, without judgment, or if there judgment, noticing that.
Then, when you’re ready, bring to mind someone in your life whom you know unconditionally, genuinely loves you. They love and cherish you; your very being feels safe in their presence. It could be a teacher or dear friend, could be a partner or a child, could be your beloved dog or cat. Could be a spiritual figure – Quan Yin or the Dalai Lama, your own Wiser Self. Someone who simply accepts you as you are, and loves you.
Imagine yourself being with them face to face,. They are looking at you with such acceptance and tenderness, such love, such joy. Feel yourself taking in their love, their acceptance of you.
Now imagine yourself being them, looking at you, looking at yourself through their eyes. You – being them – seeing yourself as they see you. All the love and openness, feel that as them toward yourself.
Now come back to being yourself, you are in your own body again, experiencing them looking at you again, with so much love and acceptance. Feel yourself taking in their love, their acceptance. Let the love deeply into your own being. Feel it in your body; set the intention to remember this feeling any time you need to.
Books and Websites
This month’s recommended reading:
The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. W.W. Norton, 2007
Less than a decade ago, psychiatrist Daniel Siegel single-handedly created the new scientific discipline of “interpersonal neurobiology” in his landmark book, The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience. In The Mindful Brain, Dr. Siegel integrates findings from cutting edge brain research with the wisdom of mindfulness practices to explore how moment-to-moment awareness strengthens the exact same neural pathways in the brain that securely attached relationships do, enhancing self-understanding, empathy, and long-term resilience.
Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, edited by Christopher K Germer, Ronald D. Siegle, Paul R. Fulton. Guilford Press, 2005.
A comprehensive introduction to mindfulness and its contemporary clinical applications. Includes relevant research, practical exercises, and clear case examples for specific clinical populations.
This month’s suggested websites:
The Center for Mindfulness and Psychotherapy offers training for mental health professional seeking to integrate Buddhist psychology and Western psychotherapy.
The Institute for Mindfulness and Psychotherapy trains mental health professional interested in the integration of mindfulness and psychotherapy to enhance the therapeutic relation, clinical interventions and the well-being of both therapist and patient.