Do you even empathize? How empathy training and communication can save us from ourselves

One word keeps surfacing in my mind over the past several weeks as headlines reveal the latest stream of human rights and environmental atrocities undertaken by our own government. Empathy.

As I learn of children being separated from parents in the name of border control, presidential decrees opening all U.S. waters to offshore drilling, and the dismantling of the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, I can’t help but wonder—what place does empathy have in our current society?

This word, coincidentally, popped up on a number of articles and videos I’ve seen recently. Obviously, I’m not the only person distraught both by these troubling media headlines and by people’s callous responses to them. Whatever the ultimate consequences of our current political leaders’ actions, they’ve certainly shone a spotlight on just how wide the spectrum of values is in our country, values that run much deeper than political views alone.

Fear Leads to the Dark Side

In a 2017 HuffPost piece titled I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People, author Kayla Chadwick expressed this growing angst over a seemingly unbreachable moral divide among U.S. citizens:

“I don’t know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. I cannot have one more conversation with someone who is content to see millions of people suffer needlessly in exchange for a tax cut that statistically they’ll never see. Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters.”

Chadwick implies that today’s conservative values reflect a lack of empathy for those in need (especially those outside your immediate family/ingroup), instead emphasizing one’s own financial wellbeing over others. While I agree it’s pretty obvious that the current Republican administration is driven by self-aggrandizement above all else, I don’t think it’s fair to attribute our country’s steady loss of empathy and compassion to one particular political party. To me, lack of empathy seems to correlate with a much more deeply rooted tendency that knows no political boundaries—greed.

Greed is closely allied with fear; i.e., the fear of losing possessions, losing power, and losing one’s sense of identity. “Our society is paralyzed by fear, making our compassion paralyzed,” says Dr. Joan Halifax, a medical anthropologist and Zen practitioner. Halifax argues that compassion is an inherent human quality, but stimulating this compassion often relies on activating specific conditions.michael-fenton-512963-unsplash.jpgIn other words, you can’t force someone to feel empathy. But what you may be able to do is provide the right enabling conditions that allow feelings of empathy and emotion to emerge. This concept of ‘compassion cultivation’ isn’t just the fancy of new-age healers and Buddhist monks. Plenty of scientific and medical studies have shown that feelings such as compassion, altruism, and empathy can be enhanced via specialized training—and that the results are beneficial to the individual as well as society at large.

Stanford University’s medical center, for example, has a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education that hosts workshops and other specialized trainings that teach participants ‘how to train your mind to intentionally choose compassionate thoughts and actions and develop skills that help you relate to others—and yourself.’ Their courses, designed by clinical psychologists and researchers from Stanford, include lectures, discussions, meditations, breathing practices and more to help people reduce their anxiety and build their emotional resilience in professional and personal environments.

This type of self-introspection training stretches far back to ancient eastern philosophical traditions, including Vedic and Buddhist teachings, centered on compassion via mindfulness and equanimity – meaning that you can cultivate feelings of compassion by listening to your inner voice, strengthening intuition, remaining calm in the face of adversity, and being present in each moment.

Empathetic Science?

In this era of runaway capitalism and blatant disregard for scientific consensus, what does it mean to be a scientist and a concerned citizen? Historically, being a credible scientist meant remaining objective and apolitical. But can scientists afford to stay disconnected from today’s critical ethical and moral crises? Or can they maintain credibility and perhaps even build more trust in science by engaging more fully in ethical and moral debates?

According to climate scientist Sarah Moffit in a recent interview with Grist Magazine, being a scientist and an advocate do not have to be mutually exclusive. “I think you can be both rigorous and objective and be human at the same time,” she says. “And I have come to a place where I’m no longer willing to divorce my humanity from the science that I have participated in and am stewarding.”

As a science communicator, I’ve come to see my role as a science empathizer and a human empathizer. In other words, I am committed to accurately communicating about scientific research, and equally committed to understanding human values and concerns—ideally breaking down barriers of understanding.

My goal is also to make us stop and think about the way our worldviews and cultures shape our assumptions about reality as much as (or more than) factual knowledge does, and how these assumptions often lead to misconceptions, fear, and prejudice. Many research studies have proven that our perception of ‘factual truth’ is shaped by our partisan beliefs and bias.

Even our ability to discern whether a statement is fact or opinion is based on whether we agree with the statement. The more we can reflect on our individual subjective experiences and how they affect our connection the world, the better we will be able to empathize with the views and experiences of others. We don’t have to share the exact same values to respect and empathize with others—we only need the capacity to be self-reflective and to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Science, philosophy, and intuition tell us that cultivating empathy and compassion is beneficial to our own health and wellbeing (including immunity, psychological health, and spiritual growth), that of our friends and family, and that of society as a whole. What greater reason could there be to emphasize these qualities in a time when they are needed perhaps more than ever?

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The Plant-Eater’s Dilemma

“The world is a fabric of suffering and pleasure; in every action, good and evil dance together like a pair of lovers.”

Alejandro Jodorowsky

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Earlier this year I joined some colleagues for lunch, and they decided to try out a local poke restaurant (poke, if you happen to have missed the rise of this ultra trendy cuisine, is a raw fish salad made popular in Hawaii). I eat a plant-based diet, but hoped that—since this was southern California—there would be a tofu bowl or other veggie option.

When it was my turn to order, I asked my waiter if they had any vegan options. He seemed unsure what I meant so asked his manager, who responded that they could make me a seaweed bowl. Then, the waiter asked me tentatively, “You know seaweed is alive, right? Is that okay for you to eat?”

My first response was to laugh out loud at the fact that he didn’t realize seaweed was a plant, not an animal. But then I thought for a second. Although it wasn’t his intention, the waiter’s question hit a deep philosophical nerve inside me that all vegans and vegetarians must confront at some point—what truly is the difference between eating plants versus animals? As if he was channeling a Buddhist monk, this man’s question innocently drove to the very root of our human dilemma: by our nature, we must consume other living things and thus cause suffering in one form or another—so where do we draw the line of “allowable” suffering? Well played, sir!

Of course, each of us creates our own moral boundaries, and no two are exactly the same. Nearly all religions evolved to address this very question of how we conduct ourselves in a ‘savage’ world, and most include at least a few dietary taboos. For example, the Jain religion of India, which dates back to the 6th century and is still practiced today, asserts that humans should not eat the flesh or eggs of animals, and should avoid any injury to sentient beings—even by stepping on insects (the most ascetic Jains carry a broom to sweep an area before they walk or sit on it to clear away any bugs etc. that could be harmed). However, many Jains, while avoiding meat and eggs, still consume dairy products, wear leather or silk, or partake in other activities that directly or indirectly cause suffering to animals. As with all of us, even Jains have to draw a line somewhere as long as they exist in this world. That line seems often to be drawn at ‘intent’; doing your best to avoid intentional harm while accepting that by living and breathing we will inevitably cause unintentional harm.

In a similar vein, most vegans and vegetarians choose to avoid animal products for ethical reasons, whether out of a desire to reduce animal suffering, or to reduce their environmental footprint. I am not going to go into the topic of sustainability in relation to large-scale agribusiness and meat production in this post, but I’ve covered that topic in some of my past blogs including this one.

The most dedicated vegans not only avoid consuming animal-based foods, but also clothing and other products either made with or tested on animals. Side note: this is more difficult than it sounds—I only recently found out that most wine isn’t technically vegan, because the filtration process usually involves some sort of gelatin (sourced from fish, cows or pigs), egg whites, or casein (a milk protein). But even the most hardcore vegans can’t avoid causing suffering on some levels: eating plants still involves the killing of insects and microbes (not to mention the killing or ‘harming’ of the plants themselves) and has a carbon footprint. And if you choose only to live on air? Well, you would still inhale microbes that get destroyed by our own immune systems. You can’t win.

Thus the unavoidable conclusion: life is suffering.

How do we cope with such a conclusion, as beings that are blessed (or cursed) with the ability to feel such strong compassion? Alejandro Jodorowsky, whom I quote at the beginning of this blog, has spent the majority of his life and career as an artist exploring this uniquely human paradox. One of Jodorowsky’s childhood memories, which he recreates in surrealist style in his film ‘The Dance of Reality’, illustrates his inner turmoil. He recalls a time when, as a boy of 6, he wanders down to the beach and witnesses huge numbers of sardines washing ashore and dying. He tries to scoop them up and throw them back into the sea, but they keep washing up in greater numbers. Seagulls start to gather and snatch sardines out of his hands.

“The world was offering me two options,” Jodorowsky writes. “I could suffer with the anguish of the sardines, or I could rejoice at the good fortune of the seagulls. The balance tilted toward joy when I say a crowd of poor people—men, women, and children—chasing away the birds and gathering up every last fish with frenetic enthusiasm. The balance tilted toward sadness when I saw the gulls, deprived of their banquet, pecking dejectedly at the few morsels that remained on the beach.”

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This one scene encapsulates the whole of life’s joy and sorrow. What nourishes one, depletes another—at least in the physical world. To cope, many philosophers would argue, we must find a higher purpose or cause that gives meaning to the suffering. Some find this through religion, others through charity or vocation.

The biologist and philosophical thinker Ed Ricketts (author John Steinbeck’s close friend and inspiration for the character Doc in his classic Cannery Row) spent years developing his concept of ‘breaking through’ to address this same dilemma. Similar to the concept of enlightenment, breaking through referred to the ability to move from a state of suffering to a state of peace and joy. But Rickett’s version took a more intellectual slant; he described ‘breaking through’ as reaching a heightened state of understanding that could lead to solutions for a given problem—including societal problems such as poverty and racism. As Sagarin and Crowder (2007) write: “Ricketts acknowledged that breakthroughs were driven by passionate conviction and adherence to a cause or belief. He wrote, “Its most common vehicle is love, love of a cause, of people, of a person”.”

It all comes down to love. It’s the simplest truth we know and yet the hardest to adhere to. If we do our best to act out of love, than we can reduce suffering and perhaps even reach our own breakthroughs, spiritual or otherwise. For some people, acting out of love means avoiding all animal products. For others, it means making thoughtful choices about what they eat or what they buy or how they act in other ways.

If your main goal is to have a low carbon footprint, you may choose to avoid meat and dairy but still eat mussels and oysters, since bivalves can be sustainably cultured with little energy input or harm to other organisms; plus, there’s evidence (though not definitive) that sessile bivalves don’t feel any more ‘pain’ than plants when harvested. Others would argue, however, that plants do have some of the capabilities of sentient beings, such as the ability to communicate with each other and respond to danger. Without central nervous systems, however, its unlikely plants have any sense similar to ‘pain.’ In my opinion, it all comes back to making thoughtful choices, and showing gratitude and respect for the resources available to us—whether they are plants, animals, soil, rock, or water. If we could revitalize more widely the ancient practice of paying respect to the food we consume, perhaps this gratitude would spill over into other aspects of our lives.

I’ll admit that sometimes I find it difficult to reconcile the fact that many of my friends are passionate about conserving the ocean and saving wildlife, but still choose to eat unsustainable seafood, or beef and pork from factory farms. But then I remind myself that I often drive a regular car that runs on fossil fuel instead of riding a bike, and I buy foods wrapped in plastic when I could choose to avoid them. Rather than developing guilt complexes about all the things we do ‘wrong’ or finger pointing at others who do so, we could put that energy towards building empathy and compassion for each other as well as other living things.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

So ultimately, was I okay with eating seaweed? By the time my order arrived, I wasn’t so sure. Ironically, I was mistakenly served a poke bowl filled with raw fish, and had to send it back for the seaweed bowl. I had to hope that although I didn’t eat the fish that had been prepared for me, it wouldn’t go to waste. I had inadvertently caused undo waste and suffering by ordering the vegan dish. Morality is a complicated game. When my seaweed bowl finally arrived, fish-free this time, I acknowledged the effort and life that went into the meal and ate it without complaint.

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Psyched out—the mental barriers that prevent us from solving global problems

Despite the many challenges we already face due to climate change and other environmental issues, as a society we struggle to face these problems head on and take action.
Despite the many challenges we already face due to climate change and other environmental issues, as a society we struggle to face these problems head on and take action.

In 1969, Psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book outlining five key steps in the grieving process. Decades later, these five steps have entrenched themselves almost ubiquitously into western society’s understanding of grief, with references to them occurring in everything from academic research to pop culture.

Flash-forward to 2015—another psychologist, Per Espen Stoknes, has published his own book that similarly proposes a five-step psychological process. But this one isn’t about grieving. In fact, it’s about not grieving—not grieving for the planet, that is. In his book, Stoknes describes five psychological barriers that prevent people from being concerned about, or taking action on, climate change.

The five barriers (distance from the problem, defeatism, internal dissonance, denial, and sense of identity) do indeed help explain why people in developed countries are largely ignoring not just climate change, but many other large-scale, high-risk challenges facing society and the environment. While each of these mental barriers relates to one another, I am particularly interested in the last—i.e., how our construct of personal identity (a.k.a. Ego) affects our perception of the world, and how that perception frames our values, connections, and resulting actions (or inaction, as the case may be).

“Each of us has a sense of self that is based in certain values — a professional self, a political self, a national identity. We just naturally look for information that confirms our existing values and notions, and filter away whatever challenges them,” Stoknes explains. “Psychologists know that if you criticize people to try to make them change, it may only reinforce their resistance.”

Personal identity, just like religion, has evolved to serve an important purpose in human society. It helps us cultivate a moral compass and allows us to interpret and filter the constant external information our minds are internalizing. However, as with religion, our sense of self can become a source of harm when it interferes with our ability to commiserate and connect with people or ideas different from our ‘own’. The ego grows by defining boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’, and by ignoring or outright denying any information that does not align with its self-cultivated identity.

We only have to look at neo-Nazi groups or extreme religious cults to see where the creation and defense of self-identity can go terribly, violently wrong. At the other extreme, philosophies such as yoga as well as many eastern religions emphasize the release from self-identity as the highest goal—i.e., moving beyond the ego to a place of enlightenment, or higher consciousness. For those of us in between those extremes, our sense of self is unavoidable, and crucial at least to some extent in our interactions with the day-to-day world. The goal then is how to maintain an identity without feeling threatened by other ways of seeing or explaining the world; an identity that is porous like sand on a beach, allowing ideas and knowledge to flow through it freely.

I believe that regardless of religious, philosophical, or cultural ties, our responsibility (and ideally, our ambition) as humans is to cultivate a sense of self that is pliable instead of rigid, that expands and evolves to accept new ideas and facts as they are made aware to us. Nothing on the planet, indeed in the universe, is unchanging, and neither is our Self, no matter how much we try to cling to whatever identity we’ve constructed over the years.

I Imagine, therefore I Am

One thing that we all are capable of to varying degrees is imagining. Imagining future scenarios, imagining alternative lives, or even imagining people or creatures that don’t ‘exist’ in our world. Whereas science-minded folks often exhibit high amounts of curiosity and openness to new ideas, its often religious people whose minds are more open to imagination.

As Stanford Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann explains in a TEDx talk, evangelical conceptions of God often involve people talking directly to God, hearing his voice direct them, or even seeing him. Her research has found that some people have an inherently vivid imagination, and these individuals are more likely to have these personal one-on-one interactions with God. Using brain scans, scientists can see that the same parts of the brain are active when someone is having a Godly experience as when they are asked to imagine various scenes.

Visions of God or other religious beings have been recorded for centuries--new research shows that a strong imagination correlates with a higher likelihood of having these kinds of religious visions.
Visions of God or other religious beings have been recorded for centuries–new research shows that a strong imagination correlates with a higher likelihood of having these kinds of religious visions.

Luhrmanns’ and others’ research also shows that we train our minds to be more imaginative—or more in tune with God, depending on how you interpret the results. The longer a person has been praying in the evangelical style, the more likely they are to experience God’s voice or image in their everyday routines.

These internal imaginative experiences highlight how adaptive and flexible our minds are. We can literally re-wire our brains by consciously changing and practicing new thought patterns. People are trained to do this to treat depression and anxiety, and we can even reduce chances of developing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s by keeping our minds healthy and active.

Perhaps if we were to teach similar techniques on a wider level, our society would be better prepared for change, and more willing to make positive lifestyle choices to protect our health, environment, and wellbeing. Just as people are starting to advocate re-introducing children to gardening and real food at school, and some corporations are adopting socially and environmentally conscious guidelines that go beyond their financial bottom line, we do have it in us to expand our view about what values are important to cultivate.

It’s never easy to modify your identity or accept large-scale change, but we’ve done it as a species countless times before. Our identities will always be partially shaped by where we live, how we were raised, and to what cultures we were exposed. However, as a highly adaptive species, I have hope that we (at least some of us!) can yet evolve toward a higher collective consciousness in which differences are both respected and recognized as superficial compared to the larger sameness that we all share.

While younger generations face more dire problems than those of the past, many millenials appear to be up to the challenge, spreading a message of acceptance and action.
While younger generations face more dire problems than those of the past, many millenials appear to be up to the challenge, spreading a message of acceptance and action.