is our empathy in atrophy?

I was in Maine this past month studying with the amazing Tom Myers who is a manual therapist, anatomy expert and awesome innovator and dreamer. In our work, he was talking about all of our experiences being simulated. His point being that they all have to get filtered or funneled through our nervous systems and our brains so that they are not actually directly happening to us. We are always one step removed. The simulation is so powerful that we have mirror neurons that are capable of looking at something and activating the body as if it were performing the exact same feat.

So for example, we can see someone in a one legged crow pose and our body would be fired up in the same way as if we were in a one legged crow, ourselves. There are studies now that show that people watching an activity half the time and half the time doing it gets them the same results. It’s fascinating.

This is very confusing information. Is this why we are so obsessed with technology and television? Because it feels like we are actually living without taking a step outside our doors? I’m not sure. There are probably many people who can untangle this and give you better information than I can. What I can say is that I saw circulating on FB this past week, a video showing the border between Gaza and Israel, and people on one side sitting in lawn chairs, watching the bombs go off on the other side. I am not going to discuss the problem itself. I am not an expert on this topic. I don’t have a side in this war. And I don’t understand it. So I won’t even try to go there. I would like to look at the event on its own. Surely, watching violence and people getting hurt or killed is not a new sport, there has always been a perverse fascination with that historically. We are fascinated by death. The more we push it away, the more fascinating it becomes.

So bear with me while I work through this. When I was in my twenties, I worked for The Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis- the largest and best children’s theater in the country. We put on a production of Cinderella, in which I played a bunch of tiny roles. At the end of the play, the big send off was that when Cinderella and the Prince got married, we would bring out a huge cake. There were tiny slices of cake, singly wrapped and we would make eye contact with a kid in the audience and throw them the cake. I would look at a kid and with our eyes, we would communicate- “I’m gonna throw this to you”, and they would be like “ok”. I would throw the cake. And nine times out of ten it would hit them right in the face. I was always disturbed by this. I was not throwing it hard, I think we are so used to television that we don’t believe anything is actually three dimensional.

We are in fact very three dimensional. And our bodies are cathedrals made out of soft rounded echoes and spirals. Our brains are capable of sending people to the moon- the mooooon!!!!- and our hearts are capable of loving with no boundaries. Love never runs out. It is limitless. We can love our mate, friends, family, dogs, whales, trees, moments, people passed, ideas… all at the same time. I mean, our capability for love is truly awe inspiring. Talk about a vast natural resource. It never runs out and transcends time and space. It’s so powerful that we can even love someone who hates us or has harmed us. What is happening to us? Is it possible that empathy is like a muscle? That we have to use it and if we don’t, it atrophies? And aren’t we failing if we can’t use these magnificent faculties we are so proud of to find a way toward each other as opposed to away from one another? Is cutting each other off and tearing each other down really the solution we come back to again and again? What is a world without forgiveness? And what happens when things get hard and we treat people as dispensable? When we lose interest in moving through stuff with someone? With all of the amazingness we are is that the best we’ve got?

I was with a woman for years, a long time ago, practically married. We had a cat. Hermione. The details are not so interesting, but in the break up, I lost the cat. It’s taken me years to work through the deep pain of loosing her. I love/loved her insanely. The cat. All right… you got me, the woman as well… possibly… no, not possibly, really. Anyway… That’s not the point. For many years I could not look or really take in any four-legged, because I was afraid I would love them and then lose them. I even lived with five cats for part of that time and just ignored them because it was too painful. And then one day I realized that it is not ok, they are alive and so amazing and forgiving. Just a scratch behind the ear and they are willing to love me. I just needed to take my head out of my ass and get over it. I thought, what the hell is wrong with me? When did I become this insanely callused person? I had to actively figure out how to come back from my own zombie apocalypse.

In my opinion, this is what is happening. Is this really what we are made of? It’s not good enough. We have to be pioneers in our own healing and figure our shit out and heal ourselves so that we can mend what Ana Forrest refers to as “the hoop of the people”. If we don’t figure it out this ugliness is going to eat us all the way to our insides and none of the good stuff will be left. We think that all the war and death is the horrible part. And it is horrible. I’ve had my fair share growing up in Colombia. But I would venture to say that living in a world where people are emotionally dead inside and vacant might be even scarier because we will have lost our humanity and become a shell of ourselves. We all carry a responsibility to reconnect to our karuna (compassion) and our empathy.

To this purpose, I propose these empathy building ideas for you to consider, which I’ve been trying on myself:

– Putting my phone down when people talk to me. Giving them my full attention.
– Not just tolerating, but taking time every day to hang out with the four leggeds around me. Giving them my full attention.
– Finding one thing, at least, that I can do to be of service to someone else each day.
– It sounds silly, but going through ten things I feel grateful for at the end of each day.

What empathic asanas do you practice? Tell me, I’m curious and might add them into my routine. How can we continue reclaim this wonderful quality that is in peril?