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If we look down upon the planet, and the U.S, in particular, from 30,000 miles out, it’s evident that this country is mired in a fair amount of strife, especially our institutions – government, health, education, financial, law and safety, sports…. To me, I believe it’s also evident that one common thread that underlies, and perpetuates, the strife is politics. When cooler heads prevail, one common call is for folks to take a step back, to breathe and to engage in conversation, to communicate. My take is, and has always been, that to communicate effectively one needs to first engage in some deeper, honest, self-reflection (simple, not easy). Self-reflection is what supports us to discover what it is “about me” (my emotional reactivity) that contributes to the strife. Too, self-reflection goes beyond the cognitive, intellectual and mental constructs that “define me” – reified, calcified constructs that I use to make myself “right” and you, “wrong”, the vicious cycle that never leads to resolution – i.e., peace, calm, harmony, acceptance, love and empathy that can help to reduce and eliminate strife.
See what I mean here:
In his book, Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis,” Jeremy Rifkin, in one of the chapters, concludes, “…what is needed is a more transparent public debate around views of freedom, equality and democracy – a moratorium on the hyperbolic political rhetoric and incivility…and begin a civil conversation around our differing views on human nature. This would offer us a moment in time to listen to each other, share our feelings, thoughts, concerns and aspirations, with the goal of trying to better understand each others’ perspectives, and hopefully find some emotional and cognitive common ground.”
On the face of it, I believe most would agree – at least 99.9% of us would agree. It’s like saying, no one in the world should be hungry. Most would agree. But…
While Rifkin’s book is a detailed explanation of how we came to be a culture of incivility, and how empathy is a “way out,” his conclusion, for me, falls short of a real solution. Why? Rifkin essentially equates “cognition” with “consciousness” and assumes we can talk ourselves into being empathetic. Not so fast.
Love and empathy are matters of the heart, not the mind, and I think here is where Rifkin, and so many others, who posit intellectual and cognitive solutions for social ills, and social change, come up short.
Cognition and consciousness are poles apart
Cognition and consciousness are not synonyms but polar ends of a continuum. Here’s my take.
We live in challenging times – socially, politically, economically and spiritually. Incivility, disrespect, and out-and-out personal attacks are a consequence of this un-ease many are experiencing.
So, can I just “think” myself into being empathetic with those who push my buttons? I think not. At least not in any sustainable way.
Empathy is deeper stuff
Empathy is the ability and willingness to relate – not just cognitively or emotionally – but spiritually, from “within,” to what another is thinking and feeling and thus behave in a more compassionate way towards others. As Psychology Today describes it, “Empathy stands in contrast to sympathy which is the ability to cognitively understand a person’s point of view or experience, without the emotional overlay.” As social policy analyst, Elizabeth Segal, writes, “Empathy is more than ‘I hear you’.”
Amy Copland, Ph.D., Philosophy Professor at Cal. State, Fullerton, says being empathetic means we take an “other-oriented” approach to another, rather than a “me-oriented” perspective towards another. She writes, “Other-oriented means that I imagine I am you in your situation, not me in your situation. And because we are different people, I may need help to understand how you are feeling because imagining what your life is like is not the same as actually experiencing what your life is like.”
While empathy does certainly involve “brain stuff,” i.e., thoughts, and cognitive functioning, etc., empathy does not “originate” in the brain. Wanting and choosing to imagine what it’s like to be the other (or others), needs to come from deeper recesses, i.e, heart-driven, if it is to result in real, authentic and sustainable social change.
Being empathetic, then, means we do not express any egoistic need or intention (conscious or unconscious) to “fix,” teach, tell, one-up, advise, sympathize, interrogate, explain or “set another straight.” Empathy is a heart-felt choice to engage intimately with others, on a deepest level, by “be-ing” with another – providing a safe container for another to be vulnerable in our presence – feeling safe, secure, valued and heard. Simple, right? So, why is empathy so hard?
Why being empathetic is challenging
“Underneath the hood” of surface-level anger, distrust, incivility and disrespect between folks, there’s an element that sources our incivility – fear. Fear of what? Fear of losing control. Control of what? Our “identity,” our need to feel like a “somebody.” Our need to be seen, heard, recognized. Our need for psycho-emotional safety and security.
When individuals or groups fear a loss of democracy or status, or feel terrorized about losing their jobs, their homes, their health care, their educational opportunities, their families and, most of all, their sense of self, they fear being relegated to the ranks of “nobodies.”
Nobody wants to be a “nobody”
How am I dealing with these marginalized, fearful folks? Am I pushing them away? Do I see them as a threat to my identity, to my feeling like a “somebody?” Do status, ranking and “somebody-ness” depend on my doing, being and having more than them – a “zero-sum” approach to my living life, where I feel, “if you get yours, then I won’t get mine?” Is life a “me. vs. you” proposition? Do I see folks as a means to end? This is where empathy comes into play.
I am you
One tenet of many spiritual traditions is the notion that “I am you” – a metaphysical (far from cognitive) concept that points to the interconnection of all of life. An “I/Thou” approach to others is not based on the another’s packaging, i.e., looks, net worth, degrees, quality and quantity of material possessions, etc. The I/Thou personalness of relationships focuses on a heart-felt “we,” rather than “me vs. you.” How we are more alike than separate. I/Thou assumes a higher level of “consciousness” – how I orient to the planet and the people on the planet. This yearning, seeking is not simply “cognitive” stuff.
Four levels of consciousness:
Unconscious – instinctual, follower
Subconscious – habitual, robotic, drone-like, reactive
Conscious – aware, intelligent, conceptual
Higher Consciousness – intuitive, guiding, truthful, loving, universal
Empathy reflects a state where one interacts with another with (from) a higher consciousness. It’s not about “deciding” to do so; it’s about an “inner knowing” that I choose to connect. It’s heart-felt, love-based. Empathy results from “going inside,” asking our hearts if our unconscious, subconscious, or conscious “stories” about others are honest, sincere, and authentic or are really defense mechanisms to protect my “ego” self, suppress or repress my fears about others. Higher consciousness allows us to enter into communication and harmony with others from a place of a “universal mind” where we relate to others as “my brothers and sisters.”
From a place of true and real empathy, i.e., higher consciousness, the energy of love and warmth fills the space between two people (or peoples), not the energy of coldness, resistance or resentment of a “me vs. you” ego-perspective. Empathy allows equality between and among individuals, all individuals.
Higher consciousness, not cognition, is the “secret sauce” of cooperation, collaboration, compassion and connection with others. Higher consciousness is a heart-based state that allows me to “feel your pain” – I am you.
Empathy is not thinking
What’s needed is a shift from an unconscious, subconscious and even conscious state, and cognition, that puts a microscope on our emotional, psychological and spiritual orientation to the planet and the peoples inhabiting it. This internal exploration is quiet, slow, continuous and intentional. It’s not “thinking about,” it’s not intellectual. Here we query our heart, not our mind.
Einstein said “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” My take here is that “thinking” is not the problem, but consciousness. While folks may be thinking differently, they are not moving in a sustainable way to a higher level of consciousness, of “be-ing” differently, of truly transforming (I’m no longer the person I was.). And this is the challenge – without transforming, we have old wine, new wine skins. Not sustainable.
The Indian Philosopher Krishnamurti said: “Thoughts are like furniture in a room with the windows and doors closed.” I wrote about this recently. Much of the dialogue, books, articles and sharings of well-meaning folks who seek “solutions” to incivility, cross-cultural and social issues are in this room, with the doors and windows closed. Lots of listening, agreeing, disagreeing, and “solutions,” but it’s the same old furniture, only now with different colors and textures. Why? Discussions are mostly intellectual and cognitive. Only the heart will allow fresh air and lead to true and real change and transformation.
Empathy is co-relating
The solutions to our challenges are not about new (cognitive) flavors of democracy, freedom, economics and the like; they are about co–relating and co-creating on a spiritual (not religious or theological), deeper, heart-felt level. Our mean-spiritedness, anger, mistrust, and intolerance will not be reduced or eliminated by a cognitive understanding alone, but through the application of the salve of a higher consciousness produced by our hearts and souls. True empathy is not a matter of cognition. It’s a matter of heart. The common ground we seek to find is not in the real estate of the brain; but in the fertile fields of our hearts.
Some questions for self-reflection:
- Have you engaged in uncivil, demeaning, or disrespectful behavior recently? Did you justify your behavior? How so?
- How do you generally interact with folks who think/believe/live differently from you? Truthfully.
- Do you live life from an “I need to be right” perspective? If so, why do you think that’s so? Where/How did you learn to come from this perspective?
- Do you ever view compromise as a weakness? How about being empathetic?
- Do you ever rationalize or justify another’s uncivil or disrespectful behavior? If so, how or why?
- Do you ever use “passion” as an excuse to behave inappropriately?
- Have others ever accused you of behaving in an uncivil manner? If so, how did you respond to their accusations?
- How did you, your family, deal with disagreement or the notion of being “different” as you were growing up?
- What do you notice if/when you think others on the planet are your brothers and sisters? What’s your comfort level around this notion?
- Can you envision a world where it’s possible folks respond to disagreement or differences without being uncivil, bullying, angry, enraged, fearful or otherwise disrespectful?
If you have not viewed my video, Overcoming Racism, What Stands in the Way, it’s here: https://youtu.be/nJ3rRSSCnus
(c) 2020, Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D. and True North Partnering. All rights in all media reserved.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this reading with you and I hope you find it insightful and useful. Perhaps you’ll share this with others, post it on a bulletin board, and use it to generate rich and rewarding discussion.
What is the one thing that is keeping you from feeling successful, happy, confident, in control or at peace as you live your life – at work, at home, at play or in relationship? Maybe you know what that “thing” is…maybe you don’t. You just have a feeling that something has to change, whether or not you embrace that change. And how would that change support you to show up as a “better you?”
I’m available to guide you to create relationships that reflect honesty, integrity, authenticity, trust, and respect whether at work or outside of work. I support you to focus on the interpersonal skills that enable you to relate to others with a high level of personal and professional satisfaction – unhampered by personal inconsistencies, beliefs, “stories,” and behaviors that create barriers to a harmonious, pleasant, conscious, compatible, healthy and productive relationship.
I coach by phone, Skype and in person. For more information, 770-804-9125, www.truenorthpartnering.com or pvajda(at)truenorthpartnering.com
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