Empathy

Following is another great poem by Steve Taylor in his latest newsletter. It expresses in poetic form an important truth behind much of what is ‘wrong’ with the world today. The polarity and separation evident in much of today’s politics suggests that we have a long way to go.

Empathy

If you have no empathy, you see enemies everywhere –
when others come close, you sense danger;
so you strengthen your defences and protect your resources
afraid they might steal what’s rightfully yours.

But if you have empathy, you see brothers and sisters;
when others come close, you sense kinship;
so you welcome them, embrace them, open your life up to them,
knowing they’re entitled to share what’s yours.

If you have no empathy, you feel incomplete
and the goal of your life is to accumulate –
to build an empire of achievements and possessions
to try to make yourself whole.

But if you have empathy, you don’t feel a sense of lack
and the goal of your life is to contribute –
to alleviate suffering, to help heal the world
and so strengthen your connection to the whole.

If you have no empathy, you see a world full of boundaries
and the closer you look, the more distinctions you see
and the more autonomous the different parts become
until, right at the bottom, there’s nothing but tiny, solid particles.

But if you have empathy, you know that boundaries are illusory
and the closer you look, the more absurd distinctions seem
until they dissolve away, and at the deepest point,
there’s a vast space of formless oneness.

If you have no empathy, other human beings are objects –
machines with no inner life, who only have value
if they can help you satisfy your desires
and who can be discarded once they have no more use.

But if you have empathy, every person is a universe –
a precious manifestation of spirit,
full of infinite space, deep with unknown forces,
rich with the radiance of being.

If you have no empathy, your soul is hard and constricted
and you see the world as if through the window of a cell
and your isolation fills you with a frustration
that makes you rage with hatred at the world.

But if you have empathy, your soul is soft and fluid
and you’re part of the world, as the world is part of you;
and through your openness, like a river through a channel.

But if you have empathy, your soul is soft and fluid
and you’re part of the world, as the world is part of you;
and through your openness, like a river through a channel.
there’s an endless flow of love.

Misuse of Power

These sex and money scandals – it’s all about the misuse of power, with money as its ally and enabler.

The power and will of the undeveloped ego does not move beyond selfish impulses, empathise with others or reflect upon the consequences or morality of his/her actions. Some such persons become capable of  sexual aggression or rape; others take their own wealth to be of supreme importance at the expense of others, some consolidating their position by dictatorial politics or gangster rackets.

Money is the enabler that pays the lawyers and accountants to ensure that their actions are legitimised or not penalised. How often have you heard the words ‘I haven’t done anything illegal’?

It is interesting that the worst corporate offenders in terms of avoiding their obligations to the wider society seem to be the young (and still rapidly growing) IT companies – Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon etc. – entities still essentially in their adolescence, when a sense of balance and fairness is often not yet achieved by the ego.

The developed ego strives to continue to grow and move beyond these primitive influences, leading ultimately to ego transcendence and spiritual being. For these people, power and money give responsibility for their wise use, in the situation in which one finds oneself. Exploitation of others and personal aggrandisement are no longer part of the game.

Our challenge today is to raise the level of everyone’s game (ego). The bringing to light, to public awareness, of what was previously hidden, is an encouraging part of that process of change. I salute all involved in this cleaning of the inner stables, particularly those with the amazing courage to speak out the unspeakable things done to them and those journalists whose efforts shine that light.

 

The higher they fly…

In my days of working in IT at a big international company, I eventually rose to a moderate level in the hierarchy – such that I was once even given the title of vice-president of something or other, to impress some Americans. One thing I did observe during those years was that, in general, the higher level managers were more unpleasant and lacking in empathy than people lower down the scale – not an invariant rule, as there was indeed the odd relatively human high level manager (yes, I probably mean you, if you’re reading this). Also, it was often the more unpleasant and pushy characters who got promoted more quickly.

I was therefore not surprised to read Oliver Burkeman’s review of Dacher Keltner’s book The Power Paradox: How We gain and Lose Influence in Saturday’s Guardian Review. Read More »

A decent life

The recent interventions of David Milband and Angeline Jolie Pitt in the debate about refugees are timely and appropriate.

The refugee system across the world is in crisis, at a time when we can expect massive increases in the numbers, due to increasing effects of global warming and related warfare. Chickens are coming home to roost.

As Miliband says,

  • There are currently 60 million displaced persons around the world.
  • The average time someone remains a refugee is 17 years.
  • A total of 80% of refugees have remained without any economic status for over a decade.

As Jolie Pitt says

  • people feel “angry” and “cheated” by the huge numbers crossing borders around the world… eroding public confidence in the ability of institutions in power to deal with the issue.
  • It has created the risk of a race to the bottom, with countries competing to be the toughest in the hope of protecting themselves whatever the cost or challenge to their neighbours and despite their international responsibilities.

It seems a time when political ‘leaders’ lack vision and empathy. Why don’t we give the UN the resources to really get on and solve the problem, before it gets many times worse – and if necessary create ‘new frontiers’ that will provide a good living and employment and education for all refugees. Central Asia has been mentioned, but there must be other possibilities such as greening and solar farming parts of the Sahara.

Is there really a problem of resources? This is the United Nations of the Earth! Try a simple thought experiment. Each central bank, at the same time, ‘creates’ say 1% of its annual money supply (out of thin air) and puts it in an account to be spent by the UN. Since it happened to all currencies at the same time there can be little effect of devaluing one against another.

Maybe not the right answer, but it shows that the problem is one of political will, and is not insoluble. But of course it would depend on a massive parallel effort to keep corruption in check.

Retreating inside the walls of our nation-state-egos [eg Brexit] might make us feel temporarily safe, but is long-term self-defeating in a world that will become increasingly unstable because of this lack of empathy.

Everyone deserves a decent life.

Featured image of Rwandan refugee camp in Zaire by CDC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm

Beyond the doors of perception into the dreaming of the earth

Review of a book by Stephen Harrod Buhner.

plant_intelligenceFor some time since reading Stephen Buhner’s book, I have been struggling to comprehend the full richness of what he puts forward. It is a book about how we perceive the world, about perceiving the depth, rather than the surface, of the world. For example, in this quote from Manuel Cordova Rios:

“As my glance wandered in the treetops I became aware of undreamed beauty in the details of the textures of leaves, stems, and branches. Every leaf… seemed to glow with a greenish golden light. Unimaginable detail of structure showed… A nearby bird sang… Exquisite and shimmering, the song was almost visible…”

Many people have had similar deep experiences, but the problem is to keep alive to them in a world dominated by surface things.

Buhner suggests that by opening up to and accepting our true selves we begin to see the world from a deeper perception than the mere surfaces of social conventions and laws.

Henry David Thoreau was one of the most eloquent exponents of our deep connection with nature. Robert Bly speaks of his books:

“As we read Thoreau’s work… we slowly become aware of a light in and around the squirrel, the ant, the woodcheck, the hawk, that belongs to them and not to the eyes observing or the brain producing words.”

Buhner states that his book “is about developing the skill of intentionally altering perception in order to perceive the light in and around the squirrel… about learning how to consciously use it as a tool of perception and cognition…” Now that is ambitious.

Let us get a sense of the work by looking at some of its main themes.

The doors of perception – sensory gating

Buhner suggests that every organism is deeply interwoven into the ecological matrix from which it is expressed. At the interface are located specific organs for perception of the exterior world in order to survive. The implication is that all life forms are self aware and intelligent and can determine meaning from the environment. Sensory gating allows the organism to focus on a limited aspect of world, rather than the myriad inputs; otherwise we would be overwhelmed with input. The gating becomes unconscious habit. We perceive what we expect to perceive.

Children are expected to fit into a defined ‘normal’ range of gating. The more wide open their gating channels, the more likely they will be seen as ‘not normal’. Newborns have minimal gating, so it develops during childhood. They don’t have the intermediary of language and see and hear ‘the old way’ before language. Developmental stages have different function and gating dynamics. Earlier stages can be reverted to at any particular point in time.

People trained in exterior focus (c.f. modern education) get stuck on surfaces and in language and can no longer find depths. This is pretty apparent in today’s Western societies.

Modern science has gated the meanings that come from the world, such as synchronicities, empathy with other life forms, and astrological significances – because they cannot be measured.

Opening the doors

“…the door to the soul is unlocked; you do not need to please the doorkeeper, the door in front of you is yours, intended for you, and the doorkeeper obeys when spoken to”

Robert Bly

Intentional activity or attention can override habitual gating. Once open more widely the gates can stay open; it is repetition that habituates the skill.

Goethe said: “every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us.” Paying attention, even at a later age, on a regular basis, can reset unconscious gating and make us more sensitive, eg to music. The capacity for opening the doors of perception is built into us. This gives a way through the problem articulated by Einstein (I paraphrase) “We cannot solve the problems of today with today’s thinking” …which tends to be interpreted in a purely logical way as a ‘paradigm shift’, but probably more importantly relates to the need to actually change our perception of the world.

Other ways are identified to override gating, include meditation, halluicinogenics, focus on feeling perception.

Once gating is more open, we become sensitive to more meaning. The existentialist despair at the loss of meaning in the world was actually a disease of the scientific enlightenment.

Opening to the feeling sense

Reclaiming the feeling sense, and developing it as a primary sensing tool, is one of the main ways to begin to enter more deeply into the metaphysical background of the world. The key is practice and focus on How does it feel? Every physical object has its own distinct feeling sense.

“recovering the response of the heart to what is presented to the senses”

James Hillman

Absorbed reading, writing, creative science, playing music can all involve a shift in consciousness involving feeling and invoking the ‘dream state’.

But in feeling, you will see the dark as well as the light. It takes courage to keep feeling and not close down. The first step is to feel everything you come into contact with. Determine whether you like it or not – get a sense of its underlying nature. ‘Why this response?’

Buhner covers issues that may arise, such as how to handle self caretaking, sensory overload, depression, taking on other people’s stuff and other issues. He references inner child / inner council work of e.g. John Bradshaw and Eric Berne.

Everything is intelligent and inextricably intertangled

The reductionist scientific viewpoint has led us up the garden path. The world is far more complex than that. It is living intelligence, described by concepts such as complex systems, self organisation, state changes, symbiogenesis, autopoiesis etc. Intelligence is manifested by all organisms – bacteria, plants, animals, ecoranges, the earth as Gaia… This was actually the direction of thinking taken by Darwin in his later works, eg seeing the root of a plant as its brain, sensitively using intelligence to navigate through the soil. Evolution sees common patterns emerging from bacteria through plants to animals and humans,

The natural world from which we are expressed when we are born is a context or scenario, continuously evolving, fluid not static, dynamic and co-evolving. The biosphere is so complex and evolving that we cannot know the consequences of anything we do.

Background and foreground are tightly coupled. There is a “softness of the boundary between inside and outside” (Lewontin). Opening of sensory gating channels leads to thinning of the boundary between self and nonself.

Golden threads of connection run through the world. We should trust our response to world; it has meaning. These threads touch us because something deep inside us needs what’s on the other end of that thread. [c.f. synchronicity, astrology.] We can immerse in the thread through feeling…

Reductionist education discourages this capability that is in us.

Psychotropics in the ecosystem

Psychotropics such as serotonin, psilocybin, DMT, cannabinoids are deeply interwoven into the structure of life, where they play a role in reducing gating. History shows such drugs as playing a role in ‘depatterning’ a certain percentage of the population to subsequent advantage. The explosion of creativity from the 1960s provides a fairly convincing example eg 1960s western music, Steve Jobs et al and the creation of modern IT. However:

“Those who open sensory gating are a danger to the fundamental underpinnings of the reductive paradigm.”

The psychotropics have been long banned by conventional society.

Natural Science and the Imaginal World

The naturalist Barbara McClintock was ostracised because not she was not reductionist. Her approach was to have the “patience to hear what the material has to say to you”, approach the world with a childlike self.

“the first step in the ecological reclamation of the self is to feel, to reclaim the parts of ourselves that feel and feel deeply.”

This ‘seeing’, rather than ‘looking’, requires empathy with the material. Something new arises. Meaning is grasped. This was the essence of Natural Science, and was the science of Goethe.

Sensory perceiving is what you do instead of thinking with your mind; it is ‘the old way’. This can lead to the encounter with other intelligence, such as the dolphin. Becoming aware of the living contextual field, we touch the one livingness, the Tao.

Science vs Barbarianism

In every field, the original pioneers who followed their heart without formal training are followed by the sober well-prepared ones, who have little wisdom to offer. We might take the example of the development of modern psychology and its subsequent codification, or the distortion of the ideals of the USA by some of its modern ‘leaders’.

Also, the early pioneers’ gating channels narrow with age… they become more conservative and pass this on to those following. We have only to look at the later Freud resisting the advances of those who came later to build on his foundations.

The disadvantage of formal schooling is that it takes a long time to discover that one has been poorly educated, to realise that what one was taught is a mere map giving but little insight into reality. I well recognise this syndrome.

Buhner is hard on science, suggesting that most published research claims are false, due to the influence of large scientific journals, sponsors, referees, and money. The dissociated mentation that has come from science – communication devoid of feeling – is seen as the hallmark of the ‘reasonable man’.

He suggests that sensory gating is a lot more open in every other culture on earth (compared to Western)! Yet we want to impose top down solutions on the rest of the world.

We have to use a different kind of thinking, step outside normal channels. We must become the new barbarians, asking “How does this feel to me?”, the crucial question every time… We will begin to be truly ourselves; our words beginning “to take on a depth that is truly alien in our time”.

Conclusion

This book is a tour de force presenting a world view that is immensely appealing to this reviewer, consonant with the views of many working towards a New Renaissance, and profoundly disruptive of the current Western majority paradigm. It requires a change in the way we perceive the world. This is what the real world is about.

The heart of capitalism?

I am standing on the footpath that threads around a large field in Cheshire. It looks like flattened mud, with rows and row of small young plants, maybe winter wheat? I feel desolate at the barren scene – no variation, no birds, no insects, just that vast cloying mud.

Confined-animal-feeding-operation
Combined animal feeding operation

I am being driven through eastern Texas. We pass seemingly endless cowsheds, enclosures, corrals of cows. Arid flattened earth, not a blade of green to be seen anywhere. A nothing environment for an unlucky cow to live what can hardly be called a cow’s life. My heart cannot grasp the enormity of what is being done here.

I read the story of DDT and Rachel Carson, and how the world stepped back from the brink of massive destruction of natural beings. And now I read again of the new DDT, neonicotinoids, which are being extensively used without due precaution. Not only the bees our life depends on, but other insects, the birds that feed on them, and the thousands of organisms of the very soil itself are being massacred. Ignorance on a grand scale in the name of money. I weep internally.

I drive through the northern French countryside. More huge fields, thanks to the Common Agricultural Policy. Yet there is not a hedgerow in sight, so few insects and birds. I grieve for the lost opportunity to maintain the threads of nature.

I observe in my own Cheshire garden the decimation of populations of bees, butterflies, hoverflies, some bird species over less than half a lifetime. My heart tells me something is amiss with the web of life, and it is something to do with the way we farm and the chemicals we use.

And yet through all this there are signs of hope. Part fields of wild flowers in southern France – lost but now re-established. Land set aside for wildlife. Campaigns to keep and extend old forests. The organic and small farm movements. The national parks, scientific areas, conservation movements etc etc. In the hearts of many the connection with nature is still strong.

Does not the problem lie in our hearts? If we cannot feel that empathy with the whole living world, as we do for example with our pets, what hope is there for us? Industrial agriculture with its related chemicals appears to be largely about the pursuit of money at the expense of the natural world. Land ownership should imply stewardship of nature on that land, which means maintaining the connections of nature and should not allow them to be destroyed.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the currently manifested capitalist system, that has money as its supreme value, lies at the root of the problem. If decisions are taken based on what makes the most money, rather than what the heart says is right, then does that not inevitably lead to the increasingly denatured world we see before us?

[Of course, similar problems are evident in totalitarian countries, which are either part of or have aped the capitalist money system.]

Featured image of Confined Animal Feeding Operation, from Wikimedia Commons