Bittersweet Empathy

There's nothing to compare with a deep bond with another, even if it means we feel the pain as well as the joy, suggests Eric Harrison

Anthropologists say that primitive tribes almost invariably number between 50 and 100 people. It seems that 100 people is the most that anyone, then and now, can recognise individually as being part of "our tribe", as being one of "us". Beyond that number, people become strangers, or aliens, the potentially dangerous and unpredictable "them".

Primitive tribes commonly have a word for themselves that translates as "human" or "civilised". Conversely, the words they use to describe other humanoids are frequently derogatory. The "others" are seen as barbaric, non-human or as a species of animal.

Consequently, pre-civilised life was frequently violent. Anthropologists examining skeletal remains find that primitive tribes often engaged in continuous "us versus them" warfare with other tribes. In fact, a far higher percentage of people died violently in the past than do so nowadays. Rousseau's idealised savage may have been "noble", but he was also brutal.

We don't usually think of the 20th century as being relatively peaceful, but it was - at least as far as most people were concerned. The number slaughtered in the wars of the last century was very impressive - about 150 million - but this remains a relatively small percentage, maybe five per cent, of the total human population. The remaining 95 per cent led lives that were reasonably free from arbitrary, ongoing conflict. Anywhere on the planet 12,000 years ago, the death rate from violent causes would have been closer to 25 per cent.

A distinguishing feature of civilisation, wherever it appeared, was its capacity to bind together communities way beyond that natural limit of 100 people. The tribe grew into the town which became the city and then the nation. The circle of "us" expanded to include thousands and, eventually, millions of people.

The glue was culture: the common language, beliefs, legends, laws and responsibilities. By this common mental furniture, we could regard a stranger whom we met in Babylon or Thebes as one of "us" rather than one of "them".

Until recently, the great religions were the main custodians of culture, and they have always taken very seriously their role of promoting an enlarged sense of community. They encourage us to see each other as fundamentally alike, regardless of superficial differences, against the ever-present forces that would split us back into warring tribes.

The word "catholic" even means "universal" or "all embracing". Unlike earlier race and region-based religions, the early Catholic Church welcomed all peoples into the fold, regardless of their background. This also explains why missionaries feel that all humans are the true children of God, just needing to be reminded of the fact.

It is often claimed that the spiritual essence of all religions is "basically" the same, or, to put it another way, "all roads lead to Rome". All religions lead to God if by very different routes. In fact, there are two ways in which religions make this claim. We can regard them as the low road of morality, and the high road of mysticism.

Religions really are alike in encouraging us to be good, cooperative, law abiding citizens who put the interests of others ahead of our own. They also promote social cohesion by saying, "If you do what is expected of you, others will like you, and you will be rewarded now and in the afterlife."

There are only slight differences between the Christian, Islamic, Buddhist or Hindu versions of this tenet. Christianity emphasises expressing one's love (charity) of one's fellow man through generous material support. Buddhism is more passive. It emphasises friendliness and non-hostility towards all life for its own sake as a healthy mental state. Hinduism emphasises selflessly doing one's duty, according to one's station in life, with no thought of reward.

Different religions also have much the same kind of mystical vision. This is usually described as the intuitive understanding that "All is One", and that our sense of individuality is just a temporary illusion. Consequently, all life is so profoundly interconnected that nothing is ultimately separate from anything else. Hence it follows that if you harm another you also harm yourself. In this way, the vision of unity, in theory, leads into a boundless love of all.

Appealing as the mystical vision of total interconnectedness is, it also feels, well, somewhat cool and abstract. Years ago, I saw an enlightened guru consciously radiate universal love to a hall full of people. "I love you all equally," she said, which puzzled me. Her husband was in the room. Did she really regard him, her life companion, the same way she regarded me, a complete stranger? What kind of love was this that only addressed the immortal spiritual essence and paid no attention to the earthly individual? I certainly didn't feel she connected with me.

Love in the abstract is easy. As the old saying goes, "I love humanity. I just can't stand people." I suspect that anthropologists are right when they say we can only connect to 50 to 100 individuals over a lifetime in any deep sense. It takes time and much familiarity to see the human being behind the social mask. And what does it mean to connect to another person anyway?

Connection is about empathy, which is the ability to imaginatively feel the emotional state of another. This is a most remarkable skill, when you think about it. How can we possibly know what is going on in another person's mind? We often don't even know what is happening in our own.

Yet we all know how one person yawning can make others yawn in sympathy. In my classes, I find that even talking about a yawn will trigger off yawns in at least one or two of the students.

This is how empathy works. It seems to rely on what are called "mirror neurons" in the brain. When we see someone smile, for example, our mirror neurons light up. These mimic the other person's smile by triggering off slight, but identical muscle movements in our own face. These sensations tell us, "When my face moves like this I feel happy. Therefore, the person I am seeing must also feel happy."

The mimicking or play acting of the mirror neurons is incredibly subtle. It works all the time and is essential for good communication. It can easily tell the difference between a genuine smile or a cover up smile or a smirk. It also extends to body posture. When two people are in an intimate conversation, feeling well understood and connected to each other, they tend to mirror each other's postures. Empathy is very much a matter of understanding through bodily imitation.

Scientists are now speculating that empathy and the activity of mirror neurons are essential for most kinds of learning. Children learn to speak, and nearly everything else, by imitation. Babies will imitate the facial expressions of an adult within the first hour of birth. Conversely, autistic children seem to have great difficulty in understanding others because they lack this innate ability.

Nonetheless, empathy has its limits. Mirror neurons will try to duplicate another person's facial expressions so you can imagine how your face would feel with that configuration. But the whole process is rather approximate. If you've never felt that kind of emotion, you still won't recognise it. Or if you've only felt a weak version, you won't understand the strong version.

Because of the limits of our experience, we have to guess a lot of the time. Children have difficulty understanding the more complex emotions of adults; men can't understand women and vice versa; people who are happy by temperament can't understand sad people; middle-aged people with all their experience still don't understand the emotional trials of old age; and only chronically depressed people can empathise fully with the chronically depressed.

Empathy, moreover, has its price. Empathetic people, no matter how happy they may be within themselves, will still be affected by the emotions of others. Because their mirror neurons create muscular changes, the sadness, longing, frustration and desires of others will resonate subtly within their bodies.

People who are strongly empathetic will resonate with the suffering of the planet: they feel pain for Africa, for the rainforests, for the vanishing species. In fact, there is even a religious symbol for this kind of global empathy. It is Christ on the cross, taking on the sins (the suffering) of the world.

Finally, love, compassion and the mystical vision, while beneficial in themselves, may still fall short of empathy. We often love someone because of the effect they produce in us - not because we understand, or are even interested in, how they feel. This is the curse of many a beautiful woman. And children often know they are loved only when they fit in with their parent's image of who they should be.

Compassion, likewise, can be little more than cold charity or pity. It is good to feed the poor, but without empathy it can make them feel like nothing - just one more bowl to fill in the soup kitchen. Friendliness towards others is also a good basic disposition, but it can still feel distant and a kind of defence. And the mystical vision that All is One, while clearly valuable to the person who has it, feels almost narcissistic in its self absorption.

Empathy is a natural skill that develops through age and experience. Some people just have it, and some cultivate it. Many others find that their lives run more smoothly if they actually ignore the feelings of others. Even though empathy has its price, it is one of those bittersweet qualities that make us fully human. It is the cure for existential loneliness, if nothing else. In fact, it is hard to imagine a greater pleasure than a close, empathetic connection with another person.

Eric Harrison has been running the Perth Meditation Centre since 1987 www.perthmeditationcentre.com.au