This Is Compassion

My understanding of empathy is approaching experience as whatever is alive and present, whatever it is. Empathy carries this awareness: “I don’t want to change you, I simply want to invite you to be here and I want to be present.” This is compassion. ~Robert Gonzales

I just finished a weekend workshop with my teacher, Robert Gonzales. I find it magical how he can create an atmosphere of trust and acceptance, so that by the end of the second day, everyone is hugging each other as if they were old friends and had not just met 48 hours ago. How does he do that? My answer this time around is that he models authentic presence. Authentic presence is not necessarily nice or charming, though it can be if those moods are genuinely there. If you met my teacher at a bus stop, you probably wouldn’t look twice. He’s not charismatic. He doesn’t have a big personality. Nevertheless, his calm, kind, genuine presence shifts the energy of a room.

Genuine connection with another touches my heart. I guess it’s all any of us ever really want. We want real love, which is an amalgam of curiosity, acceptance, and vulnerability. Robert’s class is a safe place to reveal how I really am, which is so freeing. And the ability to be open and vulnerable creates profound intimacy.

Protecting The Feminine

There’s a dance I go to every Wednesday and Sunday called Ecstatic Dance. A DJ plays evocative music from all kinds of genres and everyone dances in their own way. It’s complete freedom. No one drinks at this dance or smokes. Women do not worry about being teased or stalked for their gender, dress, or style of movement. Men may dance with other men and no one categorizes their sexuality. One does not have to wait for a partner; people joyfully dance alone or with another of either sex or in a group.

April162014 Ecstatic dance

The people who come to this dance are often creative, sensitive, sensual, and passionately working on creating a culture that feels safe and welcoming to all types of people.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about this culture recently…how fragile it is. Every week we come together and do a personal, spontaneous, creative, and sensual dance. And there are unspoken understandings: that we will not judge another’s dance, that we will not sexually objectify anyone, that we have room for differently raced or gendered people. Women, in particular, feel free to express their sensuality in the form of clothes and movement without fear of shame, violence, or exploitation. After 5,000 years or so of being bought and sold as chattel, the freedom to be sensual for oneself is extraordinary for women, especially in contrast to parts of the world where women must be fully covered in public or have their sexual parts cut out.

However, as our dances become more and more popular, new people enter the dance and some are not aware of the unspoken rules of this new culture. Every once in a while I hear about someone pressuring a woman for her number or some other more mainstream behavior and I realize that we have something quite precious to protect.

As a group we are swimming upstream from mainstream culture…not an easy task in itself, and we must work to overturn even our own habitual notions around domination, control, acceptance, ownership, and sensuality. Acceptance, sensuality, non-judgment, empathy, and presence are generally defined as feminine traits in our culture. Poetically we could call it protecting the divine feminine and I mean the divine feminine in both men and women. As women, we are used to feeling marginalized in the media for these qualities, however we forget that men with these qualities also feel pushed out. Some of the most distressed men I know are sensitive, feeling types who have been bullied by their more aggressive, masculinized counterparts.

One way to think of these feminine qualities is as those human behaviors that would not be encouraged for making war. For eight thousand years, our kings have pushed onto men the characteristics needed to make good soldiers– duty, ability to follow orders, organized action, thinking over feeling, alcohol to numb feelings, narcissism, deliberate avoidance of feeling what another feels (no empathy or compassion) and judgment over acceptance. These are essentially the traits of all of our heroic soldier types in the media. Men are not inherently these masculine characteristics; they have to be cornered into these stereotypes from childbirth.

April162014 Receptivity

How do we protect this precious culture that allows, even celebrates the divine feminine? I have been pondering this question for the past several months. Do we create rules and then enforce them? Do we make a judging body? Do we require people to go to meetings? I am inclined to try a completely different way to approach this issue of promoting and maintaining a different culture, something a bit more, well, feminine; something that has gentleness, fun, receptivity, and diversity in it.

I am especially interested in finding a feminine way, because our culture thinks of feminine as weak and ineffective. I suspect that the opposite is true. Receptivity, the ability to surrender to the present, acceptance, non-judgment, sensuality, and empathy are the very traits needed to connect to one another, to the planet, and to a larger consciousness. How can we survive into the future disconnected from one another? How can we survive if we are not present to the planet now, not receptive to its feedback systems, and deaf to the cries of our fellow animals? How can we find the flow needed to survive if we cannot stop following duty, rules, and “how we’ve always done things” long enough to be present to the soft voice of Life and Spirit?

It may be that the qualities that the kings labeled weak and bad for successful war making are the very qualities that have the most strength for any kind of human future. Personally, I’d like to find out. I have some ideas about how to protect the divine feminine in a feminine way that I will post in the future. I am interested in your ideas as well and hope you will feel free to communicate with me.



Empathy For Aspergers

The other day, I had the opportunity to learn a little bit more from a friend about the difficulty people with Aspergers have with social interactions. Most of us don’t realize the many and varied social cues we give out to each other all the time. Whatever we may say with words is a fraction of the information we are conveying through our faces, tone of voice, and body language. My friend does not convey the “right” cues when she speaks and so she is misinterpreted all the time. Unfortunately, the misinterpretation usually means somebody’s feelings are hurt and my friend is clueless as to why.

Dec232014 frog and rabbit

So I watched my friend’s body language and face for a while and I think that some of the behaviors that are missing are subtle cues announcing submission or motherliness. Some women unconsciously use a motherly tone to keep people’s attention and respect.  Most American women use their tone of voice, certain head tilts, how their hands express, and fleeting facial expressions to signal that they are subordinate. I noticed that in Italy, I could tell the American women from the Italian women, because Italian women walk as if they owned the sidewalk and American woman walk so as to take up as little space as possible. The better an American woman conveys subordination, the more likely that people will listen to her and approve.

Aspergers seems to make it difficult if not impossible for a person to recognize these visual cues, so they don’t learn to mimic them. My friend can come across as rude or strident, because she doesn’t convey her subordination in facial expression, tone of voice, or body language. Even though she lets people know that she has Asperger’s, it’s very difficult for people to understand how these subtle lacks of social cues changes how they react to her.

I gave my dear friend empathy for the struggle she has in forming long term friendships. I’d love for her handicap to be given more patience.

Shared Experience Transmits Love

In my previous post I talk about how true acceptance and understanding brings healing love into any relationship. Acceptance and understanding are effective on a group level as well. So let’s say that you are with your extended family in the living room over the holidays and your brother brings up a political point that usually results in a furious duel with your uncle.


Usually, we take sides. We accept one relative’s point of view over the other. However, true acceptance means seeing both sides, in particular, the deeper intent. It may be that your brother longs to be accepted by his uncle. It may be that your uncle longs to be understood. It is possible to simply say something along these lines:

Brother, I get the feeling that all you want is just to be accepted by the whole family. Uncle, it sounds to me like you wish that my brother could understand how important your beliefs are to you. Is that the case? (Always check out a guess, otherwise it can sound like you think you know)

Then watch how pointing out what you see and what you guess the longings are shifts the entire tone of the conversation. Often the two people in question will feel less polarized and more willing to take the conversation to a deeper more heartfelt level.

Sometimes the wounds are too deep, there is too much alcohol, or one of the arguers is mentally unstable in some way, so that reflecting back longings does not shift things, in fact, one or the other might turn on you! Even then you can help shift things for the rest of the group witnessing the argument by being transparent:

I wish I knew the very thing to say, but I don’t. I have no idea what might make this situation better.

Even this simple admission will help the entire group, because you will be voicing what others are feeling. When you say out loud what others feel, they don’t feel so alone. Shared experience transmits love.

Love Can Heal

Healing happens in the presence of love. It is the nature of life unfolding. ~Robert Gonzales

Many of us know intellectually that love can heal. It’s one of those understood expressions we hear fairly frequently, especially around the holiday season. Love conquers all. Love heals all. And so on.

One of the difficulties we run into is what does healing love look like? Gifts, back rubs, a gaze from the eyes, advice, money? To answer, I’ll tell you a story about a grandmother I know who loves her granddaughter very much. The granddaughter is  sick with an autoimmune disease and has to take medication with unpleasant side effects. The other day, I was sitting at the lunch table with them and the daughter was crying.  Mood swings are one of the side effects. The grandmother tried to soothe her by suggesting that her mood swing would pass. Then she tried to inspire her granddaughter by persuading her that there were silver linings and going over each one. Eventually she was crying right along with her granddaughter.

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that there was love in the room. However, the way the love was being demonstrated was not the most healing. The reason is because the grandmother really wanted to cheer up her granddaughter. She had an agenda. Way deep down the grandmother was freaked out by the young woman’s anguish. However, love, if it is to be healing love, must be accepting. Love accepts pain, despair, even depression. What the granddaughter really needed was to have her grandmother hold her hand, sit with her, and just be a witness to her pain. I know this concept is hard to believe, so I’ll flip it around for you.

Dec172013 frogs

Imagine that you were just granted one of your deepest wishes. You might feel enormously happy. The first thing you might do is call or email all of your intimate friends to share the news. The last thing you would want is for one of your friends to try to change your mood. Fortunately we live in a culture where happiness is an acceptable feeling. We accept joy and so we can sit with it without trying to change it.

We don’t accept sadness and so we push ourselves to change it in others and ourselves. But the very act of trying to shove that emotion back under the table sends a depressing message that we are not okay as we are.

Eventually, the granddaughter explained to her grandmother how much she just needed to have her pain acknowledged and accepted. I knew that it was hard for the grandmother, too. She so wants her granddaughter to feel well. However, the more she can accept her own pain around her dear granddaughter’s experience, the more she will be able to accept her granddaughter’s pain. The ability to just accept without trying to change anything is healing love.

For a further expansion on this theme, here is a wonderful two minute explanation by Brene Brown about the difference between listening with empathy and other kinds of listening responses:

I love this explanation because it is easy to tell which is more loving.

Empathy cartoon


Asking Non-judgmental Questions

I received this question by email after my last post:

“I think you were right-on in pointing out how parents typically assume selfish motives for kids.  You cartoon was just heart-breaking!  There’s a lot of heart in your message.  How about adding a little more “how-to”?  

I think what could be useful to your readers would be to include a paragraph modeling what questions you might ask that get to the heart of it. Would they be questions that guess at motives?  And how to phrase questions in a non-judgmental or non-demeaning way?”

Thanks so much for the question! I love answering specific questions that will help someone right away. I’ll use the same cartoon of a child with a broken vase to demonstrate a more compassionate approach.

Nov192013 paper airplane


Here is a sample conversation modeling non-judgmental questions. The words in red are my commentary:

Parent: Oh, no, mom’s favorite vase is broken. I’m sad about that. What happened? (Said in a sympathetic, caring voice)

Child: I don’t know. (Probably true, the kid has no idea how the vase slipped out of her hands)

Nov222013 don't know1

Parent: Were you hoping to do something with it?

Child: Yes! Nonni said I could get it.

Parent: Nonni said it was OK? (Parent is surprised. Why is the next-door neighbor involved with this?)

Child: She said it would surprise mommy.

Parent: I’m so confused. The vase would surprise mommy?

Child: No! The FLOWERS. (Children can get quite peeved when you guess wrong. A young child thinks that you, as god, ought to just know. Don’t let it throw you. Keep asking.)

Parent: Did you find some flowers?

Child: No! Nonni did. She found a bunch of flowers from somewhere and she said she’d share them with mommy. She said to get a vase.

Parent: And so you went and got mommy’s favorite vase.

Child: Yeah. I wanted it to be a good surprise.

Parent: And then it slipped.

Child: Yeah, I tripped. Can we glue it back together?

I suspect that most people with the following two features could have the previous conversation without much training in compassionate listening: Feature one – that the parent feels relaxed and patient. Feature two – that the parent truly believes that all people are basically good with good intentions.

However, in our culture we are often in a rush, trying to accomplish much more in a day than is physically possible, and are brought up to believe that people are basically bad and have to be punished into goodness. Furthermore, most of us have unhealed traumas that pop up whenever triggering events happen. So for example, if the parent in the above cartoon had been harshly criticized by his partner for not keeping an eye on the child, then a broken vase may mean much more than having to deliver sad news. It may mean shame over not being a good enough parent. It may mean having to listen to hours of critical, shaming language from his wife. Or if the same parent grew up in a household where he was seen as not good enough, then he may be triggered not only by the current shame, but also by a long history of being judged.

When we are triggered, we lose our patience and ability to see someone else’s side. It’s very biological. So the real secret to compassionately querying your child is in how quickly you can deal with your own shame and get back to a sense of well-being. And this ability to return to balance takes practice. Marshall Rosenberg, Byron Katie, Robert Gonzales, Raphael Cushnir, Brene Brown, and many others all focus on ways to enhance self-compassion. Essentially they teach one how to sit with one’s emotions and allow oneself to feel them, while at the same time seeing oneself as innocent and focusing on the dear human need behind all of the emotion.




A Compassionate Approach to Fury

Those of us who have been doing all kinds of healing work on ourselves to solve problems like depression, anxiety, loss of relationships, and other challenges feel the most embarrassed when we shoot off at the mouth and say something in a fit of anger that we wished we could take back.

Recently, a friend of mine swore during a tense argument with her friend. Later, my friend apologized profusely and asked if she could take back her words. “Nothing doing,” said the woman, “you can’t take back what you said.” Many people might agree with her. Some people even think that the words spoken in fury are the real truth.

In the spirit of absolute compassion, I’d like to offer this guideline instead. Words spoken in fury are the least true and should not be believed at all. I am making a distinction between anger that sets boundaries as in, “No, you may not steal from me.” and fury as in, “You never do anything right.”

When we are furious, we are actually deeply fearful. We usually fear the loss of something very important to us. It could be the loss of our reputation, lover, security, respect and so on. Deep fear puts us into a fight or flight mode and our brain’s emotional center is completely activated to protect us. The brain’s rational center, along with memory, insight, empathy, reason, and understanding all get shut down, so that the protective functions get all of our attention and energy. After all, if we are running from a rabid dog, we don’t have time to empathize with the poor thing, we only have time to move fast.

The reality is that when we fear the loss of something it is the same as being chased by a rabid dog. We don’t have time to recall that our friend did something nice for us just yesterday. Instead we say, “You never do anything nice for me!” at the top of our lungs to protect ourselves from something our animal brain registers as frightening. After a while, we calm down and feel kind of sheepish and mumble something about remembering the nice thing after all. The compassionate response is to just give her a bye. Just let it go. She really didn’t mean it. Instead focus on finding out what frightened her so much. That will be so much more helpful and kind. What scared you so much that you said something you now know you didn’t mean?



Empathy and Power

Sept32013 power and empathy

The above quote came from Edwin Rutsch’s website:

Some of you who work in the human sustainability movement must occasionally come across the bottom-line businessman/woman who tells you that all this empathy stuff is nice if you can afford it. But getting down to brass tacks, empathy just doesn’t make it in this dog eat dog world. It’s not practical.

If power makes us lose the ability to empathize, this has far reaching consequences. First of all, we won’t be able to convince the people in power to do something just because it is kind or loving or even fair. The only way to reach powerful people may be through logic alone.

So if you are trying to convince a bottom line, brass tacks sort of person that empathy is important, here’s a bit of logic to try on them. Empathy is not just wussy kindness; it is an important component of the feedback loop. All organisms or groups of organisms depend upon feedback for survival. A foot that steps on glass sends a quick message to the brain. The brain takes the feedback and stops the foot from progressing any further. The brain then directs the rest of the body to repair the damage with bandages and so on. If the brain lacked the ability to feel the foot’s pain, as in nerve damage, there would be no feedback and the foot would be compelled to slog through glass, opening it up to infection. It’s easy to see that the body without feedback cannot survive for long.

Empathy is a group animal’s feedback mechanism. Empathy gives us important information about the relative health of our fellow members, so that we can make the changes required for the health of the group. For example, many communities are protesting fracking for oil. If we can empathize with their need for clean water and air, we might press for alternatives to oil. If we can’t, we will continue fracking until all the water, including ours is spoiled or burn oil until the climate changes irreversibly.

Does power itself change the brain or is it our attitude towards power that changes the brain? For 8,000 years or so, power has meant never having to say you’re sorry. Media images of power show happy people with every comfort dictating loudly to their pawns over their iPhones. We are taught that powerful people can do whatever they want, even if it kills a lot of people. But aboriginal people must have had powerful people, too. However, my guess is that in harsh climates there was no concept of power meaning control of anything. Instead power probably meant using wisdom, knowledge and compassion for the best survival of the group. I’m guessing that power meant something far different, because we survived as a species for three million or so years. Under this new definition of power, we will probably not make it much past 10,000.

Faith In Listening

I know that I have clambered up on my soapbox and preached about the value of listening many times. And now I’m going to do it again! Last nights session with my good friends in the LIFE program reminds me that it’s not easy to listen with an open heart when we are freaked out by what we are hearing. For example, I remember responding with horror when a student talked about a violent rape from her childhood to Byron Katie. Katie, however took it in stride. If I had been that woman’s confidant then, I would have crumbled.

The thing is, listening takes courage. And it takes a certain kind of faith, too. What I mean by faith is a trust in the human journey each of us takes. Bonnie Badenoch says that the brain knows what it needs to heal. I’ve seen this concept in action. One of my LIFE group friends counsels people. I know that he has a lot of identity around being able to help people and he’s very good. But most of the time what really helps are not all his suggestions, but his silence as a I talk. If occasionally he reflects back to me what he thinks he heard me say, even better. There’s something amazingly helpful about hearing oneself think through another. Often, a group of synapses just seem to connect and I have an insight. An insight, by the way, that neither he nor I could have given me before. It really did take thinking out loud.

We also need an accepting, non-judgmental listener as well. A compassionate presence is imperative, because it’s a relief to be accepted, which releases us to be even more self-exploratory. It’s like our ego has a hand to hold while it dives into territory that is scary or in which there is a lot of self-criticism.

To be an accepting, non-judgmental listener means having faith that anything a person is going through will get better in the presence of compassion.

Real Love

I read a sobering article recently that alerted me that suicide was now higher than cancer and heart disease in deaths per year. One of the factors leading to this statistic was the number of people who live alone. Isolation contributes to suicidal thoughts.

Since human beings are group animals, isolation feels particularly awful. People crave to be seen and loved. Being alone is the exact opposite of that. You probably know a lot of people who feel lonely, especially if you live in America. There’s such a need for people to feel more love, but sadly love is often relegated to romantic love. Those of you who are regular readers of my blog know that one of my missions is to release powerfully important bonding experiences like being held and being loved from the romance box.

So I am particularly thrilled to introduce Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, who has really thought about love and believes that the way we practice it is too limiting. Here is an excerpt from an article on CNN Health:

1. It can be hard to talk about love in scientific terms because people have strong pre-existing ideas about it.

The vision of love that emerges from the latest science requires a radical shift. I learned that I need to ask people to step back from their current views of love long enough to consider it from a different perspective: their body’s perspective. Love is not romance. It’s not sexual desire. It’s not even that special bond you feel with family or significant others.

And perhaps most challenging of all, love is neither lasting nor unconditional. The radical shift we need to make is this: Love, as your body experiences it, is a micro-moment of connection shared with another.

Barbara Fredrickson studies positive psychology.
Barbara Fredrickson studies positive psychology.

2. Love is not exclusive.

We tend to think of love in the same breath as loved ones. When you take these to be only your innermost circle of family and friends, you inadvertently and severely constrain your opportunities for health, growth and well-being.

In reality, you can experience micro-moments of connection with anyone — whether your soul mate or a stranger. So long as you feel safe and can forge the right kind of connection, the conditions for experiencing the emotion of love are in place. Continue on:

I am particularly drawn to the statement that we can have this bond with anyone. I have seen this to be true in my own experience. Empathy is basically love, in that I am seeing someone’s experience as my own. Therefore I really am present with them in the moment. I’ve had moments with people in a line, the cashier in a store, a taxi driver, and many others. I think what affects me the most is the happy surprise on the face of the person when I actually stop what I am doing and look into their eyes. Try it sometime. Really look at the bagger at the grocery store when you say “Thanks!” They aren’t used to anyone really seeing them.

One of the saddest stories in the suicide article is of a man who wrote in his suicide note that he vowed not to jump if anyone smiled at him on the way to the bridge. No one did.