Empathic apes

Orangutan mother and kids. By Patrick Bouquet, Chantilly

Orangutan mother and kids. By Patrick Bouquet, Chantilly

The year is 1955, and far from the nearest village, somewhere within the Northwestern jungle region of Thailand, a 48 year-old Englishman and ordainee to the Buddhist monkhood sits quietly in studious attention. A few feet away, a female ape sits, arms carefully wrapped around some precious possession. The monk first chanced upon her the previous day, and due to the curiosity roused in observing her melancholic countenance, has remained respectfully nearby to her. A trust has developed, the ape sensing the monk’s gentle disposition and harmlessness. He really ought to be making his way to the village for alms, yet somehow senses that he should stay. A silent, palpable communication has developed between the two, and slowly, carefully and deliberately, the ape, her sadness still etched upon her face, finally unfolds her arms and offers a first sight of what she has been protecting. The monk slowly approaches to within a pace or two, sensing the invitation, only to catch sight of her lifeless and terribly deformed baby.

Two empathic apes, ancestrally and psychologically speaking, separated by little more in this moment than a distant, lineage-splitting, speciation event. Opposable thumbs, one hers and one his, in turn chase away a monk’s tear and a delicately mottled butterfly as it alights from the baby’s forehead, though cannot do the same for their conjoined feelings. Eyes meet, evincing as they do a deepening rush of sadness. Nothing can be done – is this what she is thinking in her way? In his unknowing, the saffron-robed wanderer radiates compassion, yet knows he has nothing to do with it; an offering from wisdom, not from the self. All that need be known arrives in the fullest of measures. What use now the venerable elder’s sagacity, his knowledge of emptiness, renunciation, equanimity, the void? She inhabits the void, is the void, her bleak knowing piercing its veils. Without turning, the monk slowly retreats, still reverently holding her gaze alongside a shared understanding. A slight suggestion of a bowing head betokens what passes between them.

It is the ability to empathise which in part distinguishes the psychopathic mind from its otherwise healthy state, and the primary orbit of empathy is that of feeling, not the mere gyrations of intellect. This is why many species of sentience can empathise, and we human animals are but one of them. We may erroneously presume that an ability to reflect upon others’ situations facilitates human empathic capacity; yet the state of those others and their situations need not be known as verbally abstracted objects in the mind – little stories packaged in words. We may just as well occupy others’ frames of reference by intuited means; and vitality, morbidity, distress and joy may all be recognised across species in differing ways; one need not indulge any anthropomorphisation, for clear evidence abounds. What is intuited here, or instinctively known, is the nature of the other’s felt emotional condition; and in this way, 60 years ago, the grieving mother ape and mendicant monk shared that intense experience – a wordless world of deep, primate feeling.

Engraving of Orangutan. By Willem Piso (1611-1678). Courtesy Wellcome Trust

Engraving of Orangutan. By Willem Piso (1611-1678). Courtesy Wellcome Trust

Was the mother ape empathic? Well, she came to appreciate the monk’s amity; she felt able to extend trust; she intuited the monk’s concern for her as well as his desire for understanding as to the reasons for, and significance of, her sadness; and finally, she recognised that the monk would feel something of that sadness in revealing its causes to him. This is all to say that she significantly placed herself within the monk’s frame of reference and innately understood that emotions can be matched in shared experience – the personal does not expire at the boundary of the body. Her empathic appreciation was sophisticated, certainly moreso than any psychopathic human ape. Now, one way to cheat the system is to mimic expressions and gestures, which results in a like proprioceptive sense. This means our feelings echo the other’s, so affecting an emotional contagion of sorts, whether volitionally induced or not. Yet neither jungle dweller did so, their empathic link being forged in mind purely intuitively, and silently.

Empathy subsists in knowledge; it is in part to know the mind of the other, and whilst its currency is both cognitive (knowing) and emotional (feeling) in nature, it is the latter that strengthens the connective link to altruistic and prosocial leanings, as well as ameliorating aggressive traits. Primates’ mirror-neuron systems help forge innate empathic leanings, with research suggesting that empathy evolved in part as a survival mechanism. Right now, tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing war-torn regions of Africa and the Middle East so as to seek sanctuary, and survival, in Europe. A few hours ago, a three year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, drowned and was washed up on the shores of the Greek island of Kos. Equally tragically, his five year-old brother met a similar fate. Whilst Europe’s politicians exhibit an ongoing empathy gap, innocent children are dying. We live, not literally, though metaphorically, in a jungle, sharing the empathic faculties of the monk and bereaved mother ape. Are we wise enough to nurture the same?

Mood balloons

Photography: Amy Elyse Stringer, London

Photography: Amy Elyse Stringer, London

A floating ascent, a drifting, a lifting and a releasing of the emotional ethers; something of this occurs within us perpetually. The inflation and deflation of mood balloons is a necessary concomitant to sensory contacts. Such balloons may be breathed into life by a trace of some abstracted thought, by a triggered memory, by a bodily sensation of pleasure or pain, by a taste, a scent, a sound. Or they can be inspired by the cyclical rhythms of our bodies, by lunar phases, or by a poignant anniversary perhaps. Many are the ways for a ballooning of our moods.

And yet we identify some as ‘being moody’, or others perhaps as ‘coolly self-possessed’. This is to misunderstand the ubiquitous nature of moods and mental states generally, both of which engage ceaselessly in the conditioned and conditioning interplay of human sentience. The confusion comes about in the conflation of the tonal qualities of psychical states with our habituated responses to them. Another way of expressing this is in terms of the degree to which we indulge our mental tonalities; the extent to which the self-entity inhabits our mood balloons.

All of that which is under discussion here applies to the healthy individual; and it must be accepted that clinical states of depression, anxiety or morbidity are issues of a different order, and which may well need addressing with the aid of medication, talking therapies, or both. Still, there are many instances of normatively healthy people who seek to deny free expression to their moods and mental states, instead choosing to view them as somehow indulgent displays of solipsistic self-concern. Here, we see a defensive response to any inflation of mood.

Elsewhere, it’s often erroneously thought that the psychologically mature, or those spiritually advanced, exhibit an equanimous repose in the face of emotively charged situations. Whilst it is so that, at a certain point in our development, we may gravitate towards a philosophising disposal of the effects of genuine adversity and elation, this is something of an intermediate stage of our maturation. It is the region within which awareness of our internal response mechanisms is sharply honed and perspicacious, and yet balanced too much in favour of this objectivity.

Once equilibrium is gained between our understanding and whatever situation we are faced with, then the biasing towards objectivity recedes and we ‘become the situation’, so to speak. Rather than maintaining an aloof and dryly intellectualised witnessing, which is false, we observe with an exquisite intimacy. Here then, for example, tears may flow freely in the presence of others’ suffering. The mood balloon inflates rapidly and is met with no resistance from the intellect as emotions are hoisted aloft, so allowing complete engagement with life, ourselves and others.

What does not recur in this more balanced scenario is any self-induced perpetuation of moods or states of mind. And it is by just those means that the ballooning of moods becomes challenging, causing distress, anxiety and so forth. The self-entity interjects with the idea ‘now I am this; and so it is that I suffer’. So there’s a becoming here that, whilst not in fact actual, grants an immersive quality to such unpleasant states. In identifying with emotions in selfhood, our awareness is hijacked and engulfed in a draining, cyclical vortex of perpetuation and indulgence.

What then, is the wiser response to any perfectly natural occurrence of mood balloons? One answer consists in a passively non-resistant mode of observation; this means not exerting a controlling influence which merely sustains our sense of selfhood and so with it any mood balloon. It’s not easy to passively allow deeply negative feelings to exist, as the urge is to obliterate them by means either of conflict or distraction; and whilst this may have some limited efficacy, it’s no long-term curative, at best serving only as a partial expedient – a head-in-the-sand approach.

So much of our angst is perpetuated in the identification of selfhood with emotions; as if believing, quite literally, that ‘I am in a mood’. No mood contains any ‘self of me’, nor can it ever. Yet understanding this intellectually alone no more than partially ameliorates negative feelings. Dwelling in contentedness amidst our mood balloons requires insight into our illusory self-construct and disentangling conditioned responses from arisen feelings. From here, concerns are allayed as to their inflation; we see them as natural colourings of our airspace, and all is well. Pop!

Wasting time – an expert’s view

Photography: Tibor Végh, Hungary

Photography: Tibor Végh, Hungary


How do you waste your time; how do you squander what surely is that most precious asset and which itself comprises all that ever is, and ever was, your life? Maybe you gawp mindlessly at the TV, prevaricate over what needs to be done, fixate upon the inconsequential, or seek perfection in what is never perfectible. What’s your preferred choice?

Or maybe you don’t waste time at all. Maybe your life is so driven and full of purpose that you dare not waste a minute of it. So you fill it with your productivity and goal-seeking, with reaching attainment and a sense of betterment. Days pass with what seems an increasing rapidity; the horizon of life foreshortens in your mind; you’re thirsting for time.

I spent the early part of my adulthood transitioning from a seemingly innate ability to waste time effortlessly, to doing so with a lot of effort. My student days amounted to a masterclass in wilful underachievement and insouciance. I could have written the book on it had I not then inclined to passing my time in a netherworld of do-nothing-ness.

Slowly, and a little reluctantly at first, I learned how to waste my time through piling effort into everything I did. I went into business and worked long hours in London’s West End – Soho, the then grimy part – six days a week, ten hours a day. I made money as the business grew, but was still just wasting time in never approaching my life’s purpose.

So there came a point when I needed to take stock of this time wasting. I was pretty darned good at it, though always sensed the profligate life was misdirected. I came to realise my squandering simply served no meaningful purpose at all; and it slowly became evident that behind each purposeless day was an undeniable pull towards contentedness.

And this was my life’s purpose; it was to find that contentedness. If you think deeply about it, you’ll realise that this too is your purpose. It’s true to say that however you’re wasting your time, or however furiously you’re employing your time, the fundamental motivation is to know this sense of contentedness. Peel away the layers and you come to just this.

We fixate upon our means of feeling secure, of feeling loved, of feeling respected, of feeling knowledgeable, of feeling better than, of feeling worthy, of feeling wiser, of feeling acknowledged . . . there’s no need to continue; it’s a very long list. And yet all of these means fixate upon layers of experience that themselves can never produce contentedness.

And contentedness is the fundament of what it is that we want from life; it is, to that extent, the very purpose of our lives. If we look at our aspirations, and at the way we structure and pursue our life, we find the primary catalyst and motivation is contentedness. As we don’t know how to approach it directly, we get side-tracked in a host of fixations.

In a very real sense we’re wasting time. It’s not that our relationships, our careers or our learning are futile. These pursuits have purpose and meaning, and at times can be emotionally fulfilling. Yet they never of themselves create contentedness in any profoundly felt sense of the term. Contentedness has a passivity beyond all pursuit or endeavour.

This all begs a question of course: how do we live in accordance with our needs and obligations without wasting time? This is also to ask what practical measures we may take so as to keep in sight our most deep-seated objective – the actualised emotional and psychological state of contentedness. So how can we use our time so as to fulfil this purpose?

A key requisite is to remain contemplatively aware of our intentions; and in particular, to explore the emotional causes of those intentions. In this way, we penetrate the superficiality of desire and becoming, so side-stepping the superfluous and vain. We’re now free to approach our life’s purpose; we cease squandering time and follow a path to contentedness.

Such a path necessitates this monitoring of our intentional stance – what emotional attitude underpins my current state of being? We’re almost always taking some stance or other, though mostly are unaware of it. Usually, there’s an aspect of desire, aversion, or of an inclining towards becoming which is rooted in self-identity – an attempt to morph the self.

This monitoring of our intentional stance is a highly practical measure that unravels the ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘why’ of our time wasting. It takes no effort, and can be applied during, or prior to, both mundane and critical events. Starting with the little things, we ingrain the awareness as a habit; as it becomes second nature we apply it to the bigger picture too.

We’re not automatons; nor are we slaves to old ways. In exploration we find a way out, so spending our time in fulfilment rather than seeking it. Examining life, we discover that behind all we ever sought was to rest contentedly in it. Life isn’t a becoming; there’s no arrival in seeking, and no enduring fulfilment in what’s sought. So why waste time in this way?