On going soft in the head

Jessica. By Thomas Hawk, San Francisco

Jessica. By Thomas Hawk, San Francisco — The homeless girl with love in her eyes.

It was during a balmy mid-afternoon in Central Oxford that I and my friend of some 20 years’ standing gingerly negotiated a crossing of the busy street that had first been lain a millennia ago during Saxon times — then a loosely set cobbled carriageway running northwards up from the ford of the oxen at Grandpont, some half mile or so distant along adjoining St. Aldates. The year was 1992 and a palpably self-satisfied, Thatcher-hewn metropolitan hum of affluence pervaded the air in equal measure to the oppressive diesel fumes belching from the buses and taxis that laboured and lurched their way along Cornmarket Street towards Carfax, twixt which our bodies wove, breathing in unnatural rhythms, yet mysteriously embracing the effluvium with bare arms and wide open hearts, unburdened neither by concerns nor the otherwise ubiquitously lugged, logo-laden bags of well-sated shoppers.

And then it hit me. Like Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, like Drury’s hypnotically corrective stick — ich liebe dich! I knew I was now in love, and that I loved my friend; I loved the woman who brushed past us so irritably; I loved, too, the arthritic elderly gentleman who froze with anxious eyes in deliberating the manner of his crossing, and I loved the carcinogenic particles pumping through my lungs out into the yielding air, the dumb dummies posing erect at shined panes with their cold, dead eyes and synthetic elegance, the chaos and indecipherable din of a gaggle of garrulous language students, of horns a-honking, of the lumbering bells of St. Michael’s tolling optimistically, and of ancient Oxenaforda’s silenced, illustrious past; yet I was not only in love, as love was now in me as I turned, looking at my friend, laconically offering, “I feel great”, at which, with pursed smile, he said, “You feel it too, do you?”

A religious may call it God’s Presence, though in these days of Rationalism I should deem it the cranial release of monoamines and oxytocin. I’m unsure what to call it, ‘Love’ seeming as polluted a term as was Cornmarket on that summer’s day 25 years ago. Most will know of this state by whatever name or none; Buddhists call it ‘Mettā’ (Pali) or ‘Maitrī’ (Sanskrit), ancient terms denoting ‘kindly, loving feelings of amity and benevolence’, the Aristotelian ‘Philia’ and Judaic ‘Chesed’ meaning the same. It’s a state of mind, my friend and I feeling it contemporaneously in empathic triggering of a brain region known as the Periaqueductal Gray; mirror neurons firing sympathetically, some might claim. It matters little; what counts is its vividly transcendent actuality, its negation of isolative self-consciousness. Most interesting, is it being a state susceptible to nurturing in Buddhist mental culture practices.

I’ve no interest in quasi-religious cosmologies or in ritualistically indulging spiritual performances of any hue; although I do enjoy evensong at nearby Wells Cathedral, imbibing both quietude and its glorious choral music as an uninitiated yet appreciative bystander. Still, there exist practices of mental culture advanced in ancient canonical texts that benefit us in contemporary life, easing burdens and providing solace; moreover, quieting our troubling, nascent neuroses and supplanting them with those feelings of Mettā — the amity and benevolence that so readily mirrors in encounters, be they with friend, stranger, or foe. Yes, foe too, as in the culture of Mettā we extend the feeling even to those to whom enmity is harboured, reorienting our former negative emotional predispositions. In our polarised, hate-drenched world, now moreso than ever I find this quiet mental skill an incomparable boon.

People are hurting; they are fearful in a world at its most perilous juncture since October 1962; greater still given AUMF and AGW. Our individual deep traumas arising from horrifyingly common sexual and physical abuses, and the acute stress disorders brought on by profound adversities or our innate neurological imbalances, must be addressed by professional clinical means. Mettā is not a cure-all or some nostrum for the naïvely credulous; rather it is an engaging of focused, potent feeling which conciliates an agitated mind, loosens nervously held tension, and eradicates discordant enmity. Buddhist psychology addresses the subtle absence of contentedness which pervades consciousness in varying degrees, ubiquitously so. We tolerate this just as we might static in radio reception, or the buzzing of our refrigerator. Mettā ameliorates this negative hum, softening our mind and social interactions.

Mickie his name was, the weaver betwixt buses, he of the mirror neurons, my fellow choker in the pack. After that day he began to develop the mental culture of Mettā so as to be able to auto-intuit that same sense of amity and connection whenever it was helpful. He dissolved his former self-centricity — an affliction common to us all — and others would quietly remark to him that something was different, he’d changed, in subtext asking what alchemy had caused this. Yet there was nothing in Mickie’s nature that isn’t present in others too; he’d simply learned to access the contentedness and amity lying dormant within humankind. I so admired him for cultivating his mind with Mettā, that faculty of intuiting a kindly benevolence which he gifted to others as much as to himself, they mirroring silently, unbidden. I think of it as him having gone soft in the head. If only I were wise enough, I would too.

Mettā very much: Marie Williams & Mickie Brough-T.

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?