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?

Offering presence

Photography: Diego Junca, Bogota, Colombia

Photography: Diego Junca, Bogota, Colombia

She was lying on her bed in the middle of the afternoon, semi-conscious; yet that part of her which remained aware of the world would rather that it were not. This dear woman was seeing out her final months in a netherworld of darkened senses; all, that is, save for the searing illumination of her pain. I watched as she gently clasped her hands, half in prayer for her release, half as if to echo her fragile frame’s arthritic deformation. ‘Please, please help me, I need morphine; please help’, she mutters. A nearby nurse strides across; ‘not until four o’clock Doris, we can’t give you any more until then’. Moments later a kindly volunteer carer approaches, sits beside the bed and whilst gently stroking the old woman’s head, offers up an incantation: ‘There now Doris, let my hand wipe away the pain for you; there now, just feel it dissolving, wiping it all away; there now, there now, it’ll soon be all gone Doris, I promise.’

Earlier in the staff canteen, I drink coffee to combat fatigue, gaze at forlorn looking Christmas decorations, and listen to a gaggle of trainee nurses gathered ‘round an adjacent table. Overlapping voices; muted shrieks of derision or exclamation as each vie for attention; the staking of claims upon the situation; self-conscious affectations learned rote from trash TV planting the flags of selfhood; oppressive vitality. Up on the ward, both my mother and Doris, their beds adjacent and parallel, their end days adjacent and parallel, sought none of what captivated these nurses. They needed the caring, the medication too of course, yet more so some trace of emotional solace found only in the gentle presence of another: one to be there fully, unreservedly offering attention. I have but seven days to live, perhaps only two; after which I sense at some level that I’ll never know human contact again – for eternity. Be with me now.

Many years have since passed, over which time I’ve sought to build on any small capacity I had to listen, to be there giving attention, offering presence. We can only truly offer presence once we know it with respect to ourselves. Presence is not merely the physical occupation of space; it is to suffuse that space with the wordless knowledge that we are here fully, attentively, whole-heartedly and beyond the overt contrivances of selfhood. It is an intimate knowledge we have of our being prior to the narratives we construct about who and what we are; and it is a gift we may give to ourselves at any moment and in any given circumstance. Having cultivated this generosity towards ourselves, we are then in a position to emanate this presence and so offer it to others too. Those learning to do so possess at all times a boon to offer the world, to loved ones, and to strangers in need. It is a priceless gift, one of great value.

Be with me now. As I said, that is what I shall want, and that is what you too will want, as we lay during our end days, adjacent and parallel in circumstance, adjacent and parallel in need. Prior to this, it may be that others we know will similarly have these needs. They may well not tell us as much, because they had yet to learn the nature of presence as regards themselves; and yet they instinctively know of their need for it; it is an animal instinct, a human animal instinct. Be with me now. That is a simple request; I can fulfil it absenting any verbiage, any pretence of doing the right thing, any collusion with my sense of obligation. If I am unable to offer presence to myself, if I sense the need for it yet cannot understand that need, how am I to offer it to others? Hopefully, there is plenty of time remaining for us both to develop this simple skill, to naturalise it within us, to make of it both a private and public sanctuary.

Whatever our spiritual inclinations, whether they may be present or absent, this is the time of year when our mind’s turn to the offering of gifts. Here, we invariably sense the weight of obligation, of being seen to do the right thing, both sensing others expectations and feeling our own in respect to offerings. I am unsure as to whether the onus of obligation may be entirely set aside, though I do know of one way in which we may ease the burden and know within ourselves that the right thing is being done. It is to offer our presents with presence. There is a rather beautiful Buddhist tradition of offering gifts with both hands; it is as if to say we hold nothing in reserve, giving freely, openly. To look the recipient in the eyes, to consciously envelop them with presence, this makes as if little the physical content of our palms, and instead makes as of everything the content of our hearts. It is a gift shared for eternity.

 

Behavioral awareness and change

Alan. By Chez Worldwide, Manchester

Photography: Chez Worldwide, Manchester

There’s a man I’ve known for a number of years who, despite his intelligence and sensitivity, has a behavioural problem he’s quite unaware of. This man is by no means unique in that regard; many of us are blinded to aspects of ourselves which in others we may well regard as failings. It’s a known phenomenon; we quite often take exception to the character traits of others that are prominent in ourselves too, though which we deny or remain ignorant of. It’s quite likely that you too may recognise this phenomenon in someone you know quite well.

When sub-consciously we recognise in ourselves a very similar characteristic to that which we disapprove of in others, there’s often a strong emotional response that appears as if out of nowhere. All the while, we deny access in awareness to this very same characteristic that we too abundantly possess. Whilst those around us may often see through the lack of self-awareness, we assiduously maintain our self-deception. So this is what the man I’m referring to does, and I thought it would be useful to write about how it’s affected him throughout life.

As I was saying, this fellow is intelligent; he’s a lecturer in the humanities department of a state-run college. He reads quite widely on the environment and politics, through evolutionary biology and anthropology, to current affairs and social trends. And like I said, he’s sensitive too; he recognises inequality and injustice in their many forms, and responds emotionally to any act of compassion he may witness or hear of. So you would think that most of the pieces are in place for him to be a reflective and self-aware man – someone who knows himself.

What this chap fails to see in his persona is an arrogance borne of impatience. In other words, his compulsively impatient nature leads him into making snap judgements in which he assumes he knows best. In a sense, these conclusions are logical, because if we resist understanding the position of the other, then what remains is only our own position or world view. And of course, we all assume our own views and opinions are best – if we thought they weren’t we wouldn’t hold them. So the impatient mind tends to limit its capacity to be informed by others.

Now of course, in his chosen reading, this man takes on board the views of others – he doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Yet this reading conforms to his world-view in that it’s self-selected; he reads what broadly endorses, or expands upon, his own set of beliefs. When it comes to the views of his social and familial contacts however, the shutters come down. His impatience impels him into snap judgements which invariably fail to grant any validity to the other. To him, it’s just a waste of time to listen to what is borne of the others’ life experience; to him it has no validity.

Naturally, this results in a tangibly felt transmission of high-handedness. There’s a palpable air of exclusion, a heavily qualified acceptance in which the other knows and feels what’s implied – that ultimately they don’t count for much. And all of this rebounds upon our man because he cares for his friends and family of course. And like him, his friends and family have sensitivities too; they know what they feel even though they may not extend those feelings into any analysis. They don’t need to; they know their feelings are true, and know how and when they arise.

So this chap I’m discussing who could know himself and yet doesn’t, unwittingly creates a distance between himself and those around him. He stifles his siblings and parents with his arrogant assumptions, which he regards as reasonable but which are solely self-validations. And he oppresses those who would be close to him in denying the validity of their experience. He’s blinded to all this, even though his culpability is quite apparent to others. Retrenched into self-validating views which he protects at the cost of his relationships; he in effect denies himself too.

If he were able to resist his impulse to judge prematurely, for once to be unconcerned about wasting time and the terrible possibility of suffering a little boredom, he’d learn much about himself through others. He’d see that each individual has a uniqueness of experience no less valid than his own, so having a valuable capacity to inform. Progressively gaining insight into his wilfully ignored and damaging past behavioural traits, his self-validating existence would gradually be supplanted with a new sense of engagement in which all around him would happily participate.

Instead though, this otherwise intelligent man remains intolerant of any whose views are unaligned to his own. Ungraciously rebuffing those who wilfully resist or simply ignore his own perceived correctness, he dismisses them with a passive aggression – sarcasm or hostile humour. Yet the others’ discounting of his stance was akin to his own behaviour reflecting back at him, and which sub-consciously he recognises as such. So he responds curtly, spurning the very thing he perpetuates in his own persona. He rejects this trait, though in others only – it’s hypocrisy.

The remedy entails receptivity and a willingness to listen, to set aside our impatient self-interestedness and participate in shared moments without pre-judging. In not indulging impatience, its opposite arises and we engage with others rather than being dismissive of them. If boredom or conflict arises in our mind, we accept this is self-generated – it’s our problem, not the others’. Rather than enslaving ourselves to impulse and alienating those around us through our behaviour, we put our house in order. We can change at any time in life; all it takes is the will to do so.