– written by Zoe Shobbrock-Fisher
It’s not simply that we share with each other a common humanity, but that individually we have no humanity without each other. (Sara Maitland)
A couple of weeks ago, another cohort began the eight-week Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) course with me. As a teacher, I get to share how to live in ways that are more present, loving and connected. With each new group, there are new learnings, and my understanding and appreciation deepens.
The programme defines mindful self-compassion as composed of three elements: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. The common humanity element may at first seem a bit trite or obvious. However, in my experience, the intentional cultivation of a sense of shared humanity, neatly captured in the phrase just like me, is hugely potent and profound – it can enrich all our relationships, including the all important one with ourselves! Without this empathic sense we have no humanity. At its most extreme, this can lead to war, destruction and hatred. In the same way, in a more inner battle, when we ignore our own humanity, we often end up at war with ourselves.
For most of us, offering ourselves kindness when we’re feeling uncomfortable, unpleasant emotions doesn’t come naturally. Far too often, we end up hurting ourselves with self-criticism and self-blaming, which can lead to further isolation. This stress reaction – fight, flight or freeze– is turned in on ourselves as we try to escape the difficult. However, recognising that all human beings experience similar feelings can open us to the possibility of caring for ourselves, as we would for someone else feeling the way we do.
Othering and Selfing
When I perceive myself as separate and everyone as other, there is an underlying sense of not being safe, a threatened self. This gets helpfully described as othering and selfing. We do this all the time, and it takes a lot of energy. What prevails is a sense of competition, fear and a sense of lack. Our threat system becomes activated as we seek to protect this little me, surrounded by stranger others, and we ask ourselves if those others are safe? Do they understand me? Do they love me, really? When we perceive others as part of our common humanity, though, our threat system is less likely to be activated. When we say to ourselves, they are ‘just like me’ and we are mindful of connection, the limbic system stops sounding the alarm, because another part of the neuro-system has reassured us that there’s no need. Experiencing connection we are soothed, and oxytocin instead of adrenaline pours through the body. We can feel at home even when surrounded by beings we don’t know. We feel ease, and rest in a sense of safety.
On the MSC teacher training retreat, I remember sitting alone at the end of lunch in the dining hall, feeling full of aversive emotions, caught up in ‘I don’t want this, I don’t like that, etc,’ triggered by some interaction I no longer recollect. Aware of my discomfort, I placed my hands on my chest (a self-compassion gesture that can instantly transmit a sense of care and connection) and looked around at the staff clearing away, strangers and yet human beings just like me. I considered how they also experienced anger, irritation, jealousy. I recognised too that just like me these beings, regardless of their different ages, genders, and his/herstories all wanted to be happy, didn’t want to suffer, and didn’t like feeling these uncomfortable emotions either. Within seconds, I felt my heart melt with warmth and care, and I came out of my isolated, contracted state. I smiled, silently thanked them all for a moment of insight, wished them all to be well, happy and safe, and went on my way with a heart brimming with love and spaciousness. This happened in just two minutes. It’s quick, powerful and can shift the mind-body state. It continues to inspire moments of practising ‘just like me’ in public places, on the tube, in the supermarket, in traffic…as well as with our dear ones who we can turn into threatening ‘other’ in the flash of a frown.
It’s astonishing how easily our sense of kinship can arise, e.g. a smile or laugh shared on the bus, knowing looks of incredulity between drivers in a jam, or watching a film. Without our extraordinary capacity to empathise and step into another’s shoes, movies would be a dull experience. Even participants in a psychological test who had clapped together for just three minutes showed far higher levels of compassion for others than those who hadn’t (hear more in this talk by the wonderful James Baraz).
And yet the chronic anxiety that so many of us feel is fuelled by a sense of separateness. We turn inward and isolate ourselves, reacting on survival autopilot. We might feel like running away or building walls in flight, freeze or fight but only connection can quell our fear. We are vulnerable without each other. Our primitive ancestors would not have survived the ferocious, clawed and faster predators without cooperation, community and resource sharing. The human organism needs connection. Highly dependant from birth, we cannot survive without the support of others. We may know it from our own experience that separation can feel physically painful – it can hurt. It turns out that the same parts of the brain are activated during social pain as during physical pain, seen in fMRI brain scanning, as neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman explains:
Our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain. By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure the survival of our children by helping to keep them close to their parents. The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth…To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.
In addition, there is plenty of compelling evidence that stronger social relationships dramatically increase health and survival (Julianne Holt-Lunstad 2010).
You don’t have to be a sociable person to understand interconnectedness. Indeed, we can prefer to spend much of our time alone, yet still possess this understanding. It’s about how we perceive ourselves in relation to others. Albert Einstein famously described the human being as imprisoned in an ‘optical illusion of separateness:’
A human being…experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
How much space do me-ing and mine-ing take up in your heart-mind? It’s interesting to consider how much my possessions, my relationships, my emotions, etc, cultivate the sense of separation that is so toxic to ourselves as well as our institutions and planet. The reality is we’re all interconnected, and emerging neuroscience seems to support this.
Mindfulness and compassion meditations are a wonderful antidote for this misconception of separateness that is the root of so much of our suffering. We can intentionally foster, nurture and build an internal sense of connection. Meditations to support this is the Goodwill, Befriending or Loving Kindness meditations. Originally, metta practice was taught by the Buddha as an antidote for fear, to embolden a community of monks who were setting off to live in the forest. When we intentionally direct our well wishes for safety, peace and health to others and ourselves, we also open our hearts to what connects us, i.e. our vulnerability and our wish to be well. In my experience, it’s a great blessing to ourselves to say before going to sleep.
We can also simply practice saying ‘just like me’, in moments of stress and moments of joy. In a moment of misunderstanding or fear, for example, we can acknowledge that this being in front of me, and all beings unseen and unknown, want to be happy and free from suffering. When we feel blessed with good fortune and joy, we might look around and wish this for others knowing that just like me, they too wish for joy, peace and health. It’s a free gift to others, and a re-gifting to ourselves as we savour connection and being part of it all (which we always are…we really are all in this together.)
I wish for you that you see yourself in others, and that others see themselves in you. Remind yourself how good it feels to open your heart, letting everything that happens to you connect you with other people – because you are.
You can find out more about Zoe by clicking HERE.