As a contributing writer to LREI's 'Progressive Practice' blog, middle school teacher Megan Ashforth "reconsiders empathy so that she can teach it."
“Taking a walk in someone else’s shoes,” is one of the more common ways of explaining what it means to show empathy. In addition to being a tired way of making sense of a concept with perhaps the most powerful consequences for humanity, my recent engagement in a yoga training has me questioning the usefulness of this expression. I’ve come to understand that the best way to cultivate empathy is to stay firmly planted, and fully present, in my own shoes.
For the past 12 days, I have been in Nuremberg, Germany, studying under Tara Judelle and Dr. Scott Lyons, in their school of yoga, Embodied Flow TM. This 100-hour, advanced module was focused on “The Mind.” Within the Embodied Flow philosophy, we understand that “The Mind” exists everywhere, not merely where most point when thinking about its location, because every cell has the potential to become conscious with our attention. Judelle and Lyons often talk about the human experience as that of having a “body-mind.” The idea that the mind has no central location, has interesting implications when I think about what it means to be a teacher of fifth-grade body-minds.
Before considering what it means to meet another with empathy, it’s useful to understand how emotions show up and live in the body-mind. Emotions are signals that communicate to the experiencer in an effort to guide or suggest a next action. While often we are quick to name emotions as positive or negative, enjoyable or disturbing, all emotions are meant to be helpful!
Notice the word “motion” inside and you will also understand that emotions are meant to move—fast! Dr. Scott Lyons explained that an emotion has a lifespan of 30 to 90 seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes a sugar cube to dissolve in a cup of coffee. If, like me, you’re thinking, but I remember feeling angry all afternoon, then this next piece might make sense. Research shows that if you’re still experiencing an emotional episode after 90 seconds you are riding the wave of a story or a secondary emotion. When emotions arise, associated memories and experiences also come to the surface, which can cause us to carry-on feeling our feeling long after the physiological process of the initial emotion has ended. In fact, in order to be healing, emotions need to move. When we meet an emotion as both the experiencer and the witness (the one who knows not to identify with the emotion), and when we allow the emotion to start, crest, and dissolve, we can metabolize it and allow it to guide and to heal us. On the other hand, emotions that are not allowed to move through the body-mind stagnate and fester and can result in compensatory patterns that calcify around the experience. These coping patterns enable us to continue to function, but they can inhibit our ability to thrive. Suppression and bypassing are two well-known methodologies that do not allow emotions to live-out their trajectories.
The only person who can metabolize an emotion is the experiencer. That may seem obvious, but it’s a fundamental understanding if we are going to reconsider what it means to show and to teach empathy. To empathize is to meet another human being and be in the space with what’s there. Empathy requires that we show up with our presence and meet another’s experience without merging into their emotional field and taking-on or becoming their experience. It means that we must bring our full humanity, and keep wearing our own shoes, if we want to allow the experiencer to do their own healing. For, while we might like to, we cannot digest the experience for them, only they can do that. If we take on the emotion of the experiencer, the experiencer is not given the space or the agency to ride the wave of what’s coming up.
Additionally, in order for an emotion to be the guidepost that it is meant to be, it needs to stay with the experience that generated it. That means that an emotion that is not ours, but rather is taken-on through our interaction with another, can’t run through the system in a way that heals. What’s more, if we get in the practice of pushing into the emotional current of others, or in the habit of allowing others to collapse into us, relationships become unsustainable. It turns out, “taking a walk in someone else’s shoes,” though well-intentioned, can thwart the healing of those that need to heal and cause caring friends, family members, and teachers to fatigue and even burn-out. As we well know, we can’t be of service to others if we don’t first take care of ourselves.
This means, that before we can cultivate empathy, first we must learn what it means to fill up our own shoes. That is, we must learn how to be fully present. The importance of “being present” is an idea that’s been given a lot of attention, and yet, as much as I’ve talked about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever fully understood what it means. What are we asking when we tell students to “be present”? What is the embodied experience of being fully present? And, what tools and experiences can we provide students so that they can practice cultivating presence?
Throughout the training, I wrestled with these questions, and I engaged in exercises that moved me towards what might be the beginnings of answers. Whatever you picture when you think “yoga training,” I can assure you my experience was something quite different. We practiced very little asana (yoga poses) in the way you would if you were to step into any New York City yoga class. Days were spent in the laboratory of the group-mind, engaged in free movement and other practices that challenged participants to drop into the sensory experience of being in-body, or, as Tara Judelle sometimes calls it, this “consciousness pod” that we get to inhabit.
Before beginning an exercise, Dr. Lyons would often instruct us to “call all our particles back home.” I discovered that some of mine were still in bed, some were still eating breakfast, some were still engaged in a conversation, and some were across the room getting another blanket to support my knees, which attach to my ankles, which attach to my feet, which were numb from hours of seated meditation. Interestingly, I learned that science corroborates this idea that we can contract and expand our particles. Apparently, there’s more than just my felt experience to support the idea that we can magnetize ourselves back home.
I like to call this “filling-up my skin.” When I call back all the pieces of me, there is a felt sense that my breath is painting the inside of every space in my body. Each cell that makes-up my skin feels lit-up and there’s weightiness in my bones, muscles, and organs. I feel anchored in the fire of my belly and rooted to the earth’s magnetic core. It’s as if the entire surface area of my body can hear, taste, see, touch, and smell, and I can access the quality of the meeting of my body and the environment. When I am fully present, I can be in sustainable relationship with my surroundings.
Throughout the training, we talked about presence being like a dimmer on a light switch. We found that there is always some part of us at home, but we can train ourselves to more fully concentrate our presence in one place. If supportive, sustainable relationship—with myself, others, the environment—is at stake, I see it my responsibility to turn-up the lights and to help teach our students to do the same.
There are many practices aside from “calling your particles home” that can serve as tools for cultivating presence, including meditation, free movement, and asana to mention a few. A lot has been written about these practices and their correlation with harnessing presence and cultivating well-being. What was new and what is most interesting to me is the unfamiliarity of trying to put words to the felt experience of being a human being. Why is it so challenging to describe what is feels like to occupy a human body? The human body is my vehicle for experiencing the world, and yet, bringing my attention to the felt experience of it, for the purpose of anchoring my presence in it, and then offering that experience in the form of raw, sensory data is impossibly hard. It’s being asked to put words to an experience that is so much bigger than words. As soon as I attempt to name it, the description immediately misses the mark. As soon as the words emerge in my mind, they slip through my fingers. But for twelve days, I tried. The group-mind attempted to build and share language to describe the felt sense of being fully “online”: warm, tingly, pulsating, viscous, honey-like, vibrant, electrical. Turns out there are no words—in English, German, Dutch, Italian, French, or Norwegian—that fully capture the feeling of presence.
And maybe that’s the most valuable practice when it comes to learning and teaching presence: the challenge of sharing and discussing the feeling of embodiment in words. It’s puzzling to me that human beings have existed in the body that closely resembles the body we know for approximately 300,000 years, and the anatomy of homo sapiens has supported speech for over 100,000 years, and yet, we don’t have the words to describe the felt sense of our own humanness.
How exciting it is that we can work on this! Even if it’s an impossible, illusive task, there is gold in the process of trying. Attempting to match words with felt experience means that by way of our own curiosity and attention we can fascinate ourselves into presence. Our insistence that this work is important, and our commitment to the effort, will inevitably help us turn-up the lights. Because the only way to reach for the words is to drop-in. The only place to look for the language is by meeting the felt sense inside our bodies. Maybe then, the best way to teach presence to begin with Dr. Lyons’ questions, “What pieces of you feel ‘here’ right now?” And, “How do you know?”
Many times I have asked students, “What does empathy look like? Sound like?” But, never have I asked, “What does empathy feel like?” It takes time to dive into the felt experience of empathy, and no time at all to intellectualize it by firing-off an old thought or generating a new one. But before conceptualizing it, what if we were to go feel for it? It is the digging for sensory feedback that illuminates our humanness and enables us to anchor into it.
Really step into our own shoes. That is how we will learn to empathize.