Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Second Look at Empathy

When I was in graduate school I came across the journals of the Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard. I had been teaching for three years, and had reached that point where, as someone new to that profession, you are really quite unsure of what you are doing. To be sure, I was getting better at what I was doing, but I had no foundation that I could identify as providing both focus and direction. And then I came across the following lines, “If real success is to attend the effort to bring a person to a definite position, one must first of all take pains to find him where he is and begin there.  This is the secret of helping others…in order to help another effectively I must understand what he understands. If I do not know that, my greater understanding will be of no help to him…Instruction begins when you put yourself in his place so that you may understand what he understands and the way in which he understands it.”

In short, teaching begins with empathy, not with knowledge. It is, by definition, an imaginative act because I will never be the student I am instructing. All the accumulated knowledge that I acquire and seek to transmit will be worthless unless I first put myself in the place of the student. And, in a stroke of true subtle genius on Kierkegaard's part, I must understand not only WHAT the student understands, but HOW she understands it.

For decades now this has been a kind of mantra that has given me both a focus and a direction, but recently I have begun to think that there is a precursor to what Kierkegaard is exploring. There is a step I must take before I try to empathize with my students.

I am in the process of putting together a protocol that my students might use to practice empathy as a cognitive skill. But I find myself running into a couple of questions that seem to be precursors to being able to do that. My immediate question is this, "Is it possible that empathy is so hard to practice because we actually don't have an accurate and precise sense of how WE feel, much less trying to figure out how someone else feels?" And then, "How would I know how I feel?" 

For a few years now I have been experimenting with the following hypothesis-- "What we know most deeply, we know in our bodies." As I was seeking other people's thoughts about this idea, a friend of mine told me about the concept of  "Focusing." 

Focusing is the name given to a psychotheraputic process developed by a University of Chicago psychotherapist named Eugene Gendlin. It originated in some research trying to determine when psychotherapy was effective and when it was not. Gendlin and his team watched tapes of people in therapeutic sessions and became remarkably accurate in being able to predict which patients would find positive outcomes. The key was not in the techniques of the therapist; the key was whether or not the patient checked in with themselves about what their body was telling them during the sessions. (Interestingly, Maya Angelou touches, so to speak, on this very idea:  “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”)

Here are the first three steps in the six step program that Gendlin developed to re-create the successful patient behavior:

1) Clearing a Space

What I will ask you to do will be silent, just to yourself. Take a moment just to relax . . . All right – now, inside you, I would like you to pay attention inwardly, in your body, perhaps in your stomach or chest. Now see what comes there when you ask, "How is my life going? What is the main thing for me right now?" Sense within your body. Let the answers come slowly from this sensing. When some concern comes, DO NOT GO INSIDE IT. Stand back, say "Yes, that’s there. I can feel that, there." Let there be a little space between you and that. Then ask what else you feel. Wait again, and sense. Usually there are several things.

2) Identifying a Felt Sense

From among what came, select one personal problem to focus on. DO NOT GO INSIDE IT. Stand back from it. Of course, there are many parts to that one thing you are thinking about – too many to think of each one alone. But you can feel all of these things together. Pay attention there where you usually feel things, and in there you can get a sense of what all of the problem feels like. Let yourself feel the unclear sense of all of that.

3) Getting a Handle

 What is the quality of this unclear felt sense? Let a word, a phrase, a gesture, a metaphor or an image come up from the felt sense itself. It might be a quality-word, like tight, sticky, scary, stuck, heavy, jumpy or a phrase, or an image. Stay with the quality of the felt sense till something fits it just right.

I did this process the other day with myself with a problem that I am having trying to work with some students about an ethical issue. What I discovered surprised me, and I have been exploring it for the past few days.

My felt sense was in my throat--very clearly. And as I tried to describe it more the phrase "stuck in my craw" kept emerging. There is something fundamentally annoying or rankling or angering that sticks in my throat about this situation. Gendlin is right--my body is literally telling me that before I go on to try to understand what my students understand and how they understand it, I had better understand myself first.

 And so, I have added a precursor to what Kierkegaard has taught me: self-compassion. If I am going to be empathetic toward my students, as Kiekegaard directs, I need to recognize my own "suffering"  and be kind to it. In the world of Mindfulness practice, suffering is considered to be when one has pain of some kind - in my case, it turned out to be the experience of feeling frustration and anger - and then judgments about having those feelings compound the pain into suffering. Once I was able to validate that I did feel angry and was able to accept it and not judge it, I entered the realm of self-compassion. This has allowed me to be prepared to be empathetic and I can move on to helping my students. But I needed Focusing to get the phrase that would give me the handle to know with some precision and accuracy what I am feeling. More evidence for my hypothesis about what we know most deeply we know in our bodies.  Happy Easter.

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