Mindfulness and Care

empathy

I hope you don’t give up on this blog. There is just too much going on to keep blogging on a schedule. There are too many ways to enjoy the summer, which has finally showed up in Maine after a week of pretty constant rain. I was inspired today by an article in the NYTines Sunday review section, entitled, “The Morality of Meditation,” by David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston.

The title is a bit misleading. It’s more about the impact of meditation on acting empathetically than about morals. The example used to relate meditation to enhanced empathetic behavior is an experiment where the behavior of a set of subjects who have practiced meditation for only a short time is compared to a control group that has not done any meditation. The researchers found that the meditators sitting in a chair amid two others (part of the experiment) get up and offer their chair to a disabled person entering the room far more than those that did not meditate. The two in on the game stay in their chairs to increase the “moral” pressure of the experimental subject.

What I found very interesting was the possible explanations offered by the author.

Although we don’t yet know why meditation has this effect, one of two explanations seems likely. The first rests on meditation’s documented ability to enhance attention, which might in turn increase the odds of noticing someone in pain (as opposed to being lost in one’s own thoughts). My favored explanation, though, derives from a different aspect of meditation: its ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected. The psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and I have found that any marker of affiliation between two people, even something as subtle as tapping their hands together in synchrony, causes them to feel more compassion for each other when distressed. The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions — ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like — that divide us. (my emphasis added)

I believe that this explanation can be given to intentional activities other than meditation. Let me extend their arguments to mindfulness, in general, which I define as a consciousness of a world of many interconnected images, rather than a focus on a single or small set of images. I am using images as the metaphor for the mental patterns we produce in the cognitive system, pursuant to the work of Antonio Damasio and others.

I have written quite a few blogs about my experience as a Fellow of the Fowler Center at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case-Western University on a project to investigate the role of spirituality in creating interest in and commitment to sustainability-as-flourishing. Meditation was one of many spiritual practices that our group examined.

The most difficult part of our work, which lasted a little over a year and will be published later this year as a book written by the team, was to settle on what we meant by spirituality. It was critical that we come to some way of talking about it that would not be confused with religion or seen as some New Age fad. I had been thinking about spirituality for some time as I included it as one of the categories of care that, in my work, is the constitutive feature of human being. In my earlier work, I placed spirituality in the domain to taking care of self, along with subsistence, leisure, learning, and authenticity. Partly out of work with the Fowler group and partly because spirituality never fit comfortably alongside these other categories. I realized that spirituality or transcendence referred to a domain of consciousness distinct from those arising out of the material world and the action of human senses. Spiritual experiences and actions motivated by them may relate to material objects, but, in such cases, the objects are but symbols for something unworldly.

What, then was creating the actions of an actor in this domain? The object was not the target in the same sense as oneself or other beings, so the connection itself must be the motivating force underpinning the action. My route to this conclusion is primarily philosophical, and, even more specifically, phenomenological. So, I am delighted to read that this conclusion has been arrived at in scientific investigations. In any case, the importance to flourishing is that any sense of interconnectedness can be logically tied to care. Our cognitive system is constructed such that we respond to any and all perturbations from both inner and external sources. We do this to maintain the integrity of our whole organism. If we fail to respond in a way that does this, we risk being unable to survive.

Care as it appears in this ontological construction of human being is not the affective caring of Love Story or the myriad of sentimental tales that make up the bulk of literature. The ontological, not the psychological, sense of care is rare in that literature. It refers to the attention we place on the world we perceive through our senses and that coming from internal sources that trigger parts of our brains separate from those tied to the perceptual regions. Attention, itself, is a kind of care, and may trigger further cognitive processes ending up as physiological movements. Care is the name I give to the overall process of perturbing the brain, bringing something to our conscious attention and consequently acting. The specific action we take may reflect our emotional state, past experience, and the immediate state of our cognitive system, and so is more or less unpredictable, but any such action is a caring action.

Insofar as our neuronal structures include experiences of interconnectedness, our actions may reflect some intention to act in a way to acknowledge their existence. Further, depending on our emotional state as reflected in our body, our acts toward what we perceive may be empathetic or not. But if we develop a sense of interconnectedness in a positive sense, then we are much more likely to act in an empathetic way, defined as having a sense of what the target of our actions needs to survive or prosper at that moment. Without such a sense of interconnectedness, we have no reason to consider the state of the other in whatever (caring) action we take.

Spirituality, defined as a domain of care directed toward images that appear in our consciousness without apparent connection to our senses, has a meta relationship to the other three domains (refer to the diagram in a recent post). Actions in this domain, which we may call spiritual practices, create a broad consciousness of interconnectedness as contrasted with the explicit ties to the beings that constitute work, family, world, etc. Such a sense is essential to reverse the damage that has been done to the Earth and its inhabitants by our lack of care. Flourishing depends on such a consciousness and an accompanying sense that one can assess that he or she has taken care of all domains, at least for the moment. Spirituality and its practices must be part of the mainstream if we are to flourish.

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