‘The Heart that Breaks Open Can Contain the Whole Universe’
by Viral Mehta
Bullying at schools has become a huge issue. In looking for innovative solutions, Canadian educators turned to a unique classroom program called Roots of Empathy. At the heart of the program, now being implemented in 1,400 schools, lies this insight: When you put an infant and its parent in the center of the classroom, children start to sensitize themselves to the baby’s intentions and emotions. The results that ripple out are unambiguous: a measurable reduction in levels of aggression among schoolchildren.
The program is successful because it fosters the development of empathy, supporting children in tapping into an unconscious part of themselves. The baby becomes a catalyst in helping kids identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. How can we do this in our own lives? By consciously creating circumstances in which we can cultivate within ourselves a “muscular empathy.”
That striking term comes from a recent article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic. By bringing strength and empathy together, Coates is reminding us that to be empathic is to be both curious as well as objectively tenacious in seeking to understand another person’s reality. Going even deeper, there is also a fundamental connection between empathy and humility: True empathy helps us step outside of our unconscious habits of self-orientation.
In trying to relate to others, without humility as a foundation, we are quickly undermined by an insidious tendency, well-articulated by the writer Ian Percy: “We judge others by their behavior. We judge ourselves by our intentions.” In attempting to empathize, we’re actually missing the point if we are judging at all. Because then we are more concerned with being knowledgeable, being right — or even being good — than we are with actually feeling another person’s reality.
But even moral imagination, operating creatively from a place of first putting myself in another’s shoes, while crucial, is only the beginning. To effect a lasting change in perception and understanding, I have to actually experience another’s reality as if it were my own. The good news is that scientific research increasingly shows that a part of the brain already does exactly that.
One of the most significant recent discoveries in neuroscience has been that of “mirror neurons.” A certain section of our neurons are actually dedicated to simulating what others are experiencing, as if we are experiencing it ourselves. These mirror neurons are what cause me to cringe when I see someone fall off of a bike. It’s because a part of me actually feels it as if it is happening to me. “About one-fifth of the neurons that fire in the premotor cortex when we perform an action (say, kicking a ball) also fire at the sight of somebody else performing that action.”
So if we’re hardwired for empathy, why is there such a frequent disconnect in practice? In large part, it’s a matter of awareness. Actively tuning in to this part of ourselves is critical. “Simply paying attention allows us to build an emotional connection. Lacking attention, empathy hasn’t a chance,” says author Daniel Goleman. As my awareness increases, the scope of my mirror neuron system is no longer limited to merely simulating overt physical actions. Body language, and even, as recent studies show, other people’s states of mind, also start registering in my brain. This is when my new-found sensibility becomes a tool: Developing awareness at this level opens up an entire set of different choices.
This foundation of reinforced empathy doesn’t stay limited to the realm of personal benefit. It can ripple out to fundamentally inform the kinds of systems we develop and how we organize. Tim Brown, CEO of the globally-recognized design firm IDEO, points to the central role of this kind of empathy in innovation. “All meaningful design begins with empathy,” Brown insists in the deeply-inspiring book, “Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion.”
According to Brown, Aravind’s success in innovating — bringing eyesight to millions for free while remaining financially self-sustaining — is rooted in systematizing empathy. Take, for instance, the hiring process for nurses, who form the backbone of Aravind’s super-efficient processes. We might think that fine-tuned workflows require the smartest workers. Not so. Instead of choosing those with the highest grades, Aravind chooses those with the greatest value fit, starting with their empathy. Of course, they are rigorously trained — but it is their empathy that sensitizes them to feel the reality of a patient who is blind. As a result, they are genuinely motivated to help design, implement and maintain systems that serve patient needs.
And that’s the crux of it. At first glance, “muscular empathy” refers to being rigorous in making conscious efforts to practice empathy. But at a deeper level, this empathy alters decisions: Once we have this kind of awareness, we can’t help but take it into account. Not to make it sound like a solemn responsibility — it’s actually a gift. By becoming more deeply aware of our own inner workings, mirror neurons and all, we begin to relax out of our patterns of ego and self-orientation — the very things that bind us into isolation, scarcity and disconnection. Empathy is the bridge. As activist Joanna Macy says, “The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.”
Viral Mehta is the co-founder of ServiceSpace.org, a fully volunteer-run organization that has delivered millions of dollars of web-related services to the nonprofit world for free, and now creatively leverages web technologies for collaborative and transformational giving. ServiceSpace’s 300,000 members incubate compassionate action in a multitude of ways and its inspiration portals get 100 million hits a year.