Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Many Are One

Back as far as our written records take us, mindful practices around the world have insisted on the sameness of all things. We are told that we are all alike and that all the diversity in the world is not many but one. To paraphrase Shakespeare's analogy, all the world is one stage and we are all actors playing our part in one great play. Whatever we do on stage directs the course of the play and will affect every actor, not just a few.

Back as far as our written records take us, we human beings have seen ourselves as a small troupe of actors playing our parts on a local stage. Other people in the world are strange actors playing questionable parts in theaters that are in competition with ours and might possibly be a threat to our play. We know that our play--our way of living--is good and worthy and right but we suspect that the other is not as good and may even be bad or unwholesome. Ignore it if you can, dominate it if you must.

Modern neuroscience has tools to actually map the neural dimensions of empathy--the resonance we feel with the experiences of others, even an inner experience like grief, shame, or loneliness. This resonance center lights up when we identify with another's pain or joy. When we harshly judge another person or another culture, that resonance center shuts down. Without the understanding that we are all the same, it is easy to accept that other people are not like us, lacking the full complement of human traits perhaps, not quite as worthy of respect and acceptance.

This lack of understanding and the fear that arises from a perceived threat, even a non-existent threat, may cause us to react impulsively, lose our emotional balance, and fall short of moral reasoning. The culture of violence we hear so much about today is made stronger when we get caught up in base reaction to the alarms raised by the brain's fight or flight center. Perhaps this is why so many spiritual practices around the world teach us to treat others the way we want to be treated. A simple concept but not easy to practice without the proper tools.

Mindfulness is a process through which we learn how our minds work. We learn to pay attention to the emotional stories arising from our fear centers and we are able to remain rational and respond with greater compassion and understanding. Mindfulness is a powerful tool that allows us to treat others as we would be treated because we understand that we and others are the same.


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