Empathy and Identity

How did the achievements of others become our own? This question comes after all the recent events in sports and politics.

In sports, like the Olympics and Tennis, the UK is often a united whole with the individual countries forgotten. Yesterday, for the first time in many a year, a British sportsman won Wimbledon. Suddenly the whole of Britain is celebrating, “We won, at last!” A few Scots are saying, “No, Scotland won.” From my perspective, nations don’t play sports, individuals do, so Andy Murray won that one. Obviously, in football, it’s a bit more difficult since the teams share their names with their nations. Still, Portugal the country didn’t win UEFA Euro 2016, a group of skilled athletes from Portugal did (or maybe I’m getting a bit too postmodern). When a government does something bad, the nation is blamed, as if it were meaningfully unified. Likewise, if it does something good, everyone gets a share of the credit. Imagine my confusion years ago when a Spanish waiter told me “Give us back Gibraltar.” What have I got to do with Gibraltar? I’ve never been there, and certainly have no say over who “owns” it (and nor do I have interest to). I may be British, legally and culturally, but I am not the UK.

Years ago I saw something on telly saying that what we see we experience. The example was a rowing competition, and the idea was that as you observe their effort, somehow, the brain interprets it as your effort. This is something I’ve experienced with various things. Watching sheep give birth, for example, is a tense affair, as if you were able to get involved and help (which, as a male human, is pretty difficult). I’m not really interested in sport, but I have experienced at times the elation or disappointment of “my team” winning or losing, whether it be England in the world cup, Wimbledon or the Olympics.

There’s a good word in Spanish to describe this: ajena, which means, roughly, ‘of someone else’. At some point our empathy with someone else becomes identity, and we lay claim to logros ajenos, someone else’s achievement, or achievement by proxy. It doesn’t quite sound fair, yet in many circumstances is accepted and even encouraged.

I’ve also been experiencing this lately with Brexit. For the first time in my life I feel identified with politics, not because I’m particularly attached to Europe or the UK, but because Brexit could affect my legal status in Spain. I have been living here freely, like any Spanish or European citizen, because of free movement. Suddenly that is put at risk. Will I be able to stay here as I have done? Am I expected to apply for a visa? If I hadn’t followed the news, I could have carried on with my life without any knowledge of it, yet a distant happening is affecting how I feel. Some of my identity and empathy is certainly invested in it, and quite rightly, but it isn’t my life, the life I live day to day, just one of many influences upon it.

I’m quite fascinated but Roberto Assagioli’s idea that “what we identify with controls us,” I think it’s a key that could open up so much insight into how we are. When we identify with a group, for example, we become subject to the ebbs and flows of that group, and to some extent lose the right to our own individual thoughts and feelings. If individuals can’t think and reflect for themselves, they’ll be pushed and pulled by a blind mass, not their own insights – it’ll be the “blind leading the blind.” Obviously, this can lead to stupid and/or dangerous results. Perhaps there is a point where the overlapping of empathy and identity is useful, such as compassion for a fellow human being, but I think it’s important to look into where these two are entangled so they don’t trip us up.


Identity and Self-Knowledge

Three keys essential on the path to self-knowledge: acceptance, rejection and synthesis.
Acceptance of those elements that are ours but we have rejected; rejection of those elements that aren’t ours but we have accepted; a synthesis with a more adjusted sense of wholeness and centred in a more essential sense of self.

I’m a regular reader of Druid Life, which has interesting articles such as Know Thyself. Nimue Brown was also helpful in publicising the Vote for the Conservation of the Glorieta Stream. Occasionally I comment on Nimue’s blogs, like Know Thyself, which I share here:

Identity and self-knowledge are very interesting subjects, which are two different but related things. The former gives us material to work with, the latter, a means to make sense of it.
The ego is a fragment that thinks it’s a whole, but once it realises that the human psyche is higher, deeper and wider than it’s own limits, well, we have a whole journey on our hands!
The closest I come to a “pure self” is the “I” without identity, it is the conscious, directive element in the psyche, and around this has formed the baggage of the ego (i.e. identity – there is a distinction here between identity and identifier). Roberto Assagioli said: “We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we dis-identify ourselves.”
Identity has it’s function, but it is less fundamental to my being than I often think. In studing Psychosynthesis, I’m learning that this “disidentifiying” has nothing to do with rejecting my identity (who I think I am), but simply changing my perspective of it as something that is not at the centre of the whole psyche. I “disidentify” from the ego’s box, which allows me to integrate and accept elements of the psyche that don’t fit in with the ego’s prejudices.
Sense of self expands and the process of psychic wholeness, or individuation, begins, moving the centre from the ego to the Self.

Here’s an article by Will Parfitt on Identification and Disidentification, and an exercise for it here.

The Elephant in the Room II

There are other forces in the house (i.e. the psyche) besides the dog’s instincts: cultural and spiritual forces. There are angels and gods, and other varieties of archetype and stereotype.  We’re taught to ignore these too, so when we see an “angel” we ignore it for fear of going mad!

There are also intruders, burglars and gatecrashers that have come, uninvited, into the house through a door or window you left open (or someone else opened for you). And even though they don’t belong here, we’ve been taught to accept them as though they were. Shouldn’t we learn to identify them, reject them and guard well the house’s portals?

And have you ever looked upstairs? There a mysterious room filled with toys and colourful paintings. For many people this is a room that is shut off when we reach adulthood, and it gets abandoned. But it doesn’t go away. It is another “elephant in the room”. Hey, the inner child has a life to live, too! 😉

The Elephant in the Room

There is a secret open to everyone, but not everyone sees it. Or rather not everyone chooses to see it. There’s an elephant in the room that we are so habituated not to see.

The unconscious is like having a pet dog in the house, which is ignored. We are taught that we are “reasonable” and “rational”, and so all forms of unreasonableness and irrationality come from outside, not inside (it’s the world and everyone else that is unreasonable and irrational, obviously). We say “there’s no dog in this house.”

The more it is ignored, the more damage it does, and the more we think “why does this always happen to me?” The furniture is getting torn up, food is stolen, puddles of wee appear under bare feet, and poos turn up in unexpected corners. Until we pay attention to these signs and say “Yes, there is a dog in this house”, the problem will never be resolved.

So, we’ve acknowledged the dog, what now? Well, first it has to be trained not to trash the furniture, not to steal food and not to leave unpleasant presents around the house. We have to take responsibility for it and feed it well, take it for walks, giving it its “exercise, discipline and affection” (as Cesar Millan says).

In this way the dog can be integrated into the life of the house, and cause no more disruptions (i.e. the unconscious can be acknowledged and integrated, instead of being at a loose end).

Senses and the City

It’s amazing the amount of people that get to the countryside and say “It’s so peaceful here.” What’s unusual isn’t that they notice it, but that it’s somehow “out of the ordinary” and not something they usually experience. Contrast this against entering urban areas, especially city centres. We have to filter out all the sensations we’re bombarded with, and, if we become used to this, we develop a habitual numbness, an adaption to stop us from being overwhelmed. We are sensitive creatures, after all. Perhaps there is no such thing as an “insensitive” person, just a desensitised one?

Desensitised like this, we seek out extreme experiences that will fulfill us, or at least give us a brief moment of fulfillment. Perhaps in  drugs and other substances. Perhaps in extreme sports or at adventure parks. If we can’t live these ourselves, perhaps we find it in films filled with high emotions, action and violence, or sex. Something, anything that will evoke something in us. (Or perhaps we seek out things that will numb us more; it can all be too much, even our own emotions and sensations!)

I think it’s necessary to find sanctuary where we can lower our defenses against an intrusive world, where we can appreciate and delight in the little things in life, pleasures that are easily overlooked. I’m used to the rhythms and seasons of my mountain valley home, and my senses pick up on anything that looks “different” or “out of place”, subtle changes in the environment. Back in the city my well-developed defenses come back into play, and I enter The Tunnel, just to get from A to B. It’s a useful adaption, and saves me from more stress than necessary (though I’m not saved from the numbness). But I like living life with sensitivity, using and developing all the senses that nature endowed me with. In natural spaces, I reconnect not just with nature and its wonders but also with my own body, a connection I don’t want to lose.

The Iceberg

The ego is just the tip of the iceberg, a fragment that thinks it’s a whole; the individual is deeper and broader than the ego, as the iceberg is deeper and broader than the tip. But the ego doesn’t always recognise this, so everything that it doesn’t recognise as “self” must be “other”, and so the unconscious is projected outside. Once the ego learns a bit of humility it’s limits can be punctured and then begins the work of integration.

When we are “educated” (read conditioned) all those unwanted qualities get hidden in the unconscious, and rest there until rediscovery. Perhaps confidence was buried; perhaps gentleness was hidden; perhaps curiosity and creativity were deftly swept under the carpet. And we learn to live with this and get on with our lives, even if we feel unsatified with our lot. We have within us treasures awaiting discovery.

Also, the ego interferes with the unconscious as it tries to impose itself on the world within and also the world without, but cutting itself off from its treasures hidden in the unconscious – until it can learn a bit of humility and learn that it belongs to something deeper, higher and wider than itself. Then the conscious and unconscious can become well functioning parts of a whole that is the Self in the process of Individuation.

Questioning Beliefs, Questioning Yourself

One very easy tool I’ve found for self-investigation is questioning my beliefs. It wasn’t enough to have beliefs but to understand why I believed such-and-such, what motivated me? And do I really believe it or is it something that I’ve inherited from the world around me? What are really my beliefs?

I call it easy because it’s a way of looking at yourself without really looking at yourself (it has the appearance of “questioning and investigating belief systems”, but it’s an interesting preliminary step to finding our own motivations behind how we think). Our beliefs are symptoms of the way we think, and so too what ideas we find most appealing or convenient for explaining the world around us.

I’ve also learnt that beliefs don’t represent static statements on the nature of reality (at least not for me) but are simply ideas we have about the world that need testing and updating every-so-often, because as our understanding expands, and experience and reasonings develop, so should our beliefs, aligning more with “what is” rather than “what could be”.


Working on my Druid grade I had this reflection about nwfre, the druidic concept for life force (similar to chi, ki or prana in other traditions):

Nwfre is the relationship between mind and body, and how attitude, mood, intention, motivation and other psychological factors (conscious and unconscious) affect our behaviour, perception and relationship with the environment.

If we have harmony between body and mind (i.e. nwfre is balanced and flowing) then harmony can also spread to our behaviour in the environment, and from there, manifest itself in our relationships. Perpection, key to understanding ki (pun intended), becomes refined and less distorted, and our reactions become more aligned to the nwfre that flows within our bodies and through our environment.

This is something I learning through the marshal art of aikido, which is a Discpline of Coordination as one writer puts it. Not just a coordination of left and right, arms and legs, but also between what I am thinking and what my body is doing. And between my body and the bodies that surround me. In the end it works for harmony between left and right, arms and legs, mind and body, and individual and environment; much of which works with the perception of ki.

The Two Fears

What is the fine line between bravery and stupidity? You run away: are you a coward or intelligent? If fear is the only thing we have to fear, what is the function of fear?

I think we can do a lot learning to distinguish types of fear, and from where the fear comes from:  is it really our fear or something learnt, a prejudice? Fear, in animals, has proven to be useful, and is part of our evolutionary make-up. And yet there  are moments where we are inhibited by fear and feel paralysed to do anything at all: we are hindered  by phantasmic “what ifs?” that stop us before we even try – all those niggling doubts build up and paralyse us. We might cite types of animals that “freeze”, but, psychologically speaking, when we are paralysed by our fears it is not a survival tactic, and quite often has the opposite affect of hindering us.

And so we seek to build courage by overcoming out fear, “transcending our limitations”, which is fine up until we confuse our natural fear with our cultural fear. We confuse them by labelling them both “fear”, and also because we have been taught to ignore the natural and replace it with the cultural.

So, what is the difference between bravery and stupidity? Courage is overcoming our culturally conditioned fears, but it becomes stupidity when it ignores our inherent fear. On my doorstep is a forest, and the most dangerous thing to encounter there is human stupidity. The vipers and wild boar are dangerous only if you don’t respect them and “their territory” – I don’t and can’t march into it as if I owned the place, and the same in an urban area.

There’s a path to discover discriminating between the fear that stops us from living and the fear that favours life. It’s been good for me to pay attention to my fears, even so-called “unreasonable” fears, and give them due space (they’re there for a reason). Maybe you decide to bypass that fear or maybe to adhere to it, either way let it be a clear decision, and then watch the results. And start with the little things, like fear of learning a new skill, before going for those life-risking things, like swimming with sharks. 😉