Animal Nature – Extreme empathy as a method of personal growth

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Last weekend my family visited the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Our second time there, it was as enjoyable as our first, the children learning and discovering in this beautiful setting.  My daughter and I overheard a hippo laugh (did you know they made this incredible sound?), my son got to feed an elephant (maple leaves were her favorite) and we all witnessed the stunning beauty of the orangutans for the second time. This year, a female sat at the glass, wondering at our faces for over 10 minutes. She was only the distance of the depth of the glass away and it was mesmerizing. In only minutes, she changed me. I can say the same of only a handful of humans.

"…a window to the soul." to be sure. At the very least, a reflection of purity and want.

“…a window to the soul.” to be sure. At the very least, a reflection of purity and want.

She sat, still as a stone, peering at us as she likely had with so many others, so very many times before. I imagine we are her entertainment; a colorful, travelling spectacle along the one side of her home. I sat only a foot from her beautiful face and wondered with both a feeling of sadness and awe. What could she be thinking? How does she perceive us? Are we simply a distraction? How many faces can she possibly look at in a day without tiring, being irritated or becoming angry?

This face, so like and yet so unlike our own. Her eyes looking into mine unwavering and bold. This is the longest I have kept eye contact with any face in years. No expectations. No agenda. No intent to convince, deceive, argue, ignore. Just looking and seeing. I had my children sit in front of me and watch her. Yearning for them to see her beauty and be marked with the memory.

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I cannot help but hope that we can we bring this connection into our lives. I wonder at what we can learn from her?

How do we see our friends, family and those we do not know? DO we see each other or do we swirl our thoughts about in our own heads so much that we are too preoccupied to see? We CRAVE connections  but are so misguided in our half-hearted attempt at creating them. Social media has allowed great gains in finding the OPPORTUNITY for connection but not to really connect and know one another.

When I put myself in the place of this gorgeous ruddy mass of hair and muscle, I can only imagine what she feels or thinks. Is that not the same as any other relationship? To place myself in the body and mind of another with full intent to understand and experience can be a hugely revealing experience. The practice of extreme empathy has the power to calm me. It allows me a pause in reaction that I would never have attained otherwise. I yearn to know more and ask more questions. I want to understand and feel outside of my experience. I want to feel what you feel. To know and gain experience through others, not simply by my own journeys. To feel the weight of stress on another person simply by exploring their situation with my mind has been so revealing. To feel a relief and regaining of strength through a tale has me energized and full of strength.

The mind has such great power. What if we could harness this to explore each other and create connections that are stronger and more solidly based in fact than our own opinion? What if we sat and looked? What if we listened with our whole body to what we were being told? Could we have any hope to stay focused on the benefit of others, keeping their happiness and success as our primary goal? Could we be sustained by this and learn to thrive on living to help others if we did?

Moving through our busy lives, the hours of a day melting into days and then months, we keep our heads down, focusing in. Is this self preservation? Habit? Reluctance to engage? Perhaps it is self-indulgence because we deserve our time after giving so very much of our day to the task of working for others. We walk around in search of OUR coffee, OUR music, OUR space, OUR comfort.

But what if we ‘worked’ for ourselves? What if every single interaction in our day was targeted at creating the best version of us to present in every moment. To cause a stir in someone else because they felt heard for the first time in years. An opportunity to create an experience like no other. Using extreme, engaged empathy to journey beyond where we would normally go in our daily lives. Maybe then, in mere minutes, we too could change others.

CB

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9 responses »

  1. This was an absolutely awesome post! It urges us to look within ourselves and opens our eyes to things we’ve all probably been missing! Very well done!

    Adam

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