Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jon Kabat-Zinn - "interconnectedness is primary... it is the birthplace of empathy and compassion."

The great mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn talks extensively about our relationship to our true nature, and how that relates to creativity, in his book Coming to Our Senses.

"...perhaps you have noticed that the sense of self is telling us all the time that we are not complete. It tells us that we have to get someplace else, attain what needs to be achieved, become whole, become happy, make a difference, get on with it, all of which may indeed be partially true and relatively true, and to that degree, we need to honor those intuitions. But it forgets to remind us that, on a deeper level, beyond appearances and time, whatever needs to be attained is already here, now -- that there is no improving the self -- only knowing its true nature as both empty and full, and therefore profoundly useful.

Knowing that in the deepest of ways, knowing it with the entirety of our being, we can then rest in the knowing itself and act much less self-centeredly in the world, potentially in amazingly creative ways for the benefit of other beings and with an attitude of non-harming and non-forcing. We can do this because we know on some fundamental level, not merely intellectually, that 'them' is always 'us.' This interconnectedness is primary. It is the birthplace of empathy and compassion, of our feeling for the other, our impulse and tendency to put ourself in the place of the other, to feel with the other. This is the foundation for ethics and morality, for becoming fully human -- beyond the potential nihilism and groundless relativism stemming from a merely mechanistic and reductionist view of the mind and of life.

From this perspective, in a very real sense you are not who or what you think you are. And neither is anybody else. We are all much larger, and more mysterious. Once we know this, our possibilities for creativity expand enormously, because we understand something about how we get in our own way and are diminished through our obsessive self-involvement and self-centeredness, our preoccupation with what we think is important but really isn't fundamental."
As I read this, it occurs to me that what Kabat-Zinn saying is something we already implicitly know but rarely acknowledge, and this is the root of what draws us to arts with compassion at their core. That "...we know on some fundamental level, not merely intellectually, that 'them' is always 'us.' This interconnectedness is primary."

The fact that interconnectedness is primary, and that we all implicitly understand that, means that when we see it acknowledged in the arts in different ways, it automatically rings as true to us. It's common sense. How often do we see a character going through something we personally relate to, and find that it moves us.

I watched part of a movie with my wife this weekend. The woman in the film was going through an enormous emotional upheaval, adjusting to her new life as a mother and the shift that caused in her life and in her marriage. And my wife turned to me and said, "here's how I know X is not doing a good job. This is a woman going through something I've gone through myself, almost identically, and I don't feel one bit for her. She's going through the motions."

When I pressed her further about it, later on, Amy said, "It didn't seem real to me and maybe that's because she's not a terribly good actress and she doesn't have anything to draw from. Maybe if you were a good actress you could draw on something else that made you feel powerless in that way and conjure up those feelings in a different situation. But she's never been through that and she's not adept enough at channeling her existing emotions to make it feel real. I don't think you have to be somebody who's done that specific thing in order to portray it but this actress just didn't have the ability to pull it off."

Obviously Amy doesn't speak for the whole world as an audience, but I was surprised to see such a specific example in a major film and to see how this lack of connection was directly by felt by Amy as an audience member. She had a direct relationship to the subject matter but felt nary a whiff of empathy, based on a performance that she perceived as lacking depth.

This is the impact I talked about earlier:
"There's a deep cost to the world that comes from this kind of behavior. We're suffering, and we're being deprived of the things that bind us, that show us what we have in common, that give us hope."
Imagine someone somewhere watching this film. Possibly a woman in a similar situation, facing a new stage in her life, a shift in her relationship to her husband, maybe coming to grips with what it feels like to be a mother and what that means to her. Or maybe it's something else entirely––maybe it's a man watching the film, who might be affected by a theme of feeling powerless in a family situation, or a teenager watching the performance, who might see his or her own mother or father in this performance, might understand them just a little bit.

Except it doesn't happen. The woman, the man, the teenager, they're all being robbed of the opportunity for connection. Not seeing, or even more importantly, feeling, any real connection to the person on screen, the moment passes, and an opportunity is wasted. The person goes on with their life, not knowing they might've been affected––however slightly or profoundly––and their life continues, untouched.

As I said earlier, when talking about my trip with Save the Children to the Navajo Nation, there is a cost to inaction. When you have an opportunity to make a difference in another's life, and you don't, there is an impact.
"There have been plenty of times when I've thought, I don't have the time, I'm tired, I'm busy, someone else will do it. And on this trip I saw the direct impact of the work Save the Children was doing, on real kids. Just like my own kids. And this relates to the arts in the same way. We can choose to remain in a fog, and rob the world of the real impact we have to offer. Or we can take on compassion in our lives and careers and make a difference."

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