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Mindful : August 2017
the dread of inevitable humiliation. What about being in an environment where you’ve been told outright you don’t belong? Then your anxiety wouldn’t seem so much about the fight-or-flight syndrome built into your biology from long, long ago; it would feel (and in fact be) awfully current. So the question arises: along with our one- ness, can we also recognize the vast relativity of experience—and make room for it? The com- bination of realizing our distinctiveness along with our unity is seeing interdependence. Today, with unprecedented threats to our planet and divisions among people, awareness of our interdependence is no longer optional. It’s critical that we widen our attention to include those we encounter as we go about our daily lives, including our dry cleaner and the stranger sitting next to us on the subway. We extend our sense of inclusion even further to people we may have disagreements with, people whose actions we disapprove of, even those who may have harmed us or those we care for. We don’t have to like what they’ve done, and we might take very strong action to try to prevent their doing it ever again, but as our experiences of the universality of suffering grows, our sense of interconnected- ness deepens, and we begin to wish others could be free in a new way—in spite of their actions, beliefs, or their positions in the world. Getting to Compassion As modern neuroscience has discovered, we’re wired for empathy. We literally have brain circuits focused on “feeling with” others. “It’s a genetic imperative for us to care,” says James Doty, MD, a professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University. It’s essential to the survival and flourishing of our species. But the neural circuits related to empathy aren’t always activated, especially when we’re feeling anxious or stressed. And at other times, we may feel so much empathy for another’s pain that we lose our own sense of equilibrium. In 2004, neuroscientist Tania Singer and her colleagues published an important paper show- ing that pain-sensitive regions in the brain get activated when we empathize with someone else’s pain. In other words, when we say, “I feel your pain,” we’re voicing the literal truth. But this is not always a good thing. Singer, who is director of the Department of Social Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in → August 2017 mindful 75