Empathy part 1 - Art and empathy


Have you noticed how in some of the traditional Tibetan texts it’s suggested that for the first stage of practices, to develop metta, loving kindness or compassion, you can bring to mind a baby animal? I’ve always thought this was some kind of joke, wasn't it quite naff for a serious Buddhist practitioner to be meditating on a tiny fluffy kitten?

That is, until now. It suddenly seems to make sense. 

It seems to me that it's not so much that we're lacking in compassion, but that our natural compassionate response is obstructed, and the obstruction is often fear. Fear in any of its many manifestations.

Cute kitten to evoke compassion   

Cute kitten to evoke compassion


So, when we bring to mind a tiny fluffy kitten, that creature is in no way a threat to us, so there is no defensive reaction to get in the way of our natural compassion.

Obviously, people who practice compassion in this way don’t stop with the kitten! Having generated a sense of compassion you'd then widen the circle of who it includes, eventually bringing to mind even your, so-called, enemies.

But why are people so much more scary than kittens? 

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm any hostility.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

How can we bring down our defences?

One way is by becoming more empathic. It’s a big subject and I thought we could explore it over a few posts.

Dorothea Lange - MigrantMother 

Dorothea Lange - MigrantMother 

You probably recognise Dorothea Lange's photos of 'The Great Depression', especially this one 'Migrant Mother'. Like many kinds of art and culture these photos are telling human stories. Those stories could be in the form of words, images, music, or movement. But they all rely, for their power, on our natural capacity to empathise.

What happens to your own face as you look into the face of the 'Migrant Mother' above? Does your own expression start to mirror hers? 

The capacity for empathy is there in us and is easily evoked by the everyday stories that we tell each other. We feel each others fears, pleasures and sorrows in or own bodies. Our friends tells us of the time they were lost on a dark country road, and as we listen we feel our body shrinking in on itself in a gesture of self protection. Or they tell us of a delicious dish they've eaten and we find our mouth watering.  

One scientific explanation for this phenomenon is the notion that we have ‘mirror neurons’. So far these neurons have mostly been studied in animals but it's easy to get a sense, from our own experience, of how we mirror others. 

Here’s how Wikipedia explains the mirror neuron –

"A mirror neuron, or cubelli neuron, is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate species."

We can look for that sense of mirroring a person’s actions when we listen deeply to them, we might find the sensations in our body mirroring what the other person is feeling. 

Empathy and compassion 

In order to develop compassion first we have to be able to put ourselves in another's shoes, as it were. We have to feel our way into their experience. We have to believe they are as 'real' as we are. Empathy cuts through the sense that we are all individual isolated selves.

But compassion goes further than empathy. Compassion is the ability to really help another person, and in order to help we can't allow ourselves to get lost in what they are experiencing, we need boundaries. 

Art as a path of empathy

In an essay called Mirror Neurons and Art, Vittorio Gallese talks about the two kinds of empathy we might feel when faced with a work of art. The first, and most obvious, is an empathic response to the subject or content of the art.  But another kind of empathy we might feel is empathy for the artist, or towards the process of making the art. 

 Empathy with the content of the work

Love and laughter - Lotte Meijer

Love and laughter - Lotte Meijer

Pain - Sam Burriss

Pain - Sam Burriss

Often the content and subject of art is our human stories and concerns, romance, tragedy, love, fear and pain. We all know what it is to feel these emotions. When we encounter these emotions expressed in works of art then somehow we feel them ourselves. In films we are often moved to tears by the fictional stories, of fictional characters, played by actors - we know all of this is a fiction, yet still we enter into their worlds. Showing our incredible capacity for empathy. 

Empathy with the artist's experience and the process of making

Mondrain - Pier and Ocean 

Mondrain - Pier and Ocean 

But what about abstract art, or art that isn't telling a human story (if such a thing exists)? 

One of my favourite paintings in Mondrian's Pier and Ocean. Can it be that when looking at that painting I am empathising with him, the artist? When I look at the painting what is mirrored in me is the state of mind that sees the world as he sees it. I imagine my own perception 'letting go', loosening up, letting the world become it's simplest elements. 

Mirroring the mind of the artist is one way that empathy may be evoked by art. But another would be a mirroring of the act of making. The visible traces of the artist's gestures, the brush strokes, the scraping of paint, the movements of the whole body that must have been involved in making the painting. 

This process of making is easy to feel in Anselm Kiefer's 'Nigredo' below. Standing before it, we might feel mirrored in our own body, all the movements that he made in creating the painting. The reaching out, the pressure of the brush and knife, the stepping back and moving close. 

Anselm Kiefer - Nigredo 

Anselm Kiefer - Nigredo 

Vittorio Gallese suggests we can think of these two ways of empathising as empathising with the 'what' and the 'how' of aesthetic experience. 

You could take some time to reflect on art that moves you, the stuff that hooks you in, it could be music, images, poetry. Can you feel these two kinds of empathy being provoked? Empathy for the 'what' and for the 'how'? 

If compassion is central to dharma practice and empathy is a prerequisite for compassion, then we can train in empathy, and what more enjoyable way of doing that than engaging with art and culture? 

Arts and popular culture are an empathy gymnasium.
— Peter Bazalgette