The Extreme End of Empathy

I’m sure we’ll all agree that empathy is a healthy and desirable emotion. It’s also a necessary emotion, as far as living as a cooperative member of the human race goes. Empathy regulates our behaviour towards one another. It makes us helpful to one another. It makes us look after and care for one another. At a fundamental evolutionary level, empathy enhances our chances of survival. It bonds us to one another.


We often discuss problems of empathy in terms of what happens when it’s lacking (cue anti-social behaviour). But having too much empathy can be a problem too, creating an imbalance that hampers our pursuit of peace and happiness. This came to mind this morning when I noticed myself feeling sorry for a tiny nub of banana that failed to make it onto my toast with the other slices of banana. I didn’t want it on there because it was the nubby end bit with the black dot. Poor rejected piece of banana. I’d hurt its feelings. I felt bad inside. And so I put it on my toast. I included the banana. I didn’t want it to feel left out.

That little nub of banana tells me a lot about myself (apart from the suspicion that I might be a raving lunatic). It tells me first and foremost that I, myself, don’t cope well with criticism and rejection.

Let’s deconstruct this.

We learn empathy by relating to the emotional experiences of others via our own. At around the age of 2, we begin to develop awareness of our self as a person who is separate from others. When we experience a perceived loss of love, or a disapproval of some kind, or a rejection, we suffer emotionally. As a result of our own suffering we are armed with experiences that serve as a reference for the suffering of others. We can observe another person suffering and vicariously feel what they’re feeling.

So we’ll offer that person a hug, or we’ll try to make them feel better. We’ll extend a caring heart that says ‘I know what that feels like’ or ‘I can imagine’. Or we’ll include them on our toast with the rest of the banana.

So clearly, at some point in my life, I have felt very left out, and very distressed at having been left out. I wanted to be on the toast with the others.

Wistful nub.

When I was a child, I had a white stuffed cat toy that I named ‘Louise’. Every day I would tend to the emotional needs of that toy. I would take her everywhere, anticipating the anxiety she might endure if left alone. I had this over-riding desire that she feel ok. It is common for children to role-play emotional relationships with their toys. This is one way that we practice and develop our social and emotional skills and make sense of the world around us. But when you can’t leave an inanimate object in a room by itself without carrying a lingering anxiety around its feelings, the developing empathy has grown a little askew.Fretting for the toy was a reflection of my personal distress and a struggle to cope with the fear of being abandoned (an instinctive human fear). Soothing Louise’s feelings was a means of soothing my own. There is nothing inherently wrong with this – actually, it shows some resourcefulness. I’d found a way of somewhat coping and controlling my own emotional distresses, as much as my childish cognition would allow.

What happens when we transfer this extreme empathising to our human counterparts? We worry excessively about the state of the world; we feel tortured by the suffering of others; we put a lot of our energy into trying to rescue people and situations.  The empathic response shifts from a healthy and helpful expression of sympathy to a compulsive need to control our environment, to ‘fix’ external sufferings so that we can feel ok within ourselves; so that we can mute the anxieties caused by our own over-identification.

We can become so preoccupied with our own vicarious suffering that we unconsciously become more focussed on our own needs than the actual needs of the person or situation that suffers. We attach to our own agendas. We become controlling. We interfere. We feel angry a lot of the time. We feel depressed. We feel guilty. We feel helpless. We feel distressed. Altruism becomes enmeshed with self-absorption. We cannot let go and let be. We are too feeling.   We have projected our own sufferings so profoundly onto the world around us that everything we see seems to need repairing or soothing.

We spend our time and energy trying to make nubs of banana happy.

What has any of this got to do with yoga?

I’ll let you decide.

The Yoga Experiment, 2012



20 signs you could use some yoga

1.  Relatively small inconveniences, like not being able to find a pen, make you feel like popping an artery.

2.  Your toe is itchy but you can’t reach it to scratch.

3.  You haven’t done a poo for three days and when you do it takes three hours.

4.  You continue to engage in behaviours that you KNOW make you feel bad (like eating the WHOLE block of chocolate or picking arguments with people or watching Jersey Shore).

5.  You have the posture of a buzzard.

6.  You can never find your keys.

7.  You spend a lot of time looking into mirrors.

8.  You spend a lot of time avoiding looking into mirrors.

9.  You frequently say yes when you want to say no.

10.  You always say no.

11.  Your morning tongue is coated in a white substance that looks suspiciously like perkin’s paste.

12.  You hold the world record for how many colds and flus one person can catch in one year.

13.  Your Facebook status is a perpetual rant about how much life sucks and all the ways you hate humankind.

14.  Being forced to sit in a quiet space with only your own company agitates you to the brink of spontaneous combustion.

15.  You can’t sit cross-legged.

16.  You recoil from hugs.

17.  You often find yourself smiling only on the outside.

18.  You feel unable to change.

19.  You can’t possibly leave a list at number 19 because odd numbers in the context of making lists leaves you with a feeling of profound uneasiness.


Copyright © The Yoga Experiment, 2012

Body, mind, gollum…


I’ve been thinking recently, it’s interesting how the human body reflects mental and emotional states.  Given that the majority of what we think and feel is communicated non-verbally – through our body language – the idea that we hold onto emotion and mental tensions on a physical level is not a mind-blowing revelation.   If we’re having a bad day, we might not hold our head up as high; our chest might cave inward in an attitude of defeat, or of protection; our posture retreats.  On days we’re feeling glorious and impenetrable, we might puff out our chests; walk taller; take greater strides.

Walk with me.

When I was training as a yoga student, I unmasked a previously-hidden fact.   I have always been aware, in a peripheral kind of way, that my posture isn’t fantastic.  But it wasn’t until one of my fellow students photographed my body from the side for a postural appraisal assignment that the reality hit home: I have the posture of a buzzard.

Imagine: head juts forward quite a bit more than is anatomically necessary for a standard human being; the shoulders slump forward, melancholy, as if somebody kicked their puppy.  I look like some forlorn creature slouching around the place with nothing much to live for.  Oh hello Gollum, how are you today?

If I’m honest, my body is an emotional inventory of my life; a snapshot of my mental self-image.  It says, among other things, ‘I am afraid’.

I’m reminded of another phenomenon I experienced during my yoga studies.  Whenever I did shoulder rolls, I felt angry and wanted to stop.  Weird!!??  I’d understand if I was frothing at the mouth during some kind of challenging upside-down- pretzel pose but shoulder rolls?  Gimme a break.  Rolling the shoulders is about as innocuous as taking a breath (unless you’re asthmatic… or have emphysema… bad analogy, forget that one).  But there it was, every time, rage bubbling up from under the surface.

A scientific mind searches for scientific explanations.  But I didn’t have a completely water-tight one, so I blended a little bit of science with a little bit of yoga knowledge, with a little bit of intuition and a chunk of life experience, and came up with a hypothesis.

There are three types of reactions to danger in the human body – one is to fight, one is to flee, and one is to freeze.  I’m a freezer.  I lack the faith in my own strength to either fight or flee; perhaps I lack the self-worth.  Maybe if I stand still enough and squeeze my eyes shut tightly, the cave lion will simply not see me and continue on his way.  Make the body look small, yes!  Now there’s an idea!  Roll the shoulders down, huddle in!  I’m adapting!!

When in danger, in any mode, the muscles in the human body tense up – this is how the muscles prepare to either fight back or to run away.  When you fight or when you run, this fear energy moves, it propels the body into action.  When you freeze, this energy freezes with you.

This is how I hold it.  I hunch the shoulders up and forward, for protection.   I have made a habit of holding my fear this way, mostly unconsciously.  I am always looking out for the cave lion (head jutting forward buzzard-style – is he behind THAT rock?).  This anxiety is temperamental; it was there when I came into the world (hypotheses around this one pending).

When I attempt to roll the tension out of the shoulders, the emotions release.  In the development of human emotion, fear gives rise to many strong secondary emotions, including anger (others include jealousy…hate… sorrow… ).  Shoulder rolls = Jen aka Cujo.  The upside is that this releasing is not a bad thing.  It feels ghastly in the moment but as it finds expression, the tension eventually subsides.  And I don’t even have to punch a cave lion in the face!  Hooray!

So, thank you yoga.  You are my release.  You are my mirror.  You may have shown me that I am a buzzard but you give me hope yet – that by watching the body, by gently working with it, I can change my mind.

Copyright © The Yoga Experiment, 2012

Using a lion to tame a monkey


‘The eastern warriors say that when a lion hears a gunshot, it lifts its head and looks around to discover where the shot came from.  But when a monkey hears a gunshot, it shrieks in fear and anxiously begins to check its body to see if it’s been wounded.’  Andy Caponigro, The Miracle of Breath.

Let’s not beat around the bush.  I’d like to say I’m the lion but truth is… I’m pure monkey. Yep, <sigh> I’m a shrieker.

Monkeys are creatures of anxiety.  It’s not their fault.  They’re genetically programmed to be hyper-vigilant.  Otherwise, if they just sat around relaxing all the time and not paying attention, they’d get eaten up by stronger things.  Human beings are a 96% genetic match with chimpanzees, so it makes sense that we’d be walking around (minus dragging of knuckles) with some echoes of that anxious drive for survival within us.  We’re more monkey than lion, put it that way.  And like monkeys, our survival is very much dependent on others of our kind, so our anxieties are not only linked to subconscious predatory dangers but also to social and emotional factors such as social acceptance.

I digress.  What are we talking about?  Ah, yes, anxiety.  I suppose it doesn’t really matter why it exists in excessive doses in many of us.  The fact is, living with a little bit of monkey can be adaptive but living in pure monkey mode can be an exhausting.  It can affect the health and balance of the body on all levels.  The mind and the senses are always on high alert, waiting for the next conflict, or rejection, or judgement, or criticism.  The emotional switch is turned on to REACT rather than to RESPOND; we can become hyper-sensitive to others, easily offended, paranoid, defensive; we swing from enormous, joyous highs to torturous, dark lows. The muscles of the body are excessively tensed and ready to fight or flee so we develop pains and tensions, headaches, stomach aches, back ache, neck pain.  The internal chemistry of the body is flooded with stress hormones that if prolonged, can mess with our physiology, putting the heart under pressure, switching off our capacity to digest properly and disturbing the endocrine system which very much governs the health of the entire human body.   Above all this, anxiety like this hurts.  It hurts the heart.  It turns living into a matter of endurance rather than enjoyment.

The question is: what can we do about it?  (Apart from drink more wine, gobble more drugs, eat more chocolate biscuits, buy more things, clean more surfaces, mentally enact violent fantasies on complete strangers, climb under the doona and curl up in the foetal position…).

My answer is simple: borrow from the lion.  If he’s so cool, calm and collected and unaffected by gunshots and all other manner of frightening stimuli then why not steal from his bag of tricks?  Lions are courageous (a luxury afforded to those at the top of the food chain); they are stately; they move slowly, switching on the adrenaline only when necessary.  While monkeys swing erratically about up in the trees, the lion is confident and grounded.  The stability of the lion is unshakeable.

Simhasana starring the beautiful Jemina

Traditional yoga recognised the strength of the lion and embodied it in a posture known in Sanskrit as Simhasana – ‘lion pose’.  I hereby prescribe Simhasana for any person like me, who finds they have the monkey on their back more often than not.  Practise this pose daily for three to five minutes, or in moments of heightened anxiety.  See if it brings some calmness back to your being.


Kneel with the buttocks resting on the heels of both feet.  Ensure the big toes are touching each other.  Then separate the knees about 45 cm apart.  Lean forward and place the palms of the hands face down on the floor between the knees with the fingers pointing in towards the body (if this is painful on the wrists then just keep the fingers pointing forward or even keep the hands resting the knees).  Straighten the arms and slightly arch the back (no strain!), resting the weight of the body mostly on the arms.  Tilt the head back slightly to create a little tension in the muscles along the front of the neck (don’t tilt if you have a neck injury or if it causes pain).  Close the eyes and if it feels comfortable, rest the internal gaze on the eyebrow centre (you can move in and out of this gaze position if the eyes feel strained by it at any time).  The mouth is closed.  Breathe slowly and deeply through the nose.  Relax the whole body and mind.

And ok, maybe you’ll never completely be a lion and the monkey will always be lurking there within but one thing we do know about monkeys is that they’re really good at learning so… train the monkey.  The more you train it, the better it learns, until one day the learning becomes the natural response.  I truly believe you can teach the monkey to be a lion.  A lion with a penchant for bananas.

©The Yoga Experiment

THE SHUTTING UPSIDE – a post for incorrigible natterers

Do you have one of those mouths that just won’t quit?  Does that tongue of yours keeping flapping up and down even when you can SEE the person you’re talking to has switched off and gone to a more interesting place?   Have they nicknamed you Talkus Interruptus at the office because no one can get a word in edgewise?

Welcome to the fold!  Come, my friend, sit down.  Let’s see who can get the most words out in five minutes.

I’m patting you’re hand in empathy right now, actually.  Because I know what it’s like to be stuck in that talking loop, where it seems that a young infant on red cordial has somehow gotten behind the wheel of your mouth and it’s careening out of control.  It’s my modus operandi.

Could you control the talking if you tried?  You might be able to – but would you implode?  Because consider this – compulsive talking is less about actual TALKING than it is about ENERGY.  The energy of compulsive talking is EXCITEMENT and we need to put it somewhere – if not in chattering, then perhaps in walking quickly, or brushing our teeth hurriedly, or rushing between daily tasks and activities.  Excitement is a form of ANXIETY – even though we might consider it a positive form of anxiety, it has the same effects as any anxiety has on the body.  It activates the sympathetic nervous system.  When this happens, the body functions in ‘reactive’ mode – the body floods with adrenaline, the muscles tense up, the mind is hyper-alert, ready for take-off.  Now, this is a handy mode in which to function… if you need to run away from a cave lion.  But if you’re just talking to your pal over a cup of tea, you don’t need to have the adrenaline switched on.  When you constantly exist in excitement, you exhaust the body.  Worse, you condition the body to function in a state of excitability or ‘reactivity’ and it starts ‘unlearning’ how to exist in rest mode – which is vital to restoring and balancing all of the bodily systems (like digestion and sleep) and to creating overall health.

In yoga, this excitable energy is known as ‘rajas’.  Rajasic energy comes in very handy when we need to take action and get things done in life.  But when it dominates, it can lead to an incessant, compulsive kind of drive that creates tensions and imbalances in the body and mind and prevents us from accessing an experience of calmness and clarity of perception.  Being caught up in rajas is like being caught in the eye of a tornado – you become ungrounded and dizzy from all the spinning around.

So how do we tame this wild rajas animal so that it becomes our beloved pet that sits when we tell it to and comes when we ask it to?  How do we create a MODERATE, balanced energy that allows us to communicate and function in a state of calmness?

A good place to start is simply to WATCH.  Notice the sensations occurring in your body when your mouth or actions are motoring at high speed.  Is there a tight ball of tension in the tummy or the throat?  Are your shoulders cranked up around your ears?  Do you feel as if someone injected lemon sherbert directly into your bloodstream?  Are your ears aching (oh no, hang on, that’s the ears of the person you’re talking to… ;)).  Or is there some other feeling?  Simply NOTICE, without judgement, without the need to change anything.

And then BREATHE.  Take a slow breath through the nostrils and guide it deep into the abdomen.  Then let it out – oh what the hell, let it out with a BIG SIGH.  Do this a few times, or many times, until you sense the body relaxing.  Repeat this process, next time you notice those feelings of excitement manifesting in the body.

Congratulations – you just activated your parasympathetic nervous system.  Your body is now at rest, oxygen is flowing where it needs to, adrenaline is subsiding, your stomach can now digest that cup of tea (and your listener can digest what you are saying to them).  The young infant on red cordial is sleeping peacefully and you are back in control of the wheel.

Of course, there are many more yogic practices you can employ to deepen this effect of calming the excitable energy in the body.  We’ll get to those in good time.  For the moment… the simple acts of WATCHING and BREATHING is enough.  Now… if only I could apply my own advice…

Happy Talking. 😀

© The Yoga Experiment, 2012

 The Yoga Experiment, 2012