Mindfulness, Empathy and What Makes Us Human
Spending time with my dad, the legendary Square Dance caller, Lee Kopman, as he battles his recent diagnosis of bladder cancer, I am struck by the emotional reaction of both me and my mom, Lilith (his wife of 63 years). As mom says, "When he's good, I'm good. When he's bad, I'm bad."
When I arrived in New York from Dallas, I had my full Yogi on. I was present, strong in spirit and fully capable of being the grounding force my parents. After spending at least 12 hours a day with dad in the rehab facility, I found myself caving in. By the 5th day, I felt the profound sadness and depression that mirrored what both of my parents were feeling. All I wanted to do when we got home to their house was sleep.
Why does this happen to us - that we can feel someone else's emotions so deeply? It's a magnificent and sometimes heart-wrenching thing called empathy. It's what makes us human. But it's more scientific than that. Turns out, a discovery by Italian scientists in the early 90's found what came to be known as "mirror neurons" in macaque monkeys. By using electrodes connected to individual neurons they detected that these neurons fired when the monkeys grabbed an object and also when the monkeys watched another primate grab the same object.
Since then, there's been other studies of mirror neurons in humans using MRI imaging that reveals similar results. In a 2017 TEDX talk with marriage and family therapist, Dr. Shelly Richardson, she explains in simple terms how our mirror neurons work: "When we see someone do something, our mirror neurons in the front part of our brain (frontal lobe) send a message to our motor system in the back of the brain that then creates a behavior within us. Mirror neurons exist, because we are social creatures - we need connection with someone else or a group of people."
Since the frontal lobe of the brain where these mirror neurons lie isn't fully developed until age 25, kids could use a little help from us grownups in developing empathy. We can do this through mindfulness practices like conscious breathing, yoga and meditation. It's a tool to help us become aware of our emotions, not to block them out. Instead, mindfulness allows us to recognize the emotion and then creates space for us to pause, so that we respond to a situation rather than react.
Integrating mindfulness in schools as a daily classroom practice or Yoga for P.E., athletes, artists, actors or musicians would help these kids not just self-regulate their own emotions, but teach them to care about the emotions of others as well. To know others, we first must know ourselves. The self-awareness we develop through regularly practicing mindfulness is a simple and organic way to create a kinder, gentler world.
Empathy also helps us deepen our relationships with others. My parents 63 year marriage is built on caring and serving the needs of each other. They feel each other’s pain and glory.
A new study published last May in the academic journal, Pediatrics, reports that children and adolescents hospitalized for suicidal thoughts and attempts more than doubled from 2008 to 2015. Empathy could potentially save a life. Imagine if kids had more empathy for their fellow classmates, perhaps there would be fewer adolescents committing suicide - less bullying, more compassion and understanding.
Back to my dad - It is the self-awareness I have developed through my own mindfulness practice that helped me step back and notice that I was going down the rabbit hole along with my parents. Something had to change fast.
When I woke up on day 6, I chose to put my mindful practices into play and pull myself out of the impending abyss. I exercised, practiced Yoga and meditated. The result set me off into a new trajectory equipped with balanced emotions, clarity and strength (physically, mentally and emotionally).
Today, my dad had a good day. It was better than yesterday, which is all we can ask for. I believe whole-heartedly it's due in large part because I walked into his room with determination and a positive attitude. His mirror neurons, and my mom’s, were firing in response to me today and that shifted everything. I still felt empathy for his suffering, but through mindfulness I was able to regulate my own emotions to be there for my dad and my mom in a loving and productive way.
Today, my dad was able to walk further, think better and for the first time in a week, not one tear fell from his eyes - or my mom's or mine for that matter.