Meditation + Talk: Seeing the Person Behind the Eyes

Meditation + Talk: Seeing the Person Behind the Eyes

This Wednesday Night Meditation included a 32-minute meditation and 51-minute talk and discussion about Seeing the Person Behind the Eyes.

I hope you find it helpful, and you are welcome to join my free Wednesday Meditations – open to everyone!

Meditation: Seeing the Person Behind the Eyes

Talk: Seeing the Person Behind the Eyes

Dāna offering:

These teachings are offered freely, at no charge.

To practice generosity through making an offering – called “dāna” in the language of early Buddhism – please enter your email and donation amount below. Once you click “Donate” you will be directed to PayPal, where you can pay via credit card (no PayPal account required) or your PayPal account.

Would you like to make this an automatic, recurring weekly donation?*
Would you like to make this an automatic, recurring weekly donation?
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Generosity itself is a beautiful practice that opens and gladdens the heart, relaxes the contraction of “self,” and ripples out into the world to touch many people – and perhaps, eventually, even oneself.

Additionally, many expressions of generosity are not about money. People offer attention, encouragement, and patience many times a day. Sometimes we withhold when it would be so easy, actually, to listen quietly for another minute or to offer a word of appreciation or simply a look that says, “I’m with you.” Try being a little more generous for a day and see what happens.

Seeing the Person Behind the Eyes Talk (download transcript here)

Rick Hanson [00:00:19] Before I get into my topic about empathy and recognizing the being behind the eyes in others, which has many benefits, including helping us be in a stronger position to ask for understanding and empathy from others, and that they too recognize us as beings rather than objects to be kind of moved around by them. But before getting into that talk, I want to give a little announcement that next week and the week after, we will have a wonderful guest teacher, Henry Shukman, who is an abbot of a Zen monastery or Zen Center, actually, in New Mexico, and who is the author of multiple books, including one that just sort of blew my mind wide open in wonderful ways, One Blade of Grass, highly recommended. Henry is just a wonderful being deep teacher and really quite extraordinary. And he’ll be with us next week. I hope you’ll come.

[00:01:28] For myself, last week, as you may know, I talked about the experience, the feeling of being lived by love as love is a kind of upwelling or current buoying us nourishing us and strengthening and protecting us even as it moves through us. And our life increasingly can become over time an expression of being lived in a sense by this powerful force. That seems like an appropriate introduction last week to the meditation that we did this week, in which if you could get a sense of it, there can be a natural opening into the love, broadly defined, that’s at the heart at the center of that spaciousness, that openness. And then increasingly, you can have a sense of a kind of upwelling, a spring rising in you, spreading through you and outward into the world. And if you didn’t get a sense of that, it’s OK. It’s just an ongoing practice and you can explore it in different kinds of ways. But it’s a very beautifully heartfelt and embodied way to practice the wisdom of openness and spaciousness.

[00:02:50] Now, what I’d like to do is talk with you about a practice that I call See the Being Behind the Eyes, which is kind of a poetic way to get at the larger topic of empathy. So I’ll talk through some kind of key points here. I’ll have a number of practical suggestions, some of them grounded in the neural circuitry of empathy. And then we’ll open it up to your questions and comments. If you like, you can use the chat feature to make comments or ask questions along the way. Or if you don’t want to use the chat feature, just push that button and that side bar will disappear. I sometimes am able to glance and see the sidebar along the way, but if I’m not, be assured that I will have read certainly everything you’ve communicated to me tonight, even if I can’t respond to it right here and right now. We do ask, of course, that if you use the chat side bar, you focus on what’s helpful for you, your own practice, rather than criticizing or advising other people. All right. Here we go.

[00:03:53] So imagine a world in which people interacted with each other like ants or fish. You know, imagine a day at work like this or with your family or with friends. You know, people aware of the surface behavior of each other almost as like things moving through space, while remaining oblivious to their own inner lives, while being unmoved by your own. That’s a world without empathy. Empathic breakdowns, when there’s a lack of empathy, shake the foundation of a relationship. Just recall a time you felt misunderstood yourself. Or even worse, a time when it was clear to you that the other person just couldn’t care less about actually trying to understand you. Remembering that empathy is not agreement. People can understand us, we can understand them, including in deeper levels without approving of them or agreeing with them, or waiving our own rights and needs. Empathy is distinct from all that.

[00:05:01] In particular, obviously, anybody is vulnerable, a child, an elderly person, someone who’s dealing with a real tough situation and there are circumstances right now, like a hurricane has just blown through, people like that have a special need for empathy. And when it’s a thin soup for them or missing altogether or a thin soup or missing for us, it’s very disturbing. In my experience as a therapist, longtime therapist and couples counselor and family therapist, poor empathy is the core problem in most troubled couples or families. Without it, nothing good is likely to happen. With empathy and with that deliberate effort to recognize and tune in to the being over there behind the eyes, with that kind of empathy, well, even the toughest issues can usually be resolved. Empathy gives you a feeling for what it’s like to be another person. When you’re empathic, that tells the other person that they exist for you. In effect, they are a thou to your I, rather than in it, drawing on Martin Buber’s very powerful way of categorizing relationships or even interactions within a relationship as essentially, I thou, I it, or it it, the last one being kind of like bodies in space, like standing side by side in an elevator or something. And you know what it feels like when you’re an it to someone else’s I, even if they’re coming off all charming or trying to explain why you don’t really understand and if you only understood, you’d realize how good their intentions were, blah blah blah blah blah. Deep in your gut, you know their working you. Deep in your gut, you know that they’re relating to you in some way as a means to their ends, rather than as a being in your own right, even if you have different roles or differences of opinion or priorities in different situations. You know what it’s like to feel it-ed by another person. All right.

[00:07:22] Deep down, usually what people want to know is, am I a thou to you? Do you understand me? Do you even want to understand me? That question, do you even want to understand me, is typically much more important than any other stakes on the table. So it’s the question that’s most important to answer if we possibly can. And then we can get to everything else. Even though it’s scary, often scary, everyone longs to be seen, to be known. We want to have our hopes and fears acknowledged, including the ones behind a polite smile or a frown of frustration. Right? Behind the persona, the mask that we wear, we want to be seen behind that mask even as we defend our mask. To have a true caring seen, as well as your positive intentions and natural goodness, we really want that seen, don’t we? Well as much as we long to have that seen by appropriate people, other people long for that as well. We want to feel most intimately that, your innermost being, the one to whom things happen, the one strapped to this roller coaster of a life trying to make sense of it before it ends, we really want to feel that that innermost most vulnerable, you know, the marrow of our being that feels things most keenly has been recognized, at least by some other people. That’s really important to us, isn’t it?

[00:09:12] Sensing the deepest layers in people can nourish you as well. For example, I had a relative with a huge heart, really big heart, who by many accounts in many situations had something of a difficult personality, a big, kind of controlling, large personality. And I got reactive to that person over time. And I would, you know, react to the surfaces of her. And at one point, though, I began to realize that wasn’t good for me and it really wasn’t good for her. And I didn’t want to be that way anymore. So I helped myself by imagining that the core of her being was like a campfire that I was witnessing through a tangled forest, if you will, of leaves and thorns, but through which I could see. I could see the light and I could feel the warmth of that fire. So I started ignoring the forest as it were, the leaves and branches between us and just kind of tuned in to that good heartedness, that lovingness, the goodwill, the good wishes kind of deep down inside her beneath the layers of her own personality. And that was good for me, and it also brought a lot more peace into our relationship. That’s really quite a good practice. Doesn’t mean ignoring mistreatment, doesn’t mean ignoring the injustice. It means insisting upon, in effect, and being strong about for yourself, this deep freedom to be able to recognize all that is true in the world, in yourself, and in others, such as recognizing this innermost quality of the campfire of the being over there, no matter what, you know, hooey, no matter what hooey is coming out of their mouth or eyes. All right.

[00:11:11] So how to do it? How to do it? What are some ways to do it? I have a suggestion, which is that you adopt a practice in which you repeatedly remind yourself to just kind of tune into the interior, the underlying thoughts and feelings and intentions of the people around the people around you and have empathy moments very often lasting just a few seconds. It’s not time consuming to do this. It’s really informative, including if you’re trying to work with other people or understand what in the world has led them to be doing what they’re doing if sometimes that’s the case. Empathy has a lot of hard headed, in the trenches, practical value. To help yourself do this, as I said, remember that empathy is not agreement or approval. You’re not waiving your rights. You can tune in to someone who hurt you or is really annoying. And they really are annoying. It’s not just that you’re annoyed by them. They really are annoying, right? Maybe. You can tune into them. You can still try and understand. Wow, what is it? What’s going on over there? You know, what are the thoughts? What are the feelings? What are the body sensations? What’s it like to be you? Right? I don’t have to agree with you to be really interested in what’s it like to be you?

[00:12:37] Also, a really important point, especially if you’ve been socialized in certain ways, this is a really important point, just because we feel another person’s problems, just because we feel their suffering, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s our responsibility to do something about it. Now, with compassion, we may choose to do what we can. We may also recognize that we can feel their suffering and we don’t have the ability to make a difference or for different reasons, we’re going to choose to allocate or invest our resources in other kinds of suffering with other people, perhaps, for whatever reason. But a really important point, just because we’re opening to the pain, the loss, the needs in our children or our mates or our friends or extended family, just because we’re being a good listener doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily our burden to make things better. And in fact, you may have noticed when you’re on the receiving end of this, very often, what people really want is the sense that you want to understand. Just that. Even if you don’t understand yet, you want to understand sincerely. Now you’re not going to invest, let’s say, 45 minutes. Maybe it’s like five minutes. You’re willing to invest that right here right now, or even a few dozen second. But inside that time frame, you really do want to get it. Like, sorry, I don’t think I’m understanding here. Can you help me? And it’s sincere. They want to know that.

[00:14:29] Close second, they want to know that you do understand. Not just that you want to understand or you’re making an effort to understand, but you actually do kind of get it, at least at some level. That’s in second place typically. And then a third place is that you’re going to give them what they want. Now, sometimes this order is not actually the case. But generally speaking, especially in relationships that have some depth and reciprocity over time, I really think that the priority stack is like that. First, are you motivated to try to get a feeling for what it’s like to be me? Second, do you actually get what it’s like to be me accurately? You know, you’re not projecting what you think it’s like to be me onto me. You actually do get it. OK, that’s good. And then third, now that you are motivated to understand me and do understand me, do you agree with me? You know, are you going to give me what I’m asking for here? That’s important. But actually those first two, in many cases, are even more important than that. And often in my experience, when we give other people these first two things, in other words the intention of understanding and the actuality of understanding, then often they become more agreeable, more tolerant, more willing to negotiate and kind of work things out with us because we’ve established those first two that are really, really important. We’ve delivered those goods first. Right? And then it becomes often easier to work it out about, you know, everything else.

[00:16:10] It helps to start by centering yourself so you don’t feel overwhelmed by what you are opening to. It’s interesting that studies have found that a sense of healthy boundaries paradoxically promotes empathy, especially sustained empathy. Otherwise, we kind of get flooded and we start having what’s sometimes called empathy fatigue. You know, in the proverb, the saying, fences make for good neighbors. So it helps to center yourself. As I said earlier this evening, grounding in yourself, establishing your own equanimity can promote spaciousness and large heartedness, including through simple methods like tuning into your own breathing and tracking that, in the present, you’re basically all right right now. You know, that can help you open up to other people and let their inner life flow through you. All right? Like a wind, I sometimes talk about, flowing through the branches of the tree, the deeply rooted tree that you are being.

[00:17:12] It can really help to just kind of set aside for a moment your case, your opinions, your righteous prosecution about them. I know this well, personally. Just set it aside for the moment. It might be true. It might not be true. You don’t know. You’re not giving it up. Set it aside for a moment if you can, and kind of maybe drop into a little bit of don’t know, don’t know mind, inquiry, curiosity, not so sure, wondering what else, interested. At least for a while, that can be very helpful.

[00:17:56] It’s good, neurologically, I think, to appreciate that empathy is entirely natural. We evolved to be profoundly empathic in the hunter gatherer bands that are 300 thousand years or so back, human ancestors lived and bred and evolved in, and their hominid ancestors for another couple of million years before that, and then primate ancestors before that for millions of more years. In these small bands, those who were more empathic tended to be more successful at passing on genes that passed on genes. You know, we could say survival of the fittest. And in a way, what confers fitness in groups and bands that need to cooperate intensely together for them to survive individually, in a sense, it’s survival of the most empathic. Homo empathicus, something like that. So we evolved three major circuits that enable us to be empathic, to really tune in to the being behind the eyes.

[00:19:06] The first of these engages actions of others. So we tune in to the intentional actions of others, drawing on some of the same neural networks, even individual neurons, which is wild, inside us when we do various kinds of intentional action. So by engaging the neurons inside us that are active when we do intentional actions, that gives us a sense from the inside out of the embodiedness, the purposefulness of other beings. Empathy for actions. There are different places in your brain where that happens. A lot of that happens in what’s called the temporal parietal junction, roughly here-ish, where the temporal and parietal lobes come together.

[00:19:52] Second, we can have empathy for the emotions of others, and a different part of the brain is involved with this. Of course, the whole brain works together, yada yada, and there’s some localization of function. So the insula, two of them on either side of the temporal lobes on the inside are very involved with interoception. I talked about that earlier, tuning into your inner body sensations and your gut feelings and tuning in to kind of the deeper layers of your psyche, including their somatic markers, the somatic embodied sense of them. We use the insula to do that with ourselves. Well, we also use the insula, we draw upon its capabilities to tune in to the feelings of others. And in fact, some of the same neurons, it’s the same kind of dynamic that are engaged when we tune in to our emotions, get active, when we tune in to the feelings of the person sitting across the table from us. So we get a feeling again from the inside out of what it’s like to be them.

[00:20:56] And then last, third major source of empathy neurologically, kind of circuitry wise, our prefrontal regions behind your forehead. These tend to come online as we approach or move soon past our third birthday. Not so online for really young kids. And as people get demented, these circuits can lose their function while still more fundamental circuits that promote empathy for action and empathy for emotion are still present. So even though our beloved, perhaps grandmother is losing the ability to remember lots of things or to understand certain kinds of ideas, she can still pick up on vibes. Very important to keep in mind when being with with people like that, let’s say. So these prefrontal regions, these prefrontal regions enable what’s called theory of mind, where we can have empathy for the thoughts of other people, their intentions, their plans, their priorities, the ways in which they believe things are true that we know for sure are not actually true. They’re just not true. We can imagine what it’s like to be them in that regard. And so this means, as I’ll get into a moment, that we were born empathic. You were born empathic. You are naturally empathic, even if some of that capacity has been kind of lost, maybe through disuse over the years. And you can become more tuned in to the being over there in three kind of major ways related to these major circuits.

[00:22:30] So like one, in terms of actions, you can tune in to their breathing, their posture. Without being annoying and way too 60s about it, you can kind of mirror them a little bit. Well, what’s it like to be you? You know? What would it be like in my body if I sat up in that way? What would be going on with me if I kind of leaned forward with that irritated look on my face? Or would that be like? Right? You can look for micro-expressions, right, around their eyes or on the corners of their lip. We have very expressive faces, human beings. And in that way, tune in to their kind of the embodied qualities, the action tendencies of them. Definitely also try to tune in to their feelings, particularly the softer ones, softer feelings under verbal positions or anger. What’s underneath it all? It’s so easy to get combative. I feel very often that people in quarrels, it’s like their proxies are fighting with your proxies almost at the surface level. Their shells are fighting with your shell. Underneath it all, what’s going on underneath it all in them, which sometimes can help you actually also become more aware of what’s going on underneath it all in you? So what’s going on underneath? And can you tune in with your own gut feelings, your own gut feelings which might be resonating, resonating kind of strongly with those of other people? You can ask yourself underneath it all, stepping away from my own positions, my own righteousness, my own surety that I’m correct, hmm, if I were in their shoes, if I had their life, if I had their parents, if I had their grandparents, if I had to deal with what life is dishing them every day, if I had to live with their biology, their constitution, their temperament, oof, if I had to deal with all that’s happened to them over the years, what might I be feeling right now? If I had to deal with me, what a nightmare, what might I be feeling right now? Feelings.

[00:24:44] And then for sure, see if you can tune in to their thoughts, their expectations, their interpretations, the meanings that they’re giving things, maybe underneath it all, their underlying priorities. Can you tune in to that? Can you kind of imagine that? You could take into account without psychoanalyzing them, their personal history, their Enneagram type, you know, their Myers-Briggs profile, or their horoscope, or whatever you know about them you take that kind of into account. And then in this, part of theory of mind is to form hypotheses about other people. A little bit, gentle, if only in your own mind, like, wow, what might be the real stake on the table here for them even though I’m only hearing about three levels up this kind of proxy for what’s really, really, really scaring them right now or making them really angry? What is it deep down? You know, we can form little hypotheses about that and kind of check in with ourself. What might be true?

[00:25:47] Now, whether you’re tuning into actions, emotions, thoughts, the blend of them all together, you know, sometimes it’s appropriate when we’re trying to tune in to the being behind the eyes, if we can respectfully check out our sense of what it’s like to be them. We might ask questions, you know, like, were you feeling this? Or did you want that? Or do you feel pulled between this and that? Or the shocker question for many people to hear from one’s lips, could you say more about that?

[00:26:22] Be respectful. You’re not doing this to gather information to use against them. That’s a felony offense, you know, in a relationship. You’re not being prosecutorial. You’re not trying to tell them how they feel. You’re sincere and humble and interested in trying to see the being behind the eyes. Later on, if it’s appropriate, later on you can move into your case, your views, you can move into asserting your needs. But I think it’s really important to mark the distinction and not move too rapidly from empathy focused conversations into problem-solving conversations. It can be very jarring to be on the receiving end of what seemed like an empathy conversation in which there was a kind of I thou relationship and suddenly the other person is trying to persuade us to something or fix us or tell us what, you know, really ought to happen. Mark that transition. There’s a place for that. There’s a place for it. But mark that transition. That could really help.

[00:27:29] It can also help to sense your own inner being. That, oh, that sweet, tender, vulnerable, so sensitive and affected innermost, you know, like the quick, as it were, the area under your fingernails that’s so sensitive. Sense it, be aware of it in yourself, and then that can help you be more aware of it in another person. Stay with it. Empathy is a kind of mindfulness. Tuning into the being behind the eyes, empathic receptivity, is sustained presence, sustained attention in this case, not so much in the feeling of breathing around your nose and upper lip, but the inner life, the inner world of another person. Stay with it. Come back to it. You can get better at empathy, and you can deepen the empathy quotient in important relationships in terms of the amount of empathy that’s typically there. Notice how being present with the inner being of others actually can often help interactions, even if they’re tough ones, even if they’re tense, brittle, even if there’s a lot of anger that you’re empathic with, including being empathic with yourself. Still, this quality of being present, being receptive and kind of seeking the sense of what’s it like to be you? What’s it like to be you? And seeking that with respect, you know, can really have a very beneficial effect on many, many interactions and relationships. You know what it’s like when others are seeking you non-invasively, respectfully, not using it against you later, respectfully, and they really want to understand. Wow. It’s one of the greatest gifts we can get from another person, right? And therefore, it’s one of the greatest gifts that we can give to others.

[00:29:49] So finishing up here, I want to also add that if it feels right at some point, particularly on a foundation of your practice of this way of being that I’m describing here, as you can, as feels right to you, it’s not always right in the moment, sometimes we’re just shocked, sometimes we’re stunned, sometimes all we can do is not, you know, yell at them or storm out of the room or just slam the phone down, back in the day when we would slam phones down. And yeah, maybe it’s not the moment to try to be really empathic. But as you can, as you strengthen in this, it puts you in a stronger position to ask for this kind of treatment yourself, to ask that others make an effort to acknowledge the thou in you to their I behind your eyes. They can get a sense of that. And to ask for more understanding yourself or at least some effort to see you and try to understand you before jumping to their conclusions or jumping on the attack. By being more present in your way of the self, you also will know better what to ask for when it’s time to ask for that from other people.

[00:31:10] And then last, as you deepen your sense of the beings behind the eyes. You can get a deeper sense of this beingness as process inside yourself. You can get a sense of yourself as a channel, in effect, through which your life streams. And with some of the richest streaming, of course, being the other beings around you. It’s a really beautiful way to live, and it also is a very important resource that we can draw upon for resilience and coping, including with very, very hard things. All right.

[00:32:08] So I want to check out some of the questions and comments. So many already you might want to see what’s there. So I’ll speak first to Tom. Tom Brown at 7:17, what is the difference between empathy and presence? Presence seems more like a set of behaviors on a set of feelings. Thoughts? People use words in different ways. For me, a sense of presence is being present, here, not elsewhere, not thinking about the future of the past, not lost in thought, not caught up in the default mode network, just really present. But just because you’re present doesn’t necessarily mean you’re empathic. Doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a tension and a receptivity to what’s happening, what’s going on with other people. Presence really helps. I think it’s kind of hard to be empathic without presence, but I think we can be present without being empathic. Maybe that’s the way I would distinguish there. All right?

[00:33:11] Um. Aha! So at 7:17 Rajeswari, hopefully I’m not mangling your name too badly at 7:17, 17 minutes past the hour for me, writes, I often find myself sensing unexpressed feelings like anger or disapproval in others and then tend to respond to it in ways that may not be ideal. My kids have told me that “I read them wrong,” quote unquote. So I need I need to work on moderating this activity. This is a really important point. We have to be kind of careful between empathy and projection. You know? We can kind of get a vibe or get a sense but misunderstand other people. And that’s not uncommon. That’s where the respectfulness of empathy is helpful, the curiosity, the inquiry, the not knowing, the not jumping to conclusions, slowing it down, giving yourself time to get a deeper read on what’s going on here, remembering that so often other people, they have the songs playing in their inner iPod, their inner jukebox that were recorded long before you were born or handed down to them via lineage of people who recorded them originally, you know, far upstream, and they’re just dealing with their own inner soundtrack, and they can hardly even hear your own words. And sometimes that’s helpful to appreciate that. The kind of horrible truth and the wonderful truth is that we’re a bit player in most of the dramas of other people’s lives. And that’s just a fact, much as they’re bit players in our own inner dramas most of the time. OK?

[00:34:54] Let’s see. A few others. Aha! So, Margo ask a really important question at 7:18. How do you do this, what I’m talking about, when someone has hurt you deeply and has not treated you with respect or empathy themselves? Very important. First, you don’t have to do this. And knowing that you don’t have to opens up a space in which you’re free to choose to do it. But it’s important, you don’t have to. And I think sometimes with certain people, they have wronged us so deeply or wronged others so deeply, they betrayed us utterly, honestly, it’s out of reach. It’s inauthentic to pretend to be empathic. We’re not. The best we can do is to not do something really hateful or evil to them. And maybe that’s the best we can do in the moment. At a point, though, and you may find that this point is helpful to you, it’s certainly been helpful to me, we find that it helps us to have a deeper understanding of the many forces inside that other person that led them to do what they did. We see clearly what they did, we’re not diminishing or minimizing what they did. And also, we can if we want to, get a greater knowledge, really empathic knowledge of the many forces and factors and layers and tugs and pushes and pulls and external influences even on them that kind of led them to do what they did, or the ways in which they and we are situated in a larger social, political, economic, cultural, structural society that affects how people treat each other. Not letting them off the hook morally, but broadening your understanding of all of that. And why would we do that? It often is very helpful because for one, it helps us deal with them more successfully if we can. It can help us deal with them more effectively in the future when we understand more deeply. Whoa, now I understand what your motivations really are underneath your sweet talk. I get it now. You know, that can help us because empathy can recognize those deeper layers in which we start to realize, whoa, you’re not actually my real friend or you’re my friend as long as I deliver everything to you. You know what’s yours is yours, and what’s mine is yours. Whoa. You can sometimes realize that with empathy. Also, sometimes empathy opens up compassion. We start to realize, you know, what they did was really bad. It was really wrong. I’ll never get justice, maybe, from them, certainly about this. And, you know, they’re suffering too. They’re kind of a mess. Not with contempt or disdain, but just clear seeing like, wow, a lot going on over there. That can help us. That can help free us from holding on to bitter resentments and grudges that harm us much more than they, you know, bring justice to other people. OK. Very important point. All right.

[00:38:23] I think what I’m going to do—Barbara Wieland, you’ve had your hand up. I see a Zoom User as well. I think I’ll have time for two people here for questions. So, Barbara, I’m asking you to unmute and turn your camera on, please, if you can. Barbara Wieland. Can you unmute yourself, Barbara? Tell you what, I’ll bounce back and—Barbara, you’ve unmuted yourself. Can you turn off your camera? You’ve muted again. Tell you what, I’ll go to Zoom User with the dog. I’m going to ask you to unmute and hello, hello, unmute yourself. Oh great. Hopefully, I’ll be able to come back to Barbara. All right, great. Caller number 3 with the dog,

Zoom User [00:39:12] With a just adopted dog.

Rick Hanson [00:39:14] Oh, that’s great.

Zoom User [00:39:15] Newly adopted.

Rick Hanson [00:39:16] Yeah.

Zoom User [00:39:17] Off the streets. So what you just said helped a lot. And I want to kind of restate it and get your feedback.

Rick Hanson [00:39:34] OK, good. And I’ll ask you as I do everybody to be succinct and focused. You’re focused. That’s great. So good.

Zoom User [00:39:41] So, uh, close relatives that have done harm to me and my family for decades. Not in their perspective, but certainly for all of us. And very righteously so. In other words, we deserved it. We deserve the anger, the meanness, the resentment, all of that.

Rick Hanson [00:40:21] So what’s the question?

Zoom User [00:40:23] So I’ve been struggling with thinking that, feeling I had to somehow create a good relationship with them just because they’re relatives. But really, I just want to tell them how terrible they’ve been and be right.

Rick Hanson [00:40:49] OK.

Zoom User [00:40:50] Show them, you know, how they’re wrong. And then further, they don’t really like who they are.

Rick Hanson [00:40:59] But what’s the question?

Zoom User [00:41:04] Just that I’m struggling with those things and do I just—I mean, is it OK to, you know, just say they’re not the kind of people that I want in my life, even though they’re close relatives?

Rick Hanson [00:41:25] This is great, so, good. All right. So I don’t know the particulars of your situation, obviously. The fact that you’ve opened your heart to that sweet dog, you know, speaks really well of you. What I would say for myself, see if it’s useful for you, is that it’s helpful to sort of separate some key things. So there’s the clear seeing of what happened, the facts and the history in relationship to values. OK? And the values are your right to have, that certain things are bad or good or misdemeanors, but not felonies in relationship land, or wow, those are serious felonies, for example. It’s up to you. So there’s that part. You know? Knowing what you see and what matters to you, that’s here. Right?

[00:42:27] Then, separate from that, there can be if you want empathy for what, by which I mean understanding, not approval, not agreement, but understanding, including deeper understanding of the emotions and bodily tendencies and deeper layers of the psyche that have made other people do and be what is the case, right? You can have empathy that’s separate, right? And then there’s the third question of what to do about it. These are separate things. I find that clear seeing, including knowing what my relevant principles and values are and whether something is a small deal or a really big deal as I judge it. And second, having a deeper sense of what’s going on with other people, who they are, what kind of person they are, and what will lead them to do what they did, that then really helps me choose better with less emotional charge, with less vengeance, with less rancor. But sometimes with more moral confidence, more dignity and head high, and a sense of healthy entitlement over here, and even sometimes a recognition that the other person does not have a learning curve. Empathy can help us recognize that another person is 0 for 3 on some things that really matter most. Deep down, are they committed to good process with other people? Deep down, are they committed to learning? And deep down, do they have a good heart, at least as far as I’m concerned? And if the answer is 0 for 3, that really tells you about another person. And empathy can help you realize that.

[00:44:22] And so the question of what to do and the roles that we have and, you know, and so forth if someone’s a family member, you know, that’s a complicated thing. My own kind of middle way that I’ve come to a fair amount and maybe I’ll finish on this point is I have found that it’s helpful sometimes to shrink the size of a relationship. And to realize, you know, I may have to go to church in the same church or synagogue whatnot they’re in. You know, I may once a year just sort of need to do the Christmas thing, the Thanksgiving thing, and sit at the other end of the table and make sure I have my own transportation and maybe even bring a wing man or wing woman, you know, an ally with me to the gathering and so forth. And that’s it. And other than that, I’ll be civil. I’ll be reasonably agreeable. But I’m not going to act like we’re best buddies and deep in my heart I’m going to know who they are. And maybe I even will say a simple word or two and not play their game any more. I’m going to step out of the script that they keep trying to write me into. Their role, my role and the lines I have to say. No. I’m out. I’m free. I’m out of that movie. I’m no longer in your movie. I’m in my movie, even if we’re both stuck in the same room together. I find that that’s often kind of a good way. You realize, you know, there just isn’t a foundation. You don’t really have the causes and conditions. You don’t have the allies, you don’t have the occasion to really bring it. And often it’s better to not really bring the strong force of truth unless you can really bring it all the way. Because otherwise we get caught kind of in the middle in which we’re sort of sputtering and they’re set up for a big counterattack that we’re really not prepared to deal with, sometimes. I should finish here, so I’ll be hyper quick.

Zoom User [00:46:35] What do you mean by bring it all the way?

Rick Hanson [00:46:37] Yeah, great. So in a hypothetical, you might write a letter to this person that you share with your entire extended family. And even further, you could get a big billboard outside their home. You know? You are a jerk. Or other stuff like, you know, you maybe did some terrible things to my niece that they’re now coming to light. All right? It could be, you know, it’s a pretty big deal. Or you could, in front of others, say things to them. Or you could just write a letter to them and leave it be. You know, you could do certain things. And there is a place for that. I’ve done things like that. And, you know, there’s a place for that sometimes. On the other hand, you might think to yourself, you know, this other person is completely committed to not getting it. They’ll just use it against me. They’ll take one sentence out of a very carefully worded letter and post it on Facebook and try to use it against me. I just don’t want to get into it with them. You might decide that. And that’s my point. But on the other hand, you might well have decided, I’m never, ever, ever going to be vulnerable to you again. I’m never, ever, ever going to leave my kids with you. I’m never, ever, ever going to do anything financial with you. And frankly, I’m going to have one or more allies, maybe relatives, maybe not, who understand me about this and why I’m taking this stance. You could do those things. OK.

[00:48:07] I thought that was very helpful, actually. Really practical, including sorting out these three sort of things and putting empathy in its place. Empathy of the kind I’m describing makes us stronger. It makes us tougher. It makes us more willing to walk in with our head high and not take any crap anymore. You know? It doesn’t mean that we have to go to war with other people, but it can really mean sometimes that, you know, it’s not my problem. I’ve met so many people, especially highly empathic people, often who happen to be female to imagine that tattooed on the inside of your eyelids are three letters: N.M.P. Not my problem. And to appreciate yeah, that we can be highly empathic while also being crystal clear about differentiation, individuation, fancy words for not my problem. Your karmas are your own. I have compassion for you. I wish you well. And boy, am I happy to be very, very, very distant from you. That’s OK. And it’s really helpful to know that you really can step into greater empathy without stepping into adding burdens to yourself of caretaking or emotional management of other people. OK, good.

[00:49:39] All right, everybody. That was hopefully a good one, and I really encourage you to come next week. Henry Shukman, wonderful teacher. Let’s take a moment, just a breath or two or three to let whatever’s helpful for you tonight to sink in. Just let it sink in, if you could. Letting it sink in. Good. So I’m going to ring the bell, say goodbye, and then if you’re still here in a couple of minutes, I’m turning it over to Art Ewardt who I’m going to make host right now and then in a couple of minutes, Art will sort those of you who remain into these small Zoom breakout rooms. I really enjoyed this topic and I know that Henry’s teachings next week and the week after will be really, really wonderful. Thank you very much. Thank you very much for seeing the being behind my eyes. Much as I can see or intuit the being behind your eyes, I can really feel, really, truly, that you see me, which is one of the most beautiful and important and precious gifts in this life. Thank you. Take good care.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

Get the Just One Thing
Weekly Newsletter

A simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

You can unsubscribe at any time and your email address will never be shared.