Earlier this week, I took part in an empathy circle practice organized by Rebel Wisdom together with Edwin Rutsch and a group of facilitators. I was part of a group of five people, and after we engaged in this practice, we all reported on the effect this had: each of us, in different words, experienced a form of inner opening. As Edwin Rutsch explained, demonstrating to another person that you are fully with them, and going through this process in a circular dynamic—cycling through being the speaker, the active listener, and then, together with other remaining people, a silent listener—creates the potential for removing all kinds of barriers between people.
This made me think of two other sources of this wisdom. The first comes from John Vervaeke’s “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis” series, also providing the title for this post. I’m quoting from a website that describes the content here:
That’s what the Buddha offered. He offered “The Eightfold Path”. The Eightfold Path is a counteractive dynamical system that counteracts parasitic processing and does reciprocal opening, beyond the ego self and beyond the everyday world where it’s represented by an eight spoked wheel. It’s supposed to be a self-organising system that rolls itself in which each part is interdependent on all the other parts. You might have heard it. The Eightfold Path is to cultivate: Right Understanding, Right Thinking (there’s various translations of this, sometimes Right Aspiration/ Right Thought), Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood and then Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
The second source is Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as another process. It teaches that through empathy and presence, we can transform our approach of engaging with other people. Instead of seeing others primarily as either tools or obstacles in relation to our goals (needs), we can focus on the relational aspect—in NVC this is called “seeking a quality of connection with the intention of getting everybody’s needs met.”
And once again, Mark Solms’s book “The Hidden Spring” provides me with some of the insights into how this might work. My current hypothesis goes a bit like this:
- every conscious agent—humans included—represents their needs, that is their built-in drive to minimize free-energy, via internal states
- other agents are seen as a either tools, helping us to meet our needs, or obstacles, hindering us from doing so
- evolution has provided us with (at least) three internal tools to overcome the zero-sum-game dynamics of seeing others primarily in this way: theory-of-mind (including boot-strapping through mirror neurons) to understand others, language to express our understanding of others, and curiosity to explore our own and other’s internal states in a playful manner
- whenever we successfully communicate to others that we (1) are interested in their internal states, (2) able to understand what their experience is, and (3) interested in supporting them in minimizing their free-energy (satisfying their needs), this can lead to a cyclical dynamic of reciprocal opening
Conversely, so long as I experience in an interaction with another person that they are not interested in my inner states and my free-energy-minimization needs, I am likely to experience this as a source of anxiety up to hostility. This is paired with the motivational thought of self-protection. If the other person does not care about my needs, then I have to do so even more, and I am inclined to think of the other person as a source of additional needs on my end. They may try to use me to minimize their free-energy in a resource-scarce world.
How does this matter? In many situations, I am faced with being utterly dependent on other people’s support and cooperation in my efforts. For instance, on the current hunt for an apartment, the success depends to a large extent on other people providing me with good information. If during an exchange either party communicates in ways suggesting little interest or care in the other party’s experience, this can make the whole process feel adversarial and very unpleasant—just the other day I received an email that created precisely that feeling: stay away from this person, they do not mean well.
And the process of reciprocal opening also happens inside of me, just by myself. If I can have sufficient awareness placed on where in my experience things feel uncomfortable, rather than being forced to see the shadow projection of this need ruin my chances, I can integrate this need into my conscious awareness. Doing so allows me to be authentic in everything I do, without compromising my needs.
Ultimately, I believe that through this process, human beings can learn to transform their experience from feeling alone, isolated, and utterly ego-state-driven toward feeling connected. Such an experience reduces feelings of anxiety due to resource scarcity. This is accompanied by feelings of trust and faith in the mutual reciprocity, a willingness to share resources, and in doing so becoming stronger and more resilient that I could ever be as an individual agent.