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What Does it Mean to Live in the Age of Empathy?

December 3, 2015

Hand on shoulder, close-up


If we are living in a so-called Age of Empathy – what does that mean?

What does it mean for an individual, a co-worker, an employer, a neighbor, a city or a world society to live with empathy in the face of such harsh daily realities?

What will we do differently in our personal and social lives? What kind of social and economic policies will we collectively sanction? What kinds of leaders will we insist responsibly govern our institutions?  Will we continue to ignore our ravaged planet or remain impervious to global health needs or our local fast-food server’s daily struggle for survival?

For me, these are the most salient questions of the day. The answers (our response) to them will define the future. While we are consumed with the day-to-day demands of our  lives – something far greater is deciding what kind of future we’ll all inherit.

In his big, meaty, 2010 book, The Empathic Civilization, author, Wharton Business School economist and former EU (European Union) advisor, Jeremy Rifkin wrote, “Empathy conjures up active engagement — the willingness of an observer to become part of another’s experience, to share the feeling of that experience.”

Rifkin adds an important dimension in his description, “Empathy is not just about feeling for another’s suffering. One can also empathize with another’s joy.  Indeed, empathic moments are the most intensely alive experiences we ever have. We empathize with each other’s struggles against death and for life. One acknowledges the whiff of death in another’s frailties and vulnerabilities. No one ever empathizes with a perfect being.”

At the time of the book’s release, Rifkin’s sweeping hypothesis received mixed reviews with many critics noting that the author provided little evidence that empathy in humans can or will result in their ability to address global challenges or crises. You have to wonder, what they think will?  Read more…


Fear’s a Common Response in Today’s World ~ What We Do With It Matters

November 20, 2015

ann fear


“Fear does not predict the future: it only tells you that you are afraid. The trick is to recognize the emotion when it emerges, accept it, discover its source and decide what to do with it.”      Jay Uhler, Organizational Psychologist

Needless to say, most of the world’s been gripped by fear recently.

This is a natural reaction, especially in light of the complexity of geopolitical and environmental crises that seem uncontrollable. Because a sense of helplessness engenders more fear, it is critical to understand what frightens us – and why.    The longer we allow ourselves to stay mired in fear, the more we cloud our perceptions and make choices driven by our anxieties.

The challenges of today’s world call for a serious elevation of our emotional intelligence if we are to respond rationally, cognizant of what we feel, yet not driven by it.   More than ever – emotional intelligence feels like an essential survival skill.  Read more…

Guilt & Regret ~ the Emotions Series

October 29, 2015




“Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.   Henry David Thoreau

We’re a long way from Walden Pond; even Thoreau’s contemporaries rarely lived such a contemplative life, but let’s take some time now to ponder two inter-connected emotions – guilt and regret.

Complex and deep, distinct in their qualities, both emotions are about loss. Both are akin to sadness as the wise Mr. Thoreau wrote. Both, as all emotions do, rely very much on the cognitive narratives we construct as we live. Guilt and regret belong in the category I call, emotions of comparison and the moral emotions.  Much of their life force is derived from our mental comparisons with the lives of others – what should and should not be.


Since the 1960’s gave us the term “guilt trip,” guilt’s never been the same. According to the dictionary it means when someone tries to make you feel guilty for thinking, feeling and doing things a certain way.”  The “social liberators” of the ‘Sixties’ weren’t having any of that post-Depression, post-WWII thinking about personal and social constraints. The straightjacket of guilt was off and guilt in its post-Victorian form hasn’t been seen since.

A hundred years ago Freud created an internal iconography about guilt that had previously only been transmitted through religious doctrine.  Freud believed that guilt is an affective state experienced as internal conflict about something one believes is “wrong.” This feeling persists because, as Freud explained, we are in violation of our conscience (our inner moral code) engaged in the epic battle between our ego and our superego. While Freud rejected the role of God in this struggle, the harsh super-egoic stand-in was parental authority, broadly representing the rules and norms of society. Freud strongly believed that one of guilt’s purposes was self-punishment.

Although Freud, a brilliant explorer of the uncharted psyche of the late 1800’s,  did not significantly advance his theories on the origins of guilt, recent neuroscience has shown connections between guilt and certain regions of the brain associated with anxiety and depression.

Carl Jung, who Freud once called his “adopted eldest son, crown prince and successor,” (before the rupture in their bond) had a dramatically different concept of the role guilt served in the individuation of the personal psyche.

In a 1945 essay on guilt, Jung wrote,” Guilt has been a subject of special interest to me for many years. I learned that guilt is far more complicated than the conventional explanations for its psychic existence. The conventional view of guilt’s role is that it helps us remain “good.” Guilt keeps us within boundaries deemed acceptable. It helps us resist doing things that would disturb or harm our individual and collective interests.”

Jung’s subversive (at the time) contribution to our understanding of guilt’s purpose was clear; he did not believe we could grow without experiencing guilt.

Jung believed that we needed to be “bad” at times which he called “good guilt.” The “good” in doing “bad” comes from the freedom people experience when they break from oppressive rules that are not intrinsically natural to them.  Jung gave the examples of divorces, separations from partners and friends and giving up family (read societal) approved careers or even marriages.  Breaking with these conventions would have been far more guilt-producing in Jung’s times, but they still are emotionally costly for many people today. Read more…

Well-Being is a Skill

October 12, 2015




Why is so little self-knowledge taught in most schools?

Sure, there’s the Life Sciences curriculum where you’ll get some information on anatomy, DNA, and communicable diseases, but mostly what we learn in school is focused on the externals. With rare exceptions, most children graduate high school with little information about how their bodies, minds and especially their emotions, work.

Most of us reach adulthood, with limited self-care skills; often saddled with  collective beliefs like “we are the way we are.” Despite major scientific advances in understanding the brain, physiology  and life-long development – most people still believe they can’t change.

Not so, according to neuroscientist Richie Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Davidson, who coined the term, well-being is a skill, points out that the brain changes, over time, in response to experience. Most of the time, he adds, these changes are not “intentional.” But the evidence clearly shows that with deliberate intent most of us can learn to cultivate healthier habits of mind and body.

Davidson’s work and message are clear, “It is the neuroscientific evidence particularly which shows us that the circuits in the brain that are important to underlying well-being exhibit plasticity—it changes as a consequence of experience and as a consequence of training. We know that the brain is constantly being changed, wittingly or unwittingly.”

Without promoting pie-in-the sky prescriptions for “happiness solutions,” or physical transformations there is a significant body of growing research that shows that mental training coupled with sustained behavioral applications can increase our well-being. We may learn in the not-so-distant future, just how significant that impact can be.

In addition to Dr. Davidson’s explanation of how the brain’s neuroplasticity enables change through intentional (and unintentional) experience, new research points the ways we can work to build stronger, more integrated mind-body connections.

There’s plenty of 21st century research that should incentivize us (or at least, arouse our curiosity). Read more…

Patience = Peace of Mind

September 24, 2015


resize red umbrella

Developing more patience has been a long-time personal pursuit. There’s no formula I can recommend. It takes diligence. It takes commitment. It takes attention.

Mostly it takes remembering.

It’s easy to slide back into old habits of impatience. On closer examination, they’re predictable.

I’ve often written about the power of patience because I have experienced that impatience is a form of chaos I bring upon myself.

Sharing this with you, I assume that barring deeper emotional or physical impediments, we all have within us, the nascent ability to be more patient – and consequently, more peaceful. Few of us can get there “naturally.” If we want more of this easiness in our lives, we have to do the heavier mental and emotional lifting that identifies what stands in our way – and what allows more of our calmer nature to emerge.

While habits of thought and behavior activate our impatience, it’s emotional triggers that route our patterns of impatience. Certain emotions are particularly likely to enable impatience.

Here are some of mine: Read more…

The Deeper Layers of Mindfulness

September 3, 2015




First Light Matt Walker 4 Corners AZ

“Realize that you are in there. You must first come to realize that you are in there. From deep inside, you are experiencing the world. You are experiencing your physical body, your thoughts and your emotions. You are conscious and you are experiencing what it is like to be human.” Michael Singer

An article in the New Yorker grabbed my attention and lingered with me for days.

In his article, Actually People Still Like to Think, Ferris Jabr describes a study that concluded that given the option, most people would rather voluntarily shock themselves than be left alone with their thoughts.

Jabr goes on to dissect the questionable conclusions the researchers drew and speculates that it’s likely that the subjects (and most of us, I’d say) simply do not like their ‘mental weather.”  We are, Jabr suggests, averse to the unpleasant wanderings of our minds and hesitant to spend much time there.

While one of the study’s co-authors, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, declared that People prefer electric shock to thinking,” his sweeping generalization deserves some serious unpacking.

As a long-time practitioner of mindfulness meditation, Gilbert’s hyperbolic conclusion doesn’t completely surprise me.  It takes a great effort for most people to sit with their own thoughts without distraction.  Sure plenty of people seek quiet times – reading, listening to music, cooking, taking walks – but these activities engage the mind and keep it occupied. Read more…

Vulnerability is our Common Bond

August 11, 2015

photo Kjeragbolton, Norway Kym Pham

“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”

 Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times


The problem is – we suffer alone.

There isn’t a human being that does not experience the fear, isolation, even shame that is commonly associated with feeling vulnerable.

We often suffer quietly because most of us live in cultures that condition us to believe that vulnerability is weakness – we must bear it alone, overcome it and rise above it.  In cultures, confused and driven by impossible concepts of “success,” there’s no room for the perceived weaknesses associated with vulnerability. We bear our hurts, doubts and fears alone because we’ve been conditioned to believe that we risk losing the illusory trophies of status and power by showing our emotional fragility.

  • We fear illness and dread death.
  • We hide and disdain aging and barely tolerate the aged among us.
  • We adore beauty and abhor bodily imperfections.
  • We fear poverty and ignore the poor.
  • We hail material success and mistrust perceived failures and lack of “motivation”
  • We hunger for relationship and avoid the “risks” of emotional intimacy

We, as cultures, have constructed hundreds of ways to hide, deflect, ignore and bully our vulnerability. Some say that the desire to escape our painful vulnerability is the logical response in dealing with such distressing feelings.  Take a deeper look and you will see that most cultural norms have embedded avoidance of those feelings into the social fabric. Phrases like, “Never let them see you sweat,” “Put on Your Game Face,” and the elixir for manhood, “Take it like a man,” are common axioms we accept as truth.  Read more…

Choices That Matter

July 9, 2015


Nothing is precious except that part of you which is in other people, and that part of others which is in you.  — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

It should be self-evident to all of us that the choices earlier generations made resulted in the quality of life we’re living now.  The past is prologue.

Since the vast impact of the Industrial Revolution these choices have reshaped global societies and the natural world in ways that have created what seem like insurmountable problems now.

Look around – how does life on earth look and feel to you? How satisfying is the quality of life you’re leading?  What about for others?  What’s your vision for the future? And most important – how do you see your role in all of this?

Of course, you care about yourself and those you place into your circle of caring. Your circle of caring is important because it motivates what you do – and don’t do – in the world.  Behavior, after all, is mostly driven by what’s most important to us.

Lately, I’ve been struck by the impact our “personal” choices have on the collective culture. Read more…

How Emotions Shape Decision Making

June 11, 2015

heart by Marian Beck flickr

Since I first published this article in 2012, it’s been in the top 5 of my views every day. Clearly – the head vs. heart conflict is very much alive. 

There is little disagreement that effective decision-making is one of the most important tasks we have in every part of life.

If we were to take a survey in the average workplace to poll what people believed was most needed for effective decision-making, which of these do you think would top the list?

Factual information?
Risk assessment?
Clear thinking?
Limited emotional interference?
If you chose the last item, I’d like you to reconsider.  Read more…

The State of Your Attention ~ How to Engage Life More Fully

May 28, 2015


To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” ~ Mary Oliver

The Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, captures the essence of paying attention – deep, sustained, perceptive attention – when he reminds us, “You have an appointment with life – you should not miss it.”

Lately I’ve been keenly aware that life today is filled with endless distractions.  These distractions, internal and external, are not all of my making. But being a creature of habit – I feel distraction creeping up on me and becoming more and more of my default state.

This concerns me greatly.

Perhaps it’s because when you reach a certain age you finally get that you don’t have all the time in the world to squander.  While I am a great advocate for the freedom to occasionally do nothing – I don’t want to waste precious time.

Distractions (what tech writer Linda Stone refers to as “continuous partial attention”) insidious as they are, have become the norm so quickly that it feels like a form of theft.

I watch toddlers so mesmerized by smartphones and tablets that no toy can get their attention. I sit with people for a meal and watch them interrupted constantly by texts and calls.  People drive and text and shop and talk and too few people seem aware of those around them.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo (The Stanford Prison  Experiments) reports in a new study that boys spend 44 hours in front of a TV, smart phone or computer screen for every half hour in conversation with their fathers.

Distraction, it seems, is now baked in the cake. Read more…

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