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“You are creating a second tier in the relationship, an observation post, a metalevel, a joint platform, an observing couple ego. You are solving the immediate problem in the relationship by moving up and reassembling the relationship on the next higher level.” —Daniel Wile
I’m working on slicing and dicing the domains of mastery and value on this blog. By value, I mean pointing out things that might be worth wanting, for both proximal and terminal reasons. By mastery, I mean, of course, the practices which directly enact those values or approach realization of those values.
While I haven’t emphasized empathy and perspective-taking too much, they have appeared in prior posts [1, 2]. To me, these words refer to our capacity to automatically utilize, or deliberately attend to, our pre-symbolic “felt sense” of another person’s mind.
Empathy is core skill that can be trained, perhaps via “Other Mind Meditation,” which I’ve been experimenting with in meetups. In the last post, I referred to meditation and Focusing-type practices as practices that cross-train, and empathy is another skill that can be added to that cross-training collection. (Because, the machinery that flexes and contorts to model other minds can be applied to understanding your own mind as well, but you wouldn’t have stumbled on that particular, personally useful flexing and contorting had you not been trying to model another mind.)
The Focusing-type skills described in the last post are actually two processes in one, the first being “attending to nonsymbolic meaning” and the second being “symbolizing and expressing that nonsymbolic meaning” (to self or others).
Further, empathy and Focusing-type skills can be thought of as sub-skills to the super-skill of online and offline pragmatic communication with other people. I say “pragmatic” because I’m emphasizing communication with a purpose: love, sex, intimacy, fun, support, coordinated action, etc. I say “online,” referring to real-time communication such as face-to-face, voice-only, or text chat. I say “offline,” referring to snail-mail, emailings, blogging, and even book-writing.
This is “using your words” (and sometimes nonverbal communication) to “get what you want” (which often encompasses you being assured that other involved parties getting what they want, too).
Now, symbolic pragmatics is such an incredible skill–using combinations of these lifeless, little, countably finite, discrete patterns of matter and energy (naturalized symbols!) to move lovers, mountains, armies, planets…
(I acknowledge that successful use of symbols is conditional on vast coordinate preconditions.)
But, here is this next opportunity to aspire to thousand-year-old-vampire levels of skill: leveraging your use of words, whatever situation you find yourself in. They are so cheap relative to what they can do, to what they can unlock.
Just like meditation, use of words has no payoff ceiling. The better you get, the more benefits you get.
Just like meditation, increase in empathy has no payoff ceiling. The better you get, the more benefits you get.
And better empathy lets you use your words better. They are another example of cross-training.
And, using words in the moment is hard, have you noticed? Pre-caching words is one strategy for using words in the moment. But you have to have a pretty good idea of which ways the situation could go.
Fresh, spontaneous, exploratory (depending on the risks) use of language is another way to go.
And emotions really complicate things, of course you’ve noticed. If you or the person you’re speaking with (suddenly?) might not get what they really want, things get intense. Use of words gets harder (because other parts of the brain and body start vying for input).
And that’s where the mind muscles built from meditation comes in, the ability to surf your emotion and not get tongue-tied, the ability to simultaneously pursue many different models of situational outcome and advancement, to simultaneously remain responsive to the person right there in front of you, to be open to eir [sic] influence.
So anyway, this post has been enacting two goals. The first is to help me start assembling scattered thoughts on empathy and pragmatic communication more directly into my blogging project (that project being, as losslessly as possible, to offer my toolbox, worldview, and values).
The second is to offer up some concrete resources while I’m sorting that out:
Daniel Wile is a brilliant, ethical phenomenologist. I say ethical because his ethics are deeply baked into his philosophy and approach. I don’t want to give it away, except that attacking and not-attacking are explicit in his thinking. (This post is more of a “go read this guy until I write about this stuff”; see below)
Do you know John Gottman, the guy who can predict relation breakups with eighty or ninety percent accuracy from a tiny sample of behavior? Here’s what Gottman has to say about Wile:
“I love Wile’s writing and thinking. They are entirely consistent with many of my research findings. I think that Wile is a genius and the greatest living marital therapist. I am blessed to have been able to exchange ideas with him.”
Wile’s After the Fight is a long, dense (but clear) read that blends experiential phenomenology with emotional dynamics, semantic dynamics, interpersonal dynamics, interpersonal ethics, concrete tools, and psychoactive insight. It’s the relationship book for cerebral meditators. (As a contrast, the book Radical Honesty is powerfully psychoactive, but it’s like handling a live, poisonous snake. And the book Nonviolent Communication is beautiful and elegant, yet clunky and incomplete.) This book is in another league. It is not the last word, it’s nontrivial to translate this stuff to non-intimate relationships, and I have much more to say, but I’ll possibly never surpass the decades of in-the-trenches experience that went into his writing.
After the Honeymoon is an earlier book by Wile. It stands on its own, but it has enough overlap with After the Fight that you don’t need to read both. I mention it because it’s a much breezier, easier read than After the Fight.
Here is an even shorter, 40-page summary of his approach (from where the epigraph above came from):
And here are additional shorter articles:
There is also great stuff from Wile’s mentor, Bernard Apfelbaum, here:
So, I just want to end this blog post by reemphasizing the point of all this. For example:
- Profound sense of intimacy or camaraderie,
- Emotional support on your valued projects,
- Weathering relationship turmoil,
- Stable, drama-does-not-even-exist-in-this-universe relationships,
- Reliable access to enactment and reenactment of hilariously specific, elaborate, and idiosyncratic sexual fantasies,
- Understanding and delight and acceptance in your uniqueness,
- Profound acknowledgment and service to another person,
- Safety and comfort in light of finiteness, unpredictability, and mortality…
These are abstract ideals, of course. Reality is messy, and you might use different words or want completely different, highly personally specific things. What I’m referring to, here, is whatever you want that might include more people than just you.
Most of us don’t yearn to, say, fly or wield psychokinesis, even though that would be awesome, because those things are much closer to impossible than not. Our brains, at a deep, preconscious level, don’t allocate a lot of time desiring concrete realizations of things that the brain expects to be impossible.
Part of our brain not spending that time is because truly desiring things you believe to be impossible can be extraordinarily, soul-cuttingly painful. And that’s even if your longings are technically physically realizable.
So part of what I want for this blog as whole, by suggesting use of possibly novel tools, is to expand your sense of what’s possible, to get your mind going about the things you could have, to make you hungrier.
The other thing I want is to ease you into contemplating desires that would have been too painful to contemplate before. This is an ethically tricky thing. Why do I want this for you? Possibly because some of my desires hurt, and if I want people to work on them with me then they might have to be willing to have painful desires, too.
I must warn you that having abstract or even just extremely challenging desires is associated with increased risk of clinical depression, and working on said desires is associated with increased risk of the same. (Let me know if Google fails on tracking some of these down.)
But perhaps some things are worth being depressed about. (Seriously, fuck me if that previous sentence takes someone in a direction they ultimately regret.) And, perhaps skillful communication and vulnerability is the solution on many simultaneous levels.