Shopping at Ralph's: Meditation and Empathy

My local Ralph’s market on a recent Sunday morning. Photo by Lawrence Udell Fike, Jr.

My local Ralph’s market on a recent Sunday morning. Photo by Lawrence Udell Fike, Jr.

One day recently I became acutely aware of a woman’s suffering, or at least that’s what I thought and still think happened.  She was a clerk at Ralph’s grocery store, and as she was ringing up my selections and rapid-fire speaking to me, for a moment I had one of those flashes where you feel as though the mask is taken off of a person’s face and you’re left with their soul.  I’m saying that this is the way we talk about such moments; not that this is an accurate description of what’s really happening in them — that’s a mystery.


As I walked away with my groceries, the intensity of my conscious awareness of this woman – and what I at least detected as an enormous amount of suffering within her – grew.  Because I had been meditating a lot in recent days, I suddenly realized I had a choice, or at least I thought I did.  In other words, I was at one of those junctures where I saw options open to me, and since my experimentation with meditation was that day rich and I was enjoying the “flip” to pure awareness and its ability to alleviate my own suffering, I decided to regard my empathic feelings for this woman as a non-necessary source of suffering for me, and I immediately noticed that I was conscious of her suffering, and that this awareness of her suffering was not me.  As soon as I did that, the intensity of my identification with my perception of her own suffering drastically decreased, and I went on my relatively-more-merry way. 


On the drive home, however, I realized that I had appeared to use meditation to alleviate a bit of suffering on my own part – the suffering involved in identifying with my perception of her pain – but at a cost.  I had decreased the quantity of empathy being expressed toward my perception of the suffering of this woman.


The problematic nature of my decision goes further, however.  I now realize that the moment at which I felt what I felt for this woman, was unique.  It’ll never come again, and never reappear with that exact intensity.  In fact, as I was walking up my stairs with my groceries, I felt something similar to what I had felt for her in the store, but already I was not experiencing it as “vivaciously,” as Hume would say, as I had in that earlier moment when I was in her physical presence.  Consequently, whatever lessons I may have learned or insights I may have had, if I had allowed those feelings to dominate my next feelings at that moment in the store when they first arose, are lost.  I may in fact forever be a slightly less empathetic person than I would be had I allowed to continue the slight suffering I was experiencing as I identified with my own perception of her suffering.


So, did I make the right choice in opting for the meditative stance at the outbreak of an opportunity to possibly deeply empathize with another human being’s suffering?  When I chose to opt for the meditative stance, I was almost immediately aware of the fact that on that morning, I was highly invested in the value of meditation.  Meditation can alleviate suffering.  And it is often said that if you can adopt that stance continuously – should that actually be possible – then the benefits would be immense.  Indeed, supposedly, if all 7.8 billion of us could recognize consciousness clearly and simultaneous, purportedly the rationale for any kind of violence, among other marks of suffering, would suddenly cease.


But all 7.8 billion of us never will be in such a state at any given instant.  (The reasons are obvious, but maybe it’s sufficient to make this point clear, to note that a lot of these 7.8 billion will be newborn infants, screaming as they enter the world.)


So, while recognizing and identifying with the value of meditation, I also recognize and identify with the value of empathy, which I can sometimes recognize more clearly by allowing my thoughts and feelings to “reel out” up to even an exhausting endurance point, so that I can understand (feel) more acutely the suffering that others are experiencing.  In a variety of ways, by doing this, I can use my talents, gifts and resources to come to their assistance, sometimes in ways that I would not be as authentically moved to do had I spent more time in meditation.


How, however, do I determine at which point(s) it is better to let the line – I’m thinking here of a fishing metaphor – produced by visceral awareness of suffering to “reel out”; when to begin “reeling it in”; and when to cut the line altogether?


This might be a matter of the type of character I think worth developing or deepening.  And my reasons for wanting to develop or deepen one set of character-traits may turn on a variety of antecedent values.  For example, one reason that I might want to deepen my empathy for women like the clerk in the store, might be because I think that by doing so, I might be more likely to identify and respond to suffering more immediately in the future, and thereby be in a position to more quickly and “naturally” use my talents, abilities and resources to alleviate the suffering of others.  On the other hand, I might just think that a good person is a person who sympathetically identifies spontaneously with the sufferings of others, want to be such a good person, and reel out my own suffering for that reason.  There are numerous other possibilities.


Right now, as I write this, I’m very much engaged in thought, and I am aware of the fact that I am not meditating, and I want to continue producing sentences that represent the thoughts that I am allowing to be reeled out of my mental spool.  To be sure, there is a modicum of personal suffering going on as I write this, and some of it is due to the writing and accompanying thoughts themselves. I am aware of various aches and pains, and certain desires, that have to be held in check if I’m going to bring this set of reflections to the end that I can only indistinctly comprehend myself arriving at as of this sentence.  And that anticipative thought is itself a source of mental pain.  And yet, I think, if I were to abandon this endeavor – if I were to stop the writing now because it causes me a modicum of suffering, and enter my meditation practice instead – then I would have failed to produce as much potential good as I think might be made available were I to continue with this short writing project.  But am I making a good choice by continuing here rather than using this time to meditate instead?


Although I don’t think it necessarily reflects “reality” in any absolute sense, for a variety of reasons I chose several years ago to invoke the following attitude, as much as it is consciously possible for me to do so, about my life itself: “I am a spiritual being having a human experience.”  Now, this is far from unique; I didn’t develop that myself – the saying certainly does not originate with me.  I have no idea who first said that or thought of it, but I find that living life in light of it “fits,” and accords with my desire to use my earthy (and also earthly) time wisely; that it spiritualizes what may otherwise be regarded as mundane (tasks like taking out the garbage, paying my bills, and doing the dishes); and that, in general, by thinking of my life in this way, I’m able on the whole to be a better person and to take delight in many things that some people might grumble over.  So, it reduces my own suffering, and on occasion my example has been picked up on by others and I’ve actually witnessed suffering in their own lives decrease as a result, at least with respect to regarding the mundane as unworthy of their aspirations to be engaged in, “loftier endeavors.”  I suppose this to be my way of echoing the popular sentiment, “It’s all good.”


The most popular example of when having a meditation practice can be useful in-the-moment, is of course when anger arises while driving in traffic.  We think outrageous, unwarranted things, and call fellow human beings, who are experiencing their own suffering, the most heinous name imaginable (or, at least, I do).  Most will later reflect on such moments of rage, and easily see that it was overblown and unnecessarily prolonged.  It’s also born of ignorance, and a popular way to see our own shortcomings in this is to consider that we know nothing about the “idiot” driver’s circumstances:  cardiac arrest, a stroke, last night’s announcement that a spouse was leaving, the onset of childbirth, thirty years of eating cheeseburgers, narcolepsy, and a whole host of other possibilities present themselves to explain the behavior of other drivers (and sometimes we know that we ourselves are those “other drivers”). 


The meditator’s circumnavigation around having to consider any or all of these possibilities is simpler, and hence doesn’t require much if anything by way of conscious reflection: I am not my thoughts, and I can notice the angry thought now, and completely eliminate its momentum.  The thought moves on, or simply vanishes, and I am able just by noticing the thought to eliminate its causal force to produce any new thoughts. And that truly is amazing, and that truly is what a meditative practice can teach anyone.


But anger is only one passion.  Empathy is another, and I can therefore wonder about this:  Are there occasions on which my fear of human self-knowledge may motivate a retreat into the meditative stance?  If so, is meditation at least sometimes a fear-driven, anti-engagement activity that disconnects us from ethical connection with others?  The meditation may not be, but the motivation that precedes and launches it, may.


Furthermore, we can see from this that we are fundamentally value-laden:  the time (or energy) invested in meditation reflects our valuing of it.  The time or energy we spend empathetically identifying with others reflects values we hold as well.  The stories we tell about why we spend the time we engage in one or the other, or neither, are constitutive of the persons we are.  And this kind of awareness – awareness of the reasons one has for the values one holds – are not revealed by engaging in further meditation, although it is true that meditative practice can enable us to become more consciously aware of the thoughts that are occurring within us, and can enable us to turn our attention away from particular ones of them and towards others.  But wanting to turn away from certain thoughts, and toward others, with more robustness, is to be in a state of wanting.  Noticing such a state while meditating enables the letting go of the want, and yet letting go of the want is something that you have to want to do:  another want! 


If you are caught up in this, you are not meditating, but you are behaving in a deeply human fashion.  And I suggest that such engagement is valuable, even though it involves suffering, and therefore that it may be the case that even if you could manage a state of perpetual meditative practice, this would not be desirable, for to eliminate such desire would be to eliminate something of central human significance.  Surely the point of meditation cannot be to disconnect from human suffering en toto.  To so disconnect would be an example, to be sure, but it would not be an example – or not manifest exemplariness – of being human


So how much meditation is appropriate?  By “appropriate,” some may hear this willy-nilly as, “beneficial.”  But meditation, while certainly beneficial, is ultimately not about benefit – or certainly not a matter of personal benefit, even though it’s good that people become aware of meditation by recognizing personally, or being persuaded, that it is personally beneficial.  Whatever gets one to meditate, if genuine meditation is the result, it’s good.


I am asking the question of whether or not there is a limit to the benefits of meditation qua meditation.  That means:  If I could engage in meditative practice non-stop, should I?  If not, then just how much of a role should meditation play in my life?  Further meditation cannot give us an answer to this question.  Only reflection upon our values is capable of doing so, and those reflections cause suffering.  Indeed, the amount of suffering caused by such reflections – enhanced by a deep resistance on the part of many to actively think through the values that they hold, and their reasons for holding the values they do, and the ways in which those values are or are not contributing to the alleviation of suffering – is apparently thought by many to outweigh any good that could come about by directly confronting the jumble of often inconsistent values that are erstwhile embraced, defining much of the persons we are.  But the longer we wait to engage in such deliberation directly – especially as the age of information technology and biotechnology ascend and merge – the more long-term harm is not only possible, but likely.  This is an age in which serious ethical reflection is necessary for our survival, and the balance between meditative practice and ethical examination can be answered only by an aggregate increase in ethical deliberation.


Fortunately, the resources for doing this abound.  In other blog posts, I now realize that it’s a good plan to begin articulating what some of these resources are, but as of now, on this Sunday morning, January 13, 2019 at 10:56 AM, I think I’m going to take action.  I’m going to drive back to that Ralph’s grocery store and see if I can find that woman.  I don’t know if I will say anything to her, or if I will just make an excuse for being there and buy something, or if a simulacrum of the feeling I had two Sunday mornings ago when I first encountered her will return.  I don’t know if doing this is ethical, unethical, or “mixed,” as Aristotle might have put it.  (I may have the wrong context for Aristotle here, but see his Nicomachean Ethics, books I-III.5.)  I want an experience; I want the possibility of ethical encounter; I want the possibility of experiencing the feeling of empathy to arise within me yet again, because I think this will spark my connectedness, my willingness to help, my willingness to be a potential resource for the alleviation of suffering, even if doing this causes me some pain – perhaps even needlessly and to no obvious good effect.  The very practice of engagement may re-wire or tweak some of my misshapen thoughts, and might also engage the slight human remorse (but not regret) that lingers over not allowing ethical considerations to trump the possibility of further meditation.

Inside my local Ralph’s market on a recent Sunday morning. Photo by Lawrence Udell Fike, Jr.

Inside my local Ralph’s market on a recent Sunday morning. Photo by Lawrence Udell Fike, Jr.

On Facts, Opinions, and Other Messy (but straightforward) Matters: Seattle is North of Portland

Seattle is north of Portland.  Photo by Lawrence Udell Fike, Jr.

Seattle is north of Portland. Photo by Lawrence Udell Fike, Jr.

Seattle is north of Portland.  The previous sentence is not a fact; it re-presents a report of a fact.

If I say, “Seattle is north of Portland,” I say something true.  I say something that is true whenever I report a fact.

Suppose I am mis-informed, and I come to believe that Portland is north of Seattle.  If I say, “Portland is north of Seattle,” I say something false.

However, if I say, “I believe that Portland is north of Seattle,” I say something true.  Indeed, if I believe that Portland is north of Seattle, but say, “I believe that Seattle is north of Portland,” I say something that is false. 

If I intentionally say something that I believe to be false, it is often but not always a lie, even if what I say is true.  That would be the case if I believe that Portland is north of Seattle, but intentionally say, “Seattle is north of Portland.”

The reason that it is usually a lie to say that “Seattle is north of Portland” while I believe that Portland is north of Seattle, is that usually when I say something that I do not believe to be the case, I do so with an interest in getting others, by means of my communication, to believe something that is false.  However, in this case, if I am successful, I manage to get them to believe something that is true.

A fact is whatever is the case.  A report of a fact is true.  I can speak the truth and be a liar.  I can say something that is false and not be a liar; in such cases I am misinformed.  Usually.

I might say something that is false, believing it to be true, but say it not because I believe it to be true, but because the language is a code.  For example, I might know that Pedro is calmed when he hears somebody say that Seattle is north of Portland.  I see that Pedro is experiencing anxiety, so I say that Seattle is north of Portland, and he is calmed.

I might believe falsely that Portland is north of Seattle, know that Pedro is calmed when he hears someone say, “Seattle is north of Portland,” see that Pedro is anxious and care that he be calmed, and therefore say, “Seattle is north of Portland.”  In saying what I believe to be false, I am not a liar, because I do not say, “Seattle is north of Portland” because I believe it to be true, but because I want to soothe Pedro.

I might prefer chocolate ice cream to strawberry.  If I say, “Chocolate ice-cream is preferable to strawberry ice-cream,” I say something that is ambiguous.  I might say that and mean, “I prefer chocolate ice-cream to strawberry ice-cream,” in which case, if it’s a fact that I do prefer chocolate ice-cream to strawberry ice-cream, then what I say is true.  It is a fact about me that I prefer chocolate ice-cream to strawberry ice-cream.

I might, however, mean by “Chocolate ice-cream is preferable to strawberry ice-cream,” that any clear-thinking person should lend their assent to the report that chocolate ice-cream is preferable to strawberry ice-cream.  In such cases I may be claiming that everyone should have an experience like my experience with respect to chocolate and strawberry ice-cream, respectively, in which case I may be a narcissist.

If I claim that everybody should have experiences like my own, I may be attempting to communicate – albeit unclearly – that I would like everyone to experience what I experience when I taste chocolate as opposed to strawberry ice-cream, because I believe that if they did, their lives would be the richer for it, in which case I would not be a narcissist but might benefit from a course in critical thinking.

It is in many cases important that my reports are true, which is one reason why I often do research before I broadcast my beliefs.  It is also important that I believe that the reports of others are true, and that they have done research before broadcasting their beliefs.

It is a fact that social cooperation requires me to assume that others have researched their beliefs before reporting them to be facts.  If I am told that the polls open at 8:00 AM on June 5, it is important that the person who tells me this believes it, and that the report is true.  Civility requires this.  It is also important that typists be conscientious:  If the polls open at 7:00 AM on June 5, but the reporter is not conscientious and types that the polls open at 7:00 AM on June 6, social cooperation has been compromised by a lapse in conscientiousness.

If Juanita tweets reports of feelings that she does have, those reports are reports of facts.  If she tweets reports of feelings she does not have, whether she does so to make me believe that she has feelings she does not have, or to reduce my anxiety, or for any other reason, her reports are false reports. 

Juanita is a liar if she reports that she has feelings that she does not have, to cause me to believe that she does have feelings that she does not have.  In such an instance she wants me to believe that something is true about the world that is in fact not true about the world, for Juanita’s actual feelings are part of the world, and she is denying me knowledge of those facts.  Moreover, they are facts to which Juanita has privileged access.

And my preference for chocolate ice-cream over strawberry ice-cream is a part of the world.

And Seattle’s being north of Portland is a part of the world.

And tweeting what you believe will serve an end that you have in mind – whatever that end may be – is a part of the world.  That is, the event of so tweeting is a part of that which is the case once you tweet what you believe will serve an end that you have in mind.  That end may be anything whatsoever, provided only that the tweeter has, as a matter of fact, that end.

Anything that is the case, is a fact:  an opinion is a fact; a belief is a fact; a wish is a fact; a desire is a fact; a hope is a fact; a preference is a fact; an intention is a fact.  These facts happen to be facts about mental states, but there are other kinds of facts.  All facts are facts.  Seattle is north of Portland:  that, for example, is a fact, but it is not a fact about anybody’s mental state.

A mental state – wherever or whenever a mental state exists – is a fact.

God exists.  God does not exist.  One of the previous two sentence is a report of a fact.  The other sentence is not the report of a fact.  Whichever of the two sentences is a report of a fact, is a true report.  The other sentence is a false report. 

“I believe that God exists” is the report of a fact, if the person who says it believes that God exists.  “I believe that God does not exist” is the report of a fact, if the person who says it believes that God does not exist. 

If somebody believes that God exists and says they believe this, they speak truth.  If somebody believes that God exists but says that they do not believe this, they are a liar, unless they say this not to make a report about the way they believe the world to be, but as part of a code, or to alleviate anxiety, or to create any other kind of harm or healing that they envision coming about because of their false utterance, or for no reason whatsoever; in such cases they may or may not be liars, even though in all such cases they erode the civil use of language.  Language may have better and worse uses than reporting or concealing what one believes to be the truth.

However, the civil use of language is to make reports about the facts.  Some do not engage in research to determine facts that transcend the facts of their mental states, and some are even incapable or unwilling to report the facts of their own mental states.  Some conclude that such research is impossible to conduct, which is the nemesis of what is required to increase human understanding.  While no epistemic justification for such pessimism exists, the motivation for such a hubristic pronouncement will vary across persons:  for some it is animosity toward the use of their minds; for some, laziness; for others, jealousy.  This is not an exhaustive list.

All opinions are facts, but not all facts are opinions.  If a person suffering from a hallucination reports, “Spiders are all over this wall,” then if that is his opinion, it is a fact that he has an opinion, and it is also a fact that his opinion is that spiders are all over this wall.  However, it may not be a fact that spiders are all over this wall. 

Suppose that right now, a million miles above my head, there is a gray piece of matter.  “There is a gray piece of matter, right now, a million miles above my head” would, then, be the report of a fact.  However, it is not my opinion that there is a gray piece of matter, right now, a million miles above my head.  It is also not my opinion that, right now, there is not a gray piece of matter a million miles above my head.  I have no opinion on the matter.  Despite this, if there is, right now, a gray piece of matter a million miles above my head, then the report that there is such a piece of matter, is a true report.  It’s a true report because it is a fact that there is a gray piece of matter, right now, a million miles above my head.  My opinion – which, in this case, is no opinion at all – in no way affects the truth or falsity of the report that there is such a piece of matter, because it is not a report about any mental state of mine whatsoever. It is a report of a different kind:  It is a report like the report that Seattle is north of Portland, and it is also a report like the report that Portland is north of Seattle.

A myriad number of facts exist of which none of us are ever aware, which is fine.  There is a fact about the distance from where you are now, to the nearest point on Mars.  There is another fact about the distance between where you are now, and where you were yesterday at precisely 12:00 noon.  There are facts about your distance from every other person on Earth, and each time you move, you produce new facts.  These facts are all date- and time-stamped, but they are all facts.  There is a set of facts about your relation to every other physical entity in the universe, at every moment of your existence.  Most of these facts are of absolutely no interest to any of us, but nevertheless, they are facts.  We live and die knowing or even wondering about an infinitesimally small subset of the facts, and most of these facts are in principle, at present, out of reach to any of us.  Nevertheless, they are facts.

I don’t care about the issue of whether there is a gray piece of matter, right now, a million miles above my head.  But I do care about the matter of what mental state, as a matter of fact, accompanies the person tweeting a report about facts other than personal mental states.  I cannot know the mental states of other human beings – even if I have high regard for reporters of their own mental states – but I can learn something about other kinds of facts, and when I read reports of some of these other kinds of facts, I do so with a civil spirit.  Reading them with a civil spirit requires that I regard the reporter as civil:  as having an interesting in reported sufficiently researched facts so that the intention is to get me to believe a report because it is a report about facts; that is, the report is true.  Civility requires reciprocity.

The narcissist has been characterized in part as a person who thinks that other people are only extensions of the narcissist.  Hence, the narcissist qua narcissist is not capable of civility.  The motivational basis of tweets is therefore whatever the narcissist happens to believe will serve the purposes of the narcissist, since the narcissist is locked within the narcissist’s “frame-of-reference,” which is to say, within the narcissist’s own mind.  And a feature of such a person’s mind is that other people are principally extensions of that mind.  That is commander-in-chief, metaphorically, among the narcissist’s beliefs.  We do not, however, have civil access to the mental states of the narcissist.

If a motivation for a kind of tweet serves the narcissist’s commanding belief, and people come to view the narcissist more favorably, the narcissist has succeeded:  the narcissist feels better about the only thing known to exist with intrinsic value, and that is the narcissist.

However, those of us who are civil – who are not narcissists – grant that we cannot know the contents of other person’s mental states.  Where does that leave us?  It leaves us with two of the three vertices of what I shall call, “The Triangle”:  Mind-Language-World.  The two vertices of the triangle that inform civil society are Language and the World.  The World is the home of facts; or, more literally, the World is all that is the case.  Of course, we are a part of this World, and so are our mental states.  However, it is only by what we have access to, that civil society exists:  Language and the World.

The reason the narcissist creates such confusion, is that the narcissist wishes, per impossible, to incorporate all minds into one mind:  that is, into the Mind of the narcissist.  Hence Language and the World – civility – are discounted, or strategically used, to bring this about.

To the extent that we engage the narcissist’s Mind, we move our attention away from the bases of civilized conduct:  Language and World.  Research becomes superfluous, for it does not serve the purpose of the narcissist.  As we wonder and guffaw and invest emotion in the indecipherable, un-researchable Language of the narcissist, our faces look increasingly foolish, because they are indeed becoming so.  Our wonder at the World, at the knowable World, at the World we have for hundreds of years now been successfully investigating and coming to understand, is replaced with the wonder over how such a being could exist and be counted among us.

This wonder is of great encouragement to the narcissist, and so the narcissist continues to do what the narcissist does:  whatever appears pragmatically expedient to harvest attention toward the narcissist’s Mind and away from all other facets of the World.

Of course, everything I have written here could be mistaken: every sentence here could be a false report.  These are just my opinions, although also, as such, facts: facts of the mental variety.  Even if I am wrong, however, in my reports about how I take the World to be, you can research them, insofar as they extend beyond my own mental states.  You can interrogate the Language in ways in which you may not – civilly – interrogate my Mind.

I do not believe I know what is in the Mind of the narcissist.  In fact, I believe that I do not know what is in the Mind of the narcissist, or even who is and who is not a narcissist.  Maybe the narcissist doesn’t either.  And I certainly don’t know what’s in the Mind of the reader.

I do believe there are facts beyond myself.  I’ve tried to report some of those here.  In doing so, I’ve tried to behave in a civil manner by using language to communicate facts about the World, and in particular, some facts about the nature of mental states and some facts about facts.

Seattle is north of Portland. The previous sentence is not a fact; it is a re-presentation of a report of a fact. I believe that this report is true. Whatever I have or had in mind, if you research my report, I think we will have a meeting of the minds, and that we can cooperate about the findings contained within this report, and hence believe them to be true. Of course, I hope that your research confirms my reporting, but I invite you, through language, to disagree with me where you will, and to tell me why you disagree with me. In this way we behave in a cooperative manner and promote civility.