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.