Thursday, August 24, 2023

Art As School For Empathy

What the world needs today is a super-dose of empathy.  Given the fact that there are from twenty-three to thirty wars raging all over the planet and that almost everywhere conflict and polarization reign on many fundamental issues.


We need to step outside ourselves and enter into the perspective of others—even other animals and forms of nature. What might it feel like to be an owl or a bear?  But how do we do it? We can use imagination and our own experience to get a feel for the other person. But, if you’re trapped in your ego, this will be impossible.  


The ability to enter into the soul of the other is contrary to our self-centered instincts.  Our consciousness is centered around the black hole of our egos.  But, no matter how ego-bound we are, there are ways to step beyond ourselves.


There are two common inroads to that larger world—play and art.  Children and their play instincts reveal a natural tendency to “make believe” and enter new and other worlds. I love observing children trailing after their parents as they walk down the street.  The children are running and leaping this way and that, reacting and trying to engage with every novel scene, a dog walking by, the pattern of bricks on the ground, a squirrel or bird that shoots by, not to mention people who look and smile at them. Kids at play are marvels of empathy and imagination, without knowing what the words mean.


But they grow up.  They (we) are shaped and constrained by the reality-principle. Still, all adults retain a streak of playfulness and empathic curiosity, which can come to life through the arts, either as passive consumers or active creators.


In both cases, the raw power we have to work with is imagination. There are images that glamorize and fascinate us. The italics signal I’m using these words in the old magical sense of witchcraft and shamanism.  These two words suggest a type of possession, an altered state where one temporarily loses autonomy.  The gate opens and for a moment anything can enter, angel or demon.  


The arts are a place where it’s okay to revolt against the tyranny of the reality-principle.  The arts open spaces where we can explore the impossible, the fantastic, the surreal, the ideal—the prodigiously ugly and the divinely beautiful.


For that we need a great deal of inner spaciousness and receptivity.  The arts share in common the freedom to expand our experience,  our ideas of what is possible, our hope of doing what’s never been done before.  It doesn’t have to be world-shaking; all it needs is to be person-making.


Back to the need for empathic potential. The arts in a wide sense offer a way to re-imagine the world and alter the quality of our mental life. 

But we should know what we’re up against.  How much of the nation’s treasure is given to the study of higher forms of empathic consciousness?  Answer—next to zero!  


But when it comes to having the best technology for slaughtering other human beings, Congress approved 840 billion dollars for the Annual (2023) Defense Budget, a number to send the ‘defense’ industries into prolonged ecstasies.


Fortunately, we can practice our arts and work on our consciousness in our own space, by working with the material at hand and in the context of where life is happening.


And where death and destruction are happening.  The ‘news’ that I listen to nowadays, NPR, BBC, etc., is changing so now it sounds more and more like a mortuary cavalcade, stories everywhere of groups of people, small and large, losing their homes, belongings, lives, resulting from our overheating planet, wars everywhere and daily mass shootings in America.


The game of life on Earth has turned into something highly dangerous and volatile.  The hard part to digest is that the rules of the game have changed.  The danger and destructive chaos are part of an evolving process that’s accelerating faster than scientists originally predicted.


It’s hard to imagine how we can prepare for what is coming.  For centuries so-called prophets of various stripes have been predicting cosmic disaster for an imperfect humanity.  But today the climate scientists, using the methods of science, are predicting the apocalypse. This time we better pay close attention.  And we should also be aware that science and technology made global warming possible, causing all the climate mayhem. And now, we hope, the same science and technology will save the world with new ideas about green energy.  But it won’t happen without a revolution of consciousness.  And every one of us has a role to play.



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