So good to see you once again
I thought you were hiding from me
You thought that I had run away
Chasing a trail of smoke and reason
Without a doubt, Tool is my favorite band of all time and has had a tremendous impact on me for I guess just about 20 years now. Fellow Tool fans will know what I mean when I say I’m OGT, and really hard-core fans will get the irony.
Tool’s first three albums reflect the journey of front man Maynard James Keenan through his consciousness and into his shadow. The above quote is from the song Third Eye from Tool’s third album Ænima. It is a statement from Keenan’s ego consciousness to a split-off piece of his unconscious residing in his shadow, which he calls “Jimmy” in another song. It is so profound it still brings me to tears on occasion, 15 years and tens of thousands of listens after Ænima’s initial release. I can relate: in my 20s, I was forced through a similar journey.
Western civilization produces humans with a particular kind of soul, a particular structure of thoughts and emotions. C. G. Jung identified this structure as being threefold, comprising the ego, anima/animus, and shadow. Sigmund Freud identified the conscious and unconscious; in his essay Preconquest Consciousness, anthropologist E. Richard Sorenson expands on Freud to identify supraliminal, liminal, and subliminal consciousness. (This may not be original to Sorenson, but he is where I first encountered the “liminals” put forth in this manner.)
Sorenson’s essay has also had great impact on me. He and philosopher David Abram, in his book Spell of the Sensuous, both identify empathy as the key mode of interpersonal relationship among precivilized peoples. And anarcho-primitivist and other post-civilizational thinkers have since taken up the empathy call and promote it as either a means to post-civ society, as a post-civ end in itself, or both.
What I haven’t seen anyone address is whether empathy is compatible with our multi-tiered civilizational psychology, and what effects the introduction of empathy might have among a community of people whose individual psychologies are structured by civilization. Specifically:
- Sorenson demonstrates conclusively that the introduction of “post-conquest consciousness” can completely demolish empathetic “preconquest consciousness” in a day. If this is true, can the extrication process spontaneously release latent empathetic abilities in people acculturated to civilization?
- Do preconquest peoples have tiered psychologies?
- In Western culture, empathy is classified as a “paranormal” and “psychic” ability, so much so that those who have this ability are called “empaths” and their ability is described as “empathic,” not “empathetic.” If empathy were to irrupt spontaneously among a community of extricators, would it be recognized as the same empathy Sorenson and Abram identify, or would it be considered “paranormal” and/or insane?
- How would a community of empathetically-enabled people experience each others’ multi-tiered psychologies? Given the intense emotional pain associated with multi-tiered psychology, would the introduction of empathy introduce intense emotional pain in that community?
- Given that split-off pieces of psyche are pretty common, and that an individual can communicate with split-off pieces of his or her psyche, as Keenan describes so beautifully on Ænima, would empathy make it possible for individuals to communicate with each other’s split-off pieces? And since the goal of communicating with one’s split-off pieces is reintegration, would these split-off pieces get integrated with each other’s consciousness? Is this actually what post-civ empathetic consciousness would consist of — integrating individuals’ shadow contents with the community collective conscious?
- Is it possible to distinguish a genuine empathetic experience from a shadow projection? How?
I really don’t have any answers to these questions. Mostly what I want to do is compile the existing information so I can refer back to it in the future as I think more about this issue. What follows is largely quotes, interspersed with my own commentary.
The vocabulary of empathy is tricky, so I want to define some terms. I am admittedly straying from the dictionary but I think it will help to keep things clear.
I think people generally confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy is the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes, and to conjure feelings and thoughts you would have if you were in their circumstances.
Empathy is the ability to experience what someone else is experiencing simultaneously with them, as if it were your own, while still standing in your own shoes. Affective empathy means experiencing another’s emotional state; somatic empathy means experiencing another’s bodily sensations, typically pain or illness; cognitive empathy is the ability to experience another’s thoughts. Empathy exists both in and out of civilization.
Empathy is largely considered “paranormal” — e.g., “outside of normal” — in our culture. In fact it is not outside of “normal.” It is outside of rational, and for this reason I’ll be using the term pararational instead of “paranormal.”
An empath is someone who possesses the ability to experience others’ feelings, and/or bodily sensations, and/or thoughts. The adjective form describing this ability is empathic. I’ll be using these terms exclusively for people in civilization, because these words carry pararational connotations.
Empathetic is the adjective form of the noun “empathy,” and I’ll use it to describe pre- and post-civ manifestations of empathy where it is considered the norm. “Empathetic” has no pararational connotations, or at least not that I am aware of.
(Unfortunately I no longer have Spell of the Sensuous, so I have to lean exclusively on Sorenson’s essay for the time being.)
E. Richard Sorenson, the anthropologist mentioned above, had a very deep experience with empathy in a precivilized culture which he writes about in his essay. It is not the point of his essay and has to be teased out a bit, but his process of integrating with indigenous communities and arriving at his own empathy experience is highly instructive.
Empathy in precivilized cultures was invisible to Western eyes until Sorenson began filming the cultures he was studying. Upon reviewing his footage, he began noticing subtle behavioral and affective patterns that repeated among completely distinct and isolated peoples. In time he came to understand that he was witnessing a previously unrecognized type of consciousness, one that appears to be more or less universal among cultures untouched by large-scale agriculture and civilization.
The first step of his process was being able to see, and to identify what he was seeing.
He called this type of consciousness liminal awareness, stating that it “occurs on the threshold of consciousness.” He writes:
In the real life of these preconquest people, feeling and awareness are focused on at-the-moment, point-blank sensory experience—as if the nub of life lay within that complex flux of collective sentient immediacy. Into that flux individuals thrust their inner thoughts and aspirations for all to see, appreciate, and relate to. This unabashed open honesty is the foundation on
which their highly honed integrative empathy and rapport become possible.
The lack of self-consciousness and fear that would have to exist for such a “complex flux of collective sentient immediacy” to endure is breathtaking. Indeed, the next lines in the paragraph reads: “When that openness gives way, empathy and rapport shrivel. Where deceit becomes a common practice, they disintegrate.”
Sorenson employed not just film, but also direct-experience methodology: he lived with his subjects and became part of their communities, thereby entering into their “flux.” Of direct-experience, Sorenson writes:
It required spontaneous, instinctive friendship beyond the level of ordinary discourse, as when a heart-felt liking for someone simply just arose. As mystical as that might seem, the affect [e.g., emotional] exchanges then made possible led to sustained, adaptive, experiential interactions much deeper than those enabled merely by conversation. Experiential depth is what eventually revealed the major role played by affect coordination in preconquest life.
This was his next step — getting to know and love the people with whom he was integrating. He got to know them so well, and care about them so much, he was able to translate basic features of their liminal consciousness into accessible English. In his essay, he identifies sense of name, sense of space, sense of number, sense of truth, and recognition of emotion. He writes:
With body language based on full-time accurate truth, infants became candid and open, and remained so as they grew. When I first went into their hamlets I was astonished to see the words of tiny children accepted at face value—and so acted on. For months I tried to find at least one case where a child’s words were considered immature and therefore disregarded. No luck. I tried to explain the idea of lying and inexperience. They didn’t get my point. They didn’t expect prevarication, deception, grandstanding, or evasion. And I could find no cases where they understood these concepts. Even teenagers remained transparently forthright, their hearts opened wide for all to gaze inside.
Such an open life shapes awareness of emotions, which was seen in their responses to a standardized set of photographs of basic emotions. Individuals from the most isolated regions became highly agitated when shown photographs of anger. Some went dumb, others became tongue-tied, many trembled, some perspired profusely or looked wildly about. Those from remotest hamlets reacted most dramatically. Not just confounded, they were fearful too. It was an astonishing and gripping spectacle.
Sorenson’s affection for these people is palpable. He is clearly moved by the openness and honesty of his research subjects. And his direct-experience research method required that he, too, participate in this open and transparent life.
Through this participation, Sorenson himself came to a place of empathy — an experience of what his research subjects were experiencing simultaneously with them, without the imaginings or internal conjurings sympathy requires. During one of his research expeditions, he witnessed the collapse of liminal consciousness and the “complex flux” of a particular community in the Andaman Islands. Because he had become empathetically integrated with this community as part of his research, he experienced their collapse affectively and somatically, as it was happening:
To pass through the disintegrating social enclaves was to undergo a rain of psychic blows, a pelting shower of harrowing awarenesses that raised goose flesh of unexpected types on different epidermal sites along with other kinds of crawlings of flesh and skin. There were sudden rushes, both cold and hot, down the head and chest and across the neck, even in the legs and feet. And deep inside, often near the solar plexus, or around heart, or in the head or throat, new indescribable sensations would spontaneously arise, leave one at a loss or deeply disconcerted.
Such came and then diffused away as one passed by different people. Sensations would abruptly wash in across the consciousness, trigger moods of awe, or of sinking, sometimes of extraordinary love, sometimes utter horror. From time-to-time nonspecific elemental impulses arose just to run or dance, to throw oneself about, to move. All these could be induced and made to fade and then come back, just by passing through some specific group, departing, and then returning, or by coming near a single friend, moving off and coming back. That this was possible so astonished me that I checked and checked and checked again. (emphasis mine)
The highlighted lines above describe Sorenson’s empathetic experience in the Andamans. This is how empathy works and what it looks like; this is how we adapted over long millennia of precivilized life.
A few items of note:
First, Sorenson is a trained scientist, a successful academician, rational among the rational. But for all his rationality, all it took for him to enter into empathy with his research subjects was to let down his guard, allow his genuine affection for them to come to the fore, and live with them honestly and transparently. Moreover, his rationality and logically-symbolically trained cognition did nothing to interfere with his empathetic development. He evidently was able to enter into empathy with very distinct indigenous communities repeatedly. The process does not appear to have taken him very long — several months to a year at most, per community.
It’s also fascinating that during his empathetic experience of collapse, he does not record any experience of cognitive empathy with the community. I can’t help but wonder if this is because isolated, indigenous peoples lack the logically-oriented cognition we have in Western culture. Of the relationship between liminal awareness and logical cognition, Sorenson writes:
Where consciousness is focused within a flux of ongoing sentient awareness, experience cannot be clearly subdivided into separable components. With no clear elements to which logic can be applied, experience remains immune to syntax and formal logic within a kaleidoscopic sanctuary of non-discreteness. … With preconquest consciousness largely unencumbered by abstract concepts, it remained unconstrained by formal categories of value and cognition (i.e., rules and stable cognitive entities).
I can’t help but wonder if this non-discreteness is why he did not experience cognitive empathy, along with the affective and somatic empathy he describes. Would an empathetic experience within a culture of abstract concepts therefore include cognitive empathy?
Sorenson is just one guy, a case study perhaps; but David Abram also was able to enter into empathy — not only with indigenous people but also with the natural environment.
I think these men’s experiences are significant. They suggest that anyone can access empathetic abilities under the right circumstances, and given enough time.
Second, I am struck by how crucial a role honesty plays in both Sorenson’s and Abram’s experiences. Sorenson describes this as the critical factor in development of empathetic, liminal awareness, and I totally see what he means.
Honesty is also a critical factor in an individuals’ motivation to extricate — at least, in my experience. Everyone I’ve ever met, whether in person or on the internet, who chooses an extrication path does so because living the lies our civilization requires becomes unbearable. When people extricate, they do so in order to “…lurch toward whatever delightful patterns of response they find attractive…” — as Sorenson says of preconquest peoples.
The flip side of “lurching toward” is turning away — extrication allows the freedom to honestly identify “patterns of response” that are painful, and to then turn away from these in favor of things that are more attractive. Extrication therefore provides a kind of emotional safety net that life in Western culture does not otherwise provide: if something sucks, you are free to blow it off because you do not have financial constraints forcing you to participate against your will.
This freedom, in turn, means extricators have less need to be guarded about their feelings. If one is free to walk away from a painful situation — an abusive job, a bad marriage, student loan slavery, or what-have-you — there is less need to clamp down on one’s pain, and less experience of pain generally. Thus the openness and transparency of precivilized life naturally and gradually becomes part of any individual extricator’s everyday experience.
Third, something I didn’t mention above, is that Sorenson identifies the absence of private property as one of two fundamental aspects of the preconquest setting (the other being “small populations surrounded by tracts of open territory into which anyone can diffuse virtually at will”). A big part of the extrication process is seeing through the artificiality of the “private property” concept to realize that it really does not exist except as an abstraction that got codified into law — itself an artificial abstraction — to legitimize power-over rule by a tiny, sociopathic minority. The full scope of this realization and all its implications serves to blur the distinction between mine and yours. And I would say, this blurring occurs across all the boundaries that “private property” assumes including affective, somatic, and cognitive boundaries — in other words, freeing oneself from the cognitive prison of private property opens the door for empathy.
The upshot of all these things is that, it seems to me, the extrication process by its very nature reintroduces factors that would make possible the empathetic and liminal awareness of precivilized, preconquest human functioning. This would seem to be a very cool thing. However, Sorenson’s surprise at his own empathetic experience underscores how alien empathy is to rational thought. If empathy were to surprise a community of extricators, would they recognize it? What exactly would they experience, and how would they handle it? Sorenson experienced a collapse of his friends’ liminal awareness — would they experience the results of a culture whose liminal awareness collapsed long ago — e.g., each others’ shadow content?
Empathy in our civilization is a different animal entirely. It still does exist, but it is limited to certain individuals whose empathic abilities have not, for whatever reason, been squashed by the wider culture.
These individuals are called “empaths.” Because empathy is so widely confused with sympathy, especially in academia, their ability is not recognized for what it is. Rather, it is considered pararational and “psychic,” and rational people doubt or deny its veracity. Nevertheless it does happen, as marginalized within our society as liminally-aware, preconquest peoples are marginalized from our society.
It’s quite impossible to find a good search result on “empaths.” I’m finding either low-quality psychic type of sites, or highly technical psychology papers on empathy that actually talk about sympathy. So, to the psychic sites it is.
Judging from what I see in the search results, empathic ability is something no one really wants. It evidently gets misunderstood as depression, introversion, overreaction. From a site called Empath Guide:
It can be challenging for empaths to function healthily in society if they are unaware that they have this sensitivity and often opt to be alone. …
It is not uncommon for an empath to “freak out” for no apparent reason, only to discover later that a friend or family member went through some sort of trauma at that exact moment. …
Since they’re being assaulted constantly by emotions which do not originate internally, they can’t figure out why they feel the way that they do, and therefore can’t address the core issues. Since empathy isn’t something you can really ditch it’s sometimes difficult to sort out what the Empath truly feels in a given situation or what they are taking on from someone else. This can prove to be very confusing! …
Emotional empaths are so sensitive that they can absorb the negative emotions of others in their body, and actually take it on. So when an empath is around somebody who is anxious, they can actually absorb that energy into their body, when it isn’t even their own anxiety. …
They are the psychic sponges of the world, soaking up all the psychic and emotional static that other people give off. … So as you can see being am empath can be both a blessing … and a curse!
And from a site called Psi-Zone, this comprehensive list of empath traits, edited for brevity:
- You may be very sensitive to noises. They may not be loud, but they feel like they go right through you.
- You are sensitive to harsh lights, strong smells.
- It’s a real trial being at places such as parties, nightclubs where there are so many people that you can barely move.
- You may also hate crowded places such as shopping plazas, train stations or just too many people in the same room.
- You may experience periods of anxiety for no apparent reason. No matter what you do, you can’t seem to let it go, or get over it, and you have no idea why.
- You are clinically depressed, or feel depressed for no apparent reason. Once again, no matter what you try, you just can’t ‘get over it’.
- You carry a lot of guilt, even if it’s for another’s action or for something you have done that has been received in a way you did not expect or desire.
- You feel over sensitive to if people want to be around you or not. Indeed, if you sense that you are not welcome somewhere or by someone, you will hastily make the quickest retreat you can.
- You feel ungrounded. That is, you are all in your mind, rather than your body.
- You can always tell how someone else feels, even if they tell you something else.
- You tend to give people the benefit of the doubt.
- You feel a great connection to animals and things of nature, including plants and trees.
- You may have an overwhelming desire to help, heal and save others from themselves.
- You have an inbuilt lie detector. Someone can be telling you a bare-faced lie, but you will know if it’s not true.
- If someone find something funny or sad, or has a strong opinion about a certain subject, you may find yourself agreeing with them, in order to match their energies. Then you may find yourself doing it with the next person who comes along. You always find yourself in agreement with who you are with and you only feel your true feelings when you are along. This doesn’t mean you are wishy-washy or weak, it means that you are tuning in to who the person is and what they are feeling, and allowing their energies to overwhelm yours. Many empaths do this because they feel it will help build a rapport with the other, but all it really does is invalidate who you are, and no one thanks you for it either. Standing in your own space and power can be quite challenging for an empath.
- You don’t feel like you belong to this world. Indeed, the empath will often feel like a fish out of water, and honestly believe that they don’t belong here. That’s because the behaviour of others are so strange and alien to them, they just can’t relate.
And from an article titled 7 Signs You’re An Empath:
Example. You drop by the mall one Saturday morning. You feel great. You get into the mall, walk past a crowd of people — and start feeling a bit strangely. It can be anything; you can feel very down, very angry, very sad, very excitable. (The key word here is very.) And you won’t have any explanation for it, you’ll just feel it. In other words, you’ve suddenly gone Bi-Polar without actually having the biological deficiency that causes it. And what’s worse, you can’t turn it off. You can carry on, trying to ignore it, but eventually it will be so overwhelming to the point you just want to go home and be alone.
This last quote raises a really interesting point. How does one distinguish between an empathic experience and something else? Something like a bipolar disorder can be ruled out with medical testing. But what about psychological reactions?
Empathy Or Shadow Projection?
The example given above of walking past a crowd of people at the mall is remarkably similar to the process of shadow projection. This article gives a concise description:
The first sign of shadow projection appears as a strong emotional reaction to anyone or anything in the environment (Wilber, 1979, p. 94). More precisely, the first-person experience of such affect feels visceral, impulsive and automatic, more like an unconscious reflex than a conscious, intentional response (Bennett, 1966, p. 119).
In the context of an extricative community, an empathic experience of another community member’s emotional state (possibly including his or her shadow content) would naturally lead to discussion. However, identifying the source of unbidden emotions and initiating the conversation would be fraught with peril, because doing so follows the shadow projection pattern even further. Continuing the above quote:
The instinctive reflex arising out of such affect then projects the source of the feeling outwardly onto some other person, thing or situation, often in the form of emotionally pungent criticism and blame (1966, p. 119). It is this very tendency, in fact, which can serve as the prime indicator that the shadow is in play.
If an empathic experience involved another’s anger, fear, or anxiety, how could such a thing be sorted out satisfactorily? Would it even be possible to distinguish an empathic experience of another’s negative emotions from one’s own shadow projection?
Here’s an even more complicated scenario: an empathic experience triggered by a shadow projection; or, a shadow projection triggered by an empathic experience. In such an instance shadow and empathy are so intertwined as to create a kind of emotional “solution” that requires the addition of a catalyst to pull out the “precipitate.” What can function as this catalyst?
To complicate matters even further, toss in the sexual feelings that would exist among members of the extricating community, along with gender issues and unresolved sexual traumas. And none of this even takes into account the archetypal roles and repeating patterns most, if not all, of us play out in our lives.
The levels of maturity, self-knowledge, compassion, and communicative skills required to negotiate such a clusterfuck would be absolutely extraordinary. Precivilized cultures evolved congruent with empathy, but for us, empathy is something with which we have very little experience and certainly no cultural acceptance or support. Is resurrecting empathy really such a hot idea? Is anyone prepared to deal with the things it would unleash, sort them out and create some kind of psychocultural framework for them? I’m pretty sure I’m not up to the task.
Empathy is held in such high regard among post-civ folks of all stripes; but I am not convinced we are prepared to recognize it, much less live within it.
As our civilization continues to disintegrate, increasing numbers of people will choose extricative paths, rejecting the bald-faced lies required to prop up the status quo. I think there is a good possibility that empathy will begin to crop up spontaneously as a result, as more people integrate honesty, emotional transparency, and rejection of private property values into their everyday lives. At first blush this seems like a Very Good Thing; however, the only cultural context we have for empathy is the pararational — in most peoples’ minds, it is classified along with ghosts and UFOs, something entertaining at the movies but not something to take seriously, let alone handle responsibly.
We also have no idea, outside of reports of self-proclaimed empaths, how empathy works in conjunction with the tiered psychology that results from life in civilization. This tiered psychology occurs because we are taught to bury our very real pain and focus our attention on rational thinking instead. But Sorenson’s experience indicates that empathy occurs alongside rationality and is unaffected by it. Empathy might well be something that cannot be buried, pushed down into our shadow as so much pain as been for all these long millennia. The potential for unleashing destructive behaviors is very great, should empathy arise spontaneously as I suspect it will.
I don’t have any answers for these issues. But I hope at least to start some discussion on the matter. Maybe we can figure it out.