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Anthropologists say that primitive tribes usually number between 50 and 100 people. It seems that 100 people is the most that anyone, then and now, can recognise individually as being part of ‘our tribe’ or ‘us’. Beyond that number, people become strangers, the unpredictable and potentially dangerous ‘them’. This division is usually embedded in language. Primitives commonly describe themselves as being the ‘human’ or ‘civilized’ ones, while they label others as barbaric, non-human or a species of animal.

Consequently, prehistoric life was prone to violence. Anthropologists examining skeletal remains find that primitive tribes often engaged in non-stop ‘us versus them’ warfare with other tribes. Rousseau’s idealised savage may have been ‘noble’ but he was also brutal.

We don’t usually think of the 20th century as being relatively peaceful, but it was as far as most people were concerned. The numbers slaughtered in the wars of the last century are very impressive – about 150 million – but this is only about 5% of the total human population. The remaining 95% led lives that were reasonably free from arbitrary, ongoing conflict. Anywhere on the planet 12,000 years ago, the death rate from violent causes would have been closer to 25%.

A distinguishing feature of civilisation, wherever it appeared, was its capacity to bind together communities way beyond that natural limit of 100 people. The tribe grew into the town which became the city and then the nation. The circle of ‘us’ expanded to include thousands, and eventually millions of people.

The positive glue was culture: the common language, beliefs, legends, laws and responsibilities. Through this common mental furniture, we could regard a stranger that we met in Babylon or Thebes as one of ‘us’ rather than one of ‘them’. The negative glue was warfare. Most nations define their identity and come into being through wars with other nations.

Until recently, the great religions were the main custodians of culture, and they have always taken seriously their role of promoting an enlarged sense of community. They encourage us to see each other as fundamentally alike, regardless of superficial differences, against the ever-present forces that would split us back into small warring tribes.

The word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal’ or ‘all-embracing’. Unlike earlier race – and region – based religions, the early Catholic Church welcomed all peoples into the fold, regardless of their background. This also explains why missionaries feel that all humanity are the true children of God, just needing to be reminded of the fact.

It is often claimed somewhat dubiously that the spiritual essence of all religions is basically the same. Religions really are alike in encouraging us to be good, co-operative, law-abiding citizens who put the interests of others ahead of our own. They also promote social cohesion by saying ‘If you do what is expected of you, others will like you, and you will be rewarded now and in the afterlife.’

Different religions also have much the same kind of mystical vision. This is usually described as the intuitive understanding that ‘All is One’, and that our sense of individuality is just a illusion. Hence it follows that if we harm another, we also harm ourselves. In this way, the vision of unity, in theory, leads into a boundless love of all.

Appealing as this vision is, it also feels somewhat cool and abstract. Years ago, I saw an enlightened guru radiate universal love to a hall full of people. “I love you all equally”, she said, which puzzled me. Her husband was in the room. Did she really regard him, her life companion, the same way she regarded me, a complete stranger? What kind of love was this, that only addressed the immortal spiritual essence and paid no attention to the earthly individual? I certainly didn’t feel she connected with me.

Love in the abstract is easy, but it is more like an concept than a feeling. As the old saying goes: ‘I love humanity. I just can’t stand people’. I suspect that anthropologists are right when they say we can only connect to 50-100 individuals over a lifetime in any deep sense. It takes time and familiarity to see any human being behind their social mask.

Connection is about empathy, which is the ability to imaginatively feel the emotional state of another. This is a most remarkable skill, when we think about it. How can we possibly know what is going on in another person’s mind? We often don’t know what is happening in our own. Yet we all know how one person yawning can make others yawn in sympathy. In my classes, I find that even talking about a yawn will trigger them off in at least one or two of the students present.

This is how empathy works. It relies on what are called ‘mirror neurons’ in the brain. When we see someone smile (or frown or cry) our mirror neurons light up. These mimic the other person’s smile by triggering off slight but identical muscle movements in our own face. These sensations tell us: ‘when my face moves like this I feel happy. Therefore the person I am seeing must also feel happy.’

The play-acting of the mirror neurons is incredibly subtle. It works all the time and is essential for good communication. It helps us tell the difference between a genuine smile or a cover-up smile or a smirk, and even extends to body posture. When two people are in an intimate conversation, they reflect their understanding by mirroring each other’s postures. Empathy is very much a matter of understanding through mental simulation and physical mimicry.

Scientists now speculate that empathy and mirror neurons are essential for most kinds of learning. Children learn to speak, and nearly everything else, by imitation. Babies will imitate the facial expressions of an adult within the first hour of birth. Conversely, autistic children seem to have great difficulty in understanding others because they lack this innate ability.

Nonetheless empathy has its limits. Mirror neurons will try to duplicate another person’s facial expressions so you can imagine how your face would feel with that configuration. However, the whole process is rather approximate. If you’ve never felt that kind of emotion, you still won’t recognise it. Or if you’ve only felt a weak version, you won’t understand the strong version.

Because of the limits of our experience, we have to guess a lot of the time. Children have difficulty understanding the more complex emotions of adults; men can’t fully understand women and vice versa; people who are happy by temperament can’t understand sad people; middle-aged people with all their experience still don’t understand the emotional trials of old age; and only chronically depressed people can empathise fully with the chronically depressed.

Empathy, moreover, has its price. Empathetic people, no matter how happy they may be within themselves, will still be affected by the emotions of others. Because their mirror neurons create actual muscular changes, the sadness, longing, frustration and desires of others will resonate within their bodies. People who are strongly empathetic can’t help but resonate with the suffering of the planet. While doing the shopping and the housework, they still feel pain for Africa, for the rain forests, for the vanishing species.

Love, compassion and the mystical vision, while beneficial to the person involved, may still fall short of empathy. We often love someone because of the effect they produce in us – not because we understand, or are even interested in, how they feel. This is the curse of many beautiful woman. Children often know they are loved only when they fit in with their parent’s image of who they should be.

Empathy is a natural skill that develops through age and experience. Some people just have it, and some cultivate it. Many others find that their lives are smoother if they actually ignore the feelings of others. Empathy is the cure for existential loneliness, if nothing else, a perfect rebuff to those whining philosophers. It is hard to imagine a greater pleasure than a close, empathetic connection with another person. Even though empathy has its price, it is one of those bittersweet qualities that make us fully human.

© Perth Meditation Centre 2009