*photo by : abhikrama
How connected do you feel? Not just to the people around you, but to your community, the city you live in, society and life on a global level? I’ve been reading The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV and Howard C. Cutler and keep asking myself these questions. How connected do I feel? How do I understand my place in the world as it relates to people I see every day, to those I will never see, and to the natural world? Robin Dunbar, professor of psychology at University of Liverpool in the UK, is cited in this book as stating:
“The lack of social contact, the lack of sense of community, amy be the most pressing social problem of the new millennium.” - Robin Dunbar
No doubt you’ve read or heard mention of articles discussing the way technology both brings us together and, at the same time, drives us into isolation. While we’re engaged in certain ways online (hitting Like on a photo, retweeting something you enjoy or agree with), we’re also giving much less effort, and connecting more on a superficial level than in a truly honest and rich manner. By offering ourselves up online, we’re only sharing the curated versions of ourselves. For some, that means sharing only the good stuff—the photos you took in Vegas or on that trip to Europe—and for others, it means playing the attention card—posting about a pregnancy, a beloved pet’s passing, or a vague “bad day.” Either way, we’re choosing what others know about us, but not what they truly understand.
There is a section in the book where the Dalai Lama describes Tibetans’ shock at learning that in the US, it’s very common to have neighbors who live next door for years who have next to no contact with each other. Cutler confesses that this describes his own life, and I’ll confess the same. While I know my landlord who lives in the flat above me, I’ve said hello to the man next door as many times as I can count on one hand. If I’m really honest, I’ll tell you that when I hear someone in our shared back yard, I move to the opposite side of the house to ensure that I don’t have to engage. Why? Even on days when I could actually use some friendly interaction, I still move away, and I couldn’t tell you why.
One possibility is the way our brains construct the ideas of “us” versus “them.” If you never give someone the chance to get to know you (and vice versa), they remain part of an out-group that you identify as other, which doesn’t encourage you to engage with them. Being more aware of this is half of the solution. The other half is to actually engage. :) My favorite part of The Art of Happiness thus far is an exercise that was conducted by Susan Fiske of Princeton University, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure prejudice (which really boils down to your brain saying “You’re one of us” or “You’re not one of us”). I won’t get into the specifics of the experiment, but basically, Fiske’s study enabled her subjects to truly overcome prejudice and “other” thinking by using a simple prompt. As she showed subjects photos of individuals from other races or ethnicities, she asked them: What kind of vegetable would this person like? This question forces our brain to stop its automatic categorization (White person, Black person, Indian person, etc.) and gets us down to relating to people on an individual level, and not based on the group or category our brains automatically place them into.
There are many good lessons throughout this book, but this “vegetable practice” is something I’m already carrying with me as a tool to help me better relate to people I see every day, starting with my neighbors. Overcoming the view that others are Others is one part of the practice, and I hope you try this from time to time, too.
PS I like tomatoes. What about you?