The reality of grief and compassion

You know I have been trying to find the words to write about grief for awhile. This morning I watched the most amazing documentary. It is called “I Am” and is made by director Tom Shadyac (known for many big Hollywood comedies of recent years).  I saw it on the “Super Soul Sunday” program on the Oprah Winfrey Network, although it is also available pretty inexpensively at if you click on the photo below. It was so full of “aha” moments when lightbulbs popped off in my head that I had to pull out my journal and start taking notes.

One of the first lightbulbs that went off helped me to understand the meaning of grief. Surprisingly, it was scientific terminology that revealed this to me. They were talking about “mirror neurons,” that when you see something you have previously experienced, it causes the same neurons to light up in your brain as when you had that original experience.

I’ve know, have written before, about the transforming experience of grief, that it forever changes, deepens, your perception of life. And here, this explains it. If you haven’t experienced deep grief yourself, you might “understand” it, you might feel your own form of compassion for it. But once you have experienced it, your very neurons carry the memory of it, so that when you see someone else experiencing it, you feel it in your very being.

This is the physiological root of compassion and empathy, but it is more than that. Love is part of the experience of grief as well. So I think that for the rest of your life, whenever you experience love, that neuron of grief is going to be firing as well. At its worst, of course, this might cause you to be fearful, might even cause you to turn away from love because of the association. But at its best, it transforms love from a frivolous feel-good experience to the really deep and fearful experience is actually is.

The mirror neuron explains many other things in life as well — how the trauma of abuse continues to affect people, for example. But there are many other treasures in this film. There is the study of the interstitial heartbeats, how our emotions are revealed in them, the vast electromagnetic field of the heart and how it really is the root of emotion, sending impulses to the brain rather than vice versa. The heartbeat even reveals a precognitive ability, sensing seconds beforehand the emotion it is going to experience as a result of images the brain has not yet seen. There is a discussion of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory, and the fact that Darwin used that phrase twice, while he used the word love hundreds of times, because in fact love and cooperation, beautifully illustrated in this film, are the basis for the survival of almost every species and the individuals within it — including mankind. There is a discussion of the distribution of goods — the example of the animal kingdom, that the lion doesn’t kill every gazelle, but only the one it needs for nourishment. Among the many varied native American peoples, there was a commonly held belief that holding more private property than one needed was a sign of mental illness.

I’m not generally inclined to be romanced by scientific explanations. There are those who use science to negate the spiritual, I know. Reducing the depth of human experience to firing neurons wouldn’t ordinarily appeal to me. But in this case it just fell together so beautifully. The fact that our spiritual and emotional experiences are reflected in our physiology doesn’t lessen the depth of those experiences at all. There are very scientific explanations for thunder and lightning. Nobody believes anymore that a lightning storm is a battle among the gods, but that knowledge doesn’t make the human experience of those storms any less thrilling.

Some of these scientific principles are so practically useful in our lives. In exploring the heartbeats and their revelation of our feelings, it considers the electromagnetic field of the heart. There are a couple of really practical lessons from this. First, we know that our moods are influencing our environment. If our electromagnetic field contains negative energy, it will affect us physically, affect our environment physically (even a bowl of yogurt), and affect those around us. What better motivation can we find to adjust our own attitudes, to find a place of peace and love from which we can operate. It will not just make us feel better — it will make our homes and workplaces much better. It also tells us that we will function better if we don’t surround ourselves with negative people.

This is a film that grew out of a transformed life. It is a film that I think contains the seed of transformation not only for the individual life, but for the world we live as well.

Live, love, laugh, hug each other, do good in the world, and don’t be greedy. Let’s create a more positive world in 2012.

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