“Leaky Margins”. This is what one of my students so aptly calls her experience when she’s around suffering. She feels the pain as if it were her own. The pain seeps in and overwhelms her. It feels like she has leaky margins.
A more widely used and less poetic term for leaky margins is emotional contagion. Though some of us may be more aware of it, or more vulnerable to certain kinds of emotion, humans generally experience emotional contagion to one degree or another. We tend to cheer up around happy people, get bummed around unhappy people, fearful or aggravated around angry people, etc.
How are these emotions communicated? Think of someone you know or have seen who is depressed. Bring to mind the way they look, the way they hold their body, their facial expressions, the way they walk, the sound of their voice saying hello to you. Now, notice, just having brought that person to mind, any changes in your body. Notice any tension, any shift in the breath, any shift of energy. These changes may be subtle or strong. You may be in the habit of tuning them out. But really see if you can notice what happens when you bring that person to mind.
Now think of someone you are always happy to see and who always seems happy to see you. Picture how they look, the way they hold their body, their facial expressions, the way they walk, the sound of their voice as they greet you. Notice any change in your body, in the breath, any shift in energy. There may be a sense of relief making this shift of focus from the downbeat person to the more upbeat person. It may feel as if the downbeat person sucked the light or the air out, and the upbeat person brought in radiant light and fresh air.
If you are suddenly feeling worried that you are that downbeat person and you don’t want to be infectious, relax. You be you. There’s a way for all of us to be with people in all states without succumbing to those states ourselves. More on that in a bit. But first, let’s try to understand what’s happening here. What is this emotional contagion?
As you can see from this experiment, there are many ways we read each other. Most of us automatically interpret visual cues of thousands of facial expressions and the body language of how we stand and sit, whether we are hunched, slouched, rigid, relaxed, poised, leaning in, pulling back. So many messages! We pick up on audio cues in the tone of voice, and variations in volume, speed, and intensity. Watch a film in a language you don’t understand, and though you may miss plot details, even without subtitles, you’ll understand a lot more than you might have thought.
Words matter, of course, but we pick up a lot of information before a single word is spoken. We aren’t psychic. We’re just doing what we have been training to do since we were babies, reading non-verbal cues of those around us, with varying degrees of success. Sadly, a child who doesn’t feel safe in the home due to the emotional volatility of a family member may have a hyper-developed ability to read emotions. And a child with autism may have difficulty reading non-verbal cues. So there is a range.
In class and in this series of posts, we have been practicing awareness of the senses and using sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste to anchor our awareness of the basic elements of earth, water, fire, and air. So we are becoming well-equipped to notice when we may be reacting to non-verbal cues.
We have also been exploring the metaphor of veils, those patterns of thought around particular topics that can get so knotted they blind us to this moment.
We’re often surprised to find ourselves suddenly entangled in a veil. We ask ourselves, “Why in the world am I suddenly thinking about that?”
If we pause to reflect, we may be able to see that we have glimpsed or overheard something that parallels a thread in one of our veils. And very common activators are the non-verbal cues that other people constantly broadcast without saying a word.
Without connecting those dots, we may get stuck in the tangle. And then we’re the ones with the agonized expression, the downbeat mood communicating itself to all. When our thoughts chase a thread that gets caught up in a heavily laden knot, our attention circles deeper and deeper into a dip in the fabric of the veil, then we can’t see beyond these thoughts and emotions. We feel stuck.
So if we are so susceptible to other people’s non-verbal cues, is the answer to put on earplugs and blinders as we go through the world, protect ourselves from the emotions of others? No, because it won’t work and because that would be yet another kind of pain. Disconnection.
Of course, we can limit our exposure to people who upset us. And it’s wise to do so if it sets off unbearable inner turmoil or if we feel unsafe around that person. But this is only a stopgap measure as we develop awareness and understanding of our permeable nature and our intrinsic interconnection. We don’t want to cause more pain to ourselves and others by building a fortress of separate-seeming self.
Our meditation practice and our continuing exploration of the dharma in all its variations help us cultivate skillful ways to exist in the world, rooted in understanding we are all expressions of life loving itself into being. We are cultivating an awareness that allows us to see that we have nothing to hide, nothing to prove, and nothing to defend. We all have something to give, something to contribute, and we are cultivating the ability to soften the veils that entangle us and keep us from living fully in the moment.
As we become more mindful, we stop numbing ourselves, stop multi-tasking, and stop going on autopilot. We slow down enough to see the veils of thought that entangle our attention and release them. We can then see emotional contagion in action, and we can develop enough mindfulness to be present with a person in distress without feeling we need to turn away.
An important part of our meditation practice is sending metta, infinite lovingkindness, first to ourselves, then radiating it outward to others. So when we come across someone who is clearly suffering, instead of pulling away out of fear of contagion, we can offer metta. May you be well. Perhaps it will be felt. Who knows? But sending metta also benefits us in many ways, including short-circuiting the mental autopilot tendency to get caught up in parallel threads of thought that entangle us in one veil or another. And this benefits the recipient too because when we are suffering, we may not be up for hearing another person’s involved sharing of a somewhat similar experience they had in the past.
Over the years I have had many students who are mental health professionals. Multiple times a day they are exposed to the pain of other people’s lives. How do they manage to not be inundated? Some were trained to ‘not take it personally.’ Easier said than done! That message can lead to sealing themselves off emotionally, which takes its toll on them, especially when they return to their personal lives. Where’s the on/off switch?
So I suggest to them that they imagine a safe space between themselves and their patient, maybe an imaginary table where the patient can lay out all their thoughts and emotions so together they can look at them. This benefits the patient because they feel less under the microscope, less entangled in ideas about identity and judgment (I’m a bad person to have these thoughts.) And it benefits the therapist because they are not absorbing it into themselves, but being able to look at what’s shared in a fresh way, thoughts and emotions on the table, not as intrinsic aspects of the identity of their patient.
If we bring the metaphor of veils into this therapeutic scenario, it becomes a kind of holographic shared exploration, doesn’t it? They can look together at these veils, and the therapist can see the tangled knot that’s causing anguish and blindness, and be able to help the patient to explore it safely.
We don’t have to be therapists to use this technique with people who are sharing their stories with us. And if we see someone whose suffering threatens to permeate our leaky margins, we can offer ourselves metta, May I be well, to soften our habituated reactivity of tensing up and getting entangled in our own veils.
Then we can recognize how they are struggling, entangled in and blinded by their veils. And that way of seeing them will help to activate compassion in us. It will remind us that we are all in this life together, intrinsically interconnected, all subject to the nature of impermanence, and all habituated to suffering. If there’s nothing we can do to help, we can always radiate metta: May you be well. And if there is something we can do to help, we can do so with radiant compassion.
In that state, we are not sealed off from ‘emotional contagion.’ Instead, we have the clarity and compassion to recognize what is needed right now and have the ability to hold all that’s arising in an open and loving embrace.