Nature and Nature's Bod: Attachment, Desire, Empathy Overload, and Embodiment

I’ve been working on increasing my sensitivity to my own desires and preferences. As part of this, I’ve been working through the exercises in a book my friend Sarah recommended, called Pleasurable Weight Loss

One recent exercise was to go somewhere with great natural beauty and connect with nature. I have never in my life felt connected with growing things - cities feel vibrant, alive, and purposeful to me, plants just feel like passive items of scenery - but I had decided to try every exercise in the book, no matter how hard it seemed, and make a genuine effort to engage with the spirit of the exercise. At worst, I’d get a better sense of what made the exercise hard. So I went out to Tilden Park and attempted to find a nature trail. I almost failed, but eventually found the botanical garden, where I wandered around, and noticed a few things.

Spontaneous Action

I had been listening to a few audiobooks vaguely related to spontaneous action:

  • The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts, describes Zen as a way to cultivate spontaneous or otherwise whole-hearted right action - in people already trained in the outward forms of correct behavior.
  • The Inner Game of Tennis, by Timothy Gallwey, talks about how to train a physical skill such as a tennis serve, not by consciously forcing the right movements, which creates counterproductive tension, but by carefully watching someone do it right or visualizing what you want to do, and then paying attention to something totally different like the seams on the tennis ball while you simply allow your unconscious mind to learn to do the thing.
  • Trying Not to Try, by Edward Slingerland, is specifically about the paradox of persistently and intentionally cultivating an attitude of spontaneity, and why this is both desirable and difficult.
  • Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel, gives a worked example of learning an skill, archery, in a Zen way.
  • Pleasurable Weight Loss, by Jena LaFlamme, repeatedly urges the reader neither to suppress impulses for unhealthy food, nor to mindlessly give in to compulsions before looking at them, but to treat them as a trigger to examine one’s own desires, and wait until you see a wholehearted desire for something.

It was perhaps because I was primed by this that I noticed myself, for the first time, exhibiting spontaneous desire towards my nature walks. I had enjoyed walking in nature before, but I had always engaged in it on general principles. Previously, having noticed that I tended to feel better afterwards, I decided to on occasion plan a walk through nature. Once on site, I would plan a route and execute it; the aspect of me that enjoyed nature was strictly passive, receiving the experience as if on a tour bus. But this time, I somehow managed to put the part of me that enjoyed nature in the driver’s seat.

I noticed myself, at a fork in the path, pulling myself one way when I wanted to go the other, because the first way was the way I’d planned. Then I stopped and said to myself, “Wait, why is the plan important? Aren’t I here to connect with my own intentions and desires?” And I let the part of me that wanted to go somewhere bring me there.

When watching animals move around, I had previously noticed that sometimes they’d seem to stop, not because they’d heard a surprising noise they needed to analyze, not because of some instruction, seemingly for no purpose at all, as if they’d simply spent their motive power. Then, some moments later, again without any obvious external stimulus or even any sign they’d completed some relevant act of cognition, they’d start up again. I still don’t understand why this happens, but now I know what it feels like - I found myself doing the same thing. I stopped mid-path, and started up again several seconds later. I came across a clearing, and for the first time since childhood, I ran, not to catch a bus or save time or because I was late or because I was working out, but because I just wanted to run.

Empathy overload, and suppression vs desensitization

The other thing that happened during my nature walk was that I managed to connect with plants as fellow living things - and was horrified. It started when I noticed that some of them were dried out, some had fallen into the creek, some were healthy but still struggling for a fixed pool of resources, trying to outmaneuver each other towards the sun. I felt a sense of visceral horror at all these plants, all of which were reaching out towards continued life, not all of which would make it. This sense of horror at recognizing plants felt just like something I’d thought to be totally unrelated: my horror at having a circulatory system.

Since a fairly young age, sufficiently detailed descriptions of the human circulatory system, or the workings of other internal organs not under conscious control, have triggered a vasovagal response in me. Usually this is quite mild. A nurse I know was able to share stories from the ICU without triggering me much at all. In college, I managed to tough it out through an in-class demonstration of William Harvey’s experiment showing that the veins have one-way valves by tying a tourniquet lightly around the arm, and attempting to push the blood both way through a vein, though I did feel pretty nauseated. I even sat through a vivisection of a frog, though I was gripping the table pretty hard. A technical discussion of atherosclerosis, though, can force me to end the discussion, sit on the floor, and drink ice water. In one case, I was sitting in on a presentation on medical equipment - no graphic images, just clear depictions of equipment meant to be connected with the circulatory system - and I managed to make my way out of the auditorium, only to faint in the lobby.

Vasovagal response is lowering of blood pressure and heart rate due to a perceived threat. My brain is so horrified at the fact that I depend on this circulatory system, which I don’t consciously control and could be obstructed at any time, that it literally responds to being reminded of this by trying to shut the system down. Noticing that plants were alive felt like a weaker version of the same thing.

My working model for why I wasn’t able to connect with plants at all is based on my model for how I’d been relating to touch and ticklishness. Previously, I thought I’d desensitized myself to tickling, but it turned out that instead of learning to integrate the sensation and respond proportionally, I’d learned to shield myself against it and not respond at all. True integration of that part of life will require repeated exposure to the stimulus, mindfully, with an openness to being affected by it, in a safe context. Similarly, while I initially thought I’d felt nothing for plants because of a lack of underlying empathy with them, it turns out that I had built up a shield and was blocking my awareness of them because of the risk of empathy overload.

Just before my nature walk, I’d undergone a shift that reduced my attachment to near-term good outcomes for those around me, and I think this was part of what enabled me to perceive the tenuous position of the plants around me. Not an increase in my underlying capacity for empathy - but an increase in my ability to cope with that feeling. So it's not intolerable pressure anymore to notice that plants are alive and have unmet needs. But still I feel like, if I fully connected, then I'd be horrified all the time - noticing that things made of wood are corpses, etc.

I suspect this is related to why cognitive self-knowledge through reasoning and meditation, reducing attachments to particular things in the world, and empathy for all living things, seem to be connected in traditions such as some Buddhist ones. Full awareness implies full empathy. But if you’re attached to what you’re attentive to, if you feel compelled to alleviate the suffering of anyone whose suffering you’re fully aware of, then you’re caught between denying or hiding from reality, and empathizing a world of searing pain. Only when you can accept the suffering of others without having to fix each instance, can you notice just how much suffering there is.

If this model is right, many people in chronic pain will also have problems being aware of their bodies, because to cope with the pain, they will have trained themselves to screen out sensations - which deprives them of useful as well as useless signals from their bodies.

Next steps

This substantially increased my estimation of the value to me of:

  • Meditation. I already favored it as a general tool for improving my control over my own awareness and cognitive processes, but the connection to empathizing with other living beings (via lovingkindness meditation) and lack of attachment now seem like additional evidence that it will further my goals, rather than distractions.
  • Doing the exercises in Pleasurable Weight Loss, for the obvious reason that this one worked out. The next difficult exercise was to take a bath, which was also high-value: it helped me become more aware of my aversion to relaxation - perhaps I’ll write more on that later.
  • Exposure therapy for things that trigger my vasovagal response. I’d thought of this as a random impediment unrelated to my current project, but I now believe it’s closely bound up with my problems around my sense of embodiment, and my ability to experience immediate empathy (as opposed to the more abstract wishing good for others that I’m better able to do).

5 thoughts on “Nature and Nature's Bod: Attachment, Desire, Empathy Overload, and Embodiment

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