Three Nights at the Gallery

Three nights in a row of readings at the ABXY Gallery on the Lower East Side. Probably 60 readings total, with 300 or so people cycling through the space. Sometimes I nailed it; sometimes I fumbled; sometimes it was exquisite and sometimes it was exquisitely awkward. I feel like saying, I did it, I actually did it.

It's hard to go all the way with something, until the moment you're all the way with it. Then it's fun.

What Does the Word "Empath" Really Mean?

I say an empath is someone who feels the emotions of others. Where did I get that definition?  I cribbed it from the Urban Dictionary. Here's the entry:

Empath: a person who is capable of feeling the emotions of others despite the fact that they themselves are not going through the same situation.

I like that definition. It exudes empathy. It doesn't imply woo woo. I can explain it without having to apologize. But the Oxford English Dictionary, an actual dictionary, features this definition:

empath122.jpg

Empath: (chiefly in science fiction) a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual.

Yup, it's a supernatural thing, originating in science fiction. The first use comes by way of JT McIntosh (1925 - 2008), a once well known but now obscure Scottish novelist, in a story called "The Empath," published in 1956. I've just ordered it from a used book seller; stay tuned for a review. In the meanwhile, here's the sentence where the word appears for the first time in recorded history:

"How exactly does the government use empaths?" Tim shrugged.

The answer:

"We can tell the level of a man's loyalty just by meeting him. We can walk around a factory and sense that there's going to be a strike."

NewMutants_62.jpg

So empaths are supernatural beings whose sensitivities the government exploits to oppress workers. After "The Empath," other scifi writers adopted the word. Joyce Muskat introduced the archetype to the broader public in 1968 with an episode of Star Trek called "The Empath." In the 80s, the Empath morphed into a mutant in an X-Men comic called "The New Mutants."

It would take another who knows how many years before the word would mean what I want it to mean. But real people, people like me, have always felt the emotions of others. There was just no word for it until McIntosh came up with one. Now we mortals have appropriated it.

Judith Orloff, who wrote the book on empaths, says an empath is "an emotional sponge. They absorb the emotions, physical symptoms and energies of others into their own bodies." The word has taken on another meaning, too. It's a vaguely hipster way to say, "I'm really sensitive," which may or may not mean you're an HSP, or a Highly Sensitive Person, as defined by Dr. Elaine Aron

An empath is someone who feels the emotions of others. An empath is a mindreader. An empath is highly sensitive. An empath is a telepathic superwoman on a faraway planet who may defeat the Enterprise.

All true. 

 

A Few Reflections on My First Gallery Show

Monday, 9/11, at 6pm, I sit in a chair in a gallery on the Lower East Side. Across from me is another chair, identical and empty. I cross my legs, yogi-style (halfway, anyway) and meditate. I feel my body, feel my legs, hear some talking in the next room, hear the neon lights, sense their brightness. If there are thoughts, they run like this:

IMG_1382.jpg

I hope this goes well. I'm sure it's going to be fine. Everything is set. Nothing more you can do. You're doing this. I hope this goes well. If it doesn't go well, that's okay too. This is an experiment.

Someone walks into the gallery. I nod my head, inviting her. I thank her for being the first to join me. She sits down.

"I'm going to close my eyes, tune into your feelings, and tell you what I feel is going on. I'm going to do it one layer at a time. You'll see these feelings express themselves through my body." I can tell I don't need to say anymore. "You read the artist statement?" I ask her. I had written up a page on what I was doing, called it my artist statement, printed it out and left 50 copies in the front room.

"Yes."

I close my eyes, imagine everything I'm carrying, my emotions, my energy, descending through my legs, through the floor, into the earth. I affirm that I am here to serve -- I use the word as an incantation. My body does the rest.

"Right now you're feeling calm, open and curious." My thumbs connect with my forefingers; my elbows pull my arms back to my chest; my heart expands outward; and my neck tilts forward. I feel a soft serenity not my own. 

***

IMG_1386.jpg

I read about 30 people in three hours. For the first time, after two years of doing this, I am reading people in public. People come in, get a reading or don't get a reading, and watch. At its peak, there are 50 people watching. The women in the reception area were supposed to make you check your phone, swapping it for a ticket, but after an hour, they stopped insisting. Still, quiet pervades. Everyone is paying very close attention. It feels sacred.

But I wonder. What the hell am I doing? Twisting my body into shapes to reflect people's feelings back at them? It looks weirder than it sounds -- and it sounds weird. I am embarrassed sometimes. I make mistakes sometimes. Sometimes I doubt whether I have a gift at all. To write this feels vulnerable. To question myself. But I do question myself. I feel a person's feelings, and I feel my doubt at the same time. I get lost.

I insist on a clear intention. I am here to serve each person, every time. My ego comes in: I'm here to show I can do this. My inner child, too: I'm here because it's fun, because I want to try something I haven't tried. My inner achiever: because I had a vision of this moment, and it feels good to do what I envisioned.

Oh, and I'm here because VICE is here, too.

VICE has come to film a documentary about empaths. They called two weeks before, hoping I would do more than just an interview. They wondered if I could do something visual. I told them I was planning on a show. I could push the show forward if they wanted to film it? They came with two cameras and a host, Hannah, who sits down in front of me, nervous as hell, her mind spinning. And sadness, I feel in her. I see it in her eyes, too.

IMG_1417.jpg

Do I want to be a star? Why have I set this all up for cameras? How come I'm working with a publicist, my friend Mandie, to promote me? Oh, the tendency to hide self-aggrandizement behind a mission. Still, I have a mission. I am here to connect people with their feelings. To permit them to have their feelings with no judgement. And I'm here to show people magic is real. But I have another reason, too. I'm here to show people I am special, to be acknowledged as special, even as I disappear into the other at my most special. I want to be recognized for my transcendant moments of genuine egolessness. 

***

A woman sits down wearing all black. I feel something different than the other readings. A force, like a field, pushes me back. "I don't know what's happening," I confess. 

I try again. Again, the force. Should I go through it? Could I? The force forces me away for a reason. "I can't figure you out. Maybe I'm not supposed to?" I'm back in my head, thinking. I'm failing to be present. But I'm comfortable failing. I give that to myself. Failure is part of the show. I go back into myself, that is to say, into her. "You're lost in there, alone. You don't trust me. But you came to me to be seen. You go to lots of people like me, hoping to be seen."

Where does this information come from? My tendency to tell stories? Intuition? This woman's spirit guides, speaking through me? I don't know how I know it. But I know it

"You can't depend on anyone to see what's happening with you." She meets my look with a look of acceptance. It's just a look. She feigns everything so well, she doesn't know she's feigning. 

"No more gurus for you," I say. The crowd chuckles. They get the irony.

***

I feel relief, thinking about what I did. I envisioned doing readings as performance art. I never envisioned doing readings in front of an audience -- I was thinking one-on-ones -- but this pushed me deeper. When I left the gallery, I felt like I didn't need to do this again. Didn't ever need to read people again. I made my statement, whatever that statement was. 

The next show is October 14 - 16, 6pm to 8pm each night, at ABXY.

IMG_1515.JPG

Statement of the Artist as a Young Empath

This is my artist statement for my show on 9/11/17 at ABXY Gallery on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. I'm doing readings in front of an audience.

An empath is someone who feels the emotions of others.

What I do is, I empty myself of my own feelings, tune into the feelings of whomever I’m reading, and share what I’m feeling as if I were them.

I experience people in layers. First, what they’re feeling right now, at this exact moment. Then what they’re feeling underneath the surface. Then a layer below that. All the way down to a person’s core — their basic, essential makeup as a human being.

In the process, something strange happens. My body literally takes on these emotions. It happens through my muscles. They move my body into shapes that form a visual language. I interpret this language as best I can.

What I’m feeling, I have no choice about. What I say, however, is a conscious process, subject to my own subjectivity. I often get things wrong. If I say something that doesn’t resonate, I ask you to let it go.

Thank you for experimenting with me. This is a gift — I love giving it.

_H6A7057.CR2.jpeg

Healing Hatred, Not Judging It

What to do about Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, Confederacy apologists and others who espouse an ideology of hate?

Well, it's tricky.

My first instinct, as an activist, a Jew and the son of a Holocaust survivor, is to say things like, "We need to fight back." The ADL, for example, talks about combatting racism and anti-Semitism. Left-leaners, just check your Facebook feed for an unlimited number of posts about fighting, combatting, confronting, and standing up to hate.

The alternative approach we hear is to ignore. Ignore what they're saying. Don't give them air time. It'll suffocate them like a fire without oxygen. 

Neither feels true. Hatred will not disappear by fighting it. Nor will it disappear by ignoring it. Hatred is properly understood as an emotion meeting a deep need. Anti-semitism, racism, and other belief systems built on hatred are cries for help, cries for attention. They are expressions of something deep, primal and true. They are, in other words, expressions of trauma.

What is the trauma? That varies person to person, place to place. Healing can happen on a societal level, but ultimately it's about a single human being, bringing awareness and compassion to their own suffering, in order to move through it and integrate it.

So what do we do?

I personally start by acknowledging the humanity of the haters. I feel my own hatred welling up inside, my judgement, my feelings of disgust, and I watch these feelings flow through me, signs of my old patterns. Now I see a person with similar feelings. Can I hold space for those feelings? Can I stand there with them and listen?

If we want to heal racism, heal anti-semitism, address these issues at the root, that's what's required. To listen with love and compassion to the ugliest things you've ever heard, to hold that space with reverence for the soul underneath, expressing extreme pain the way they know how.

Imagine that.

Emotions are Chinese to Some (Including the Chinese)

A few days ago, I spoke at a conference, in Shanghai, on the subject of consciousness. Well, the conference was about consciousness, but I spoke about empathy. Specifically how I discovered the depth of my empathy through depression, introspection, plant medicine and ultimately tuning into the feelings of others.

What struck me most was the different masks the Chinese wear compared to us Americans. We Americans tend to cover up our feelings by pretending to be okay, or happy, or doing well. We have few socially acceptable outlets for anger or grief, fewer still for sadness, and virtually none at all for misery or, incredibly, joy. Our strategy for hiding these emotions is to project a false self who is empowered, confident and clear. We've got it covered. That's our story. 

Not so with the Chinese. They're allowed frustration and anger. Beyond that, though, they seem, on the whole, to be playing poker. The mask is emotionless drive -- the undeterred acheiver who is satisfied (never delighted) when the job is done and hyper-focused on whatever task comes next. They project, or try to project, a detached deference to the rules. And they allow themselves outrage when someone does otherwise.

These masks are important. They're there for a reason. They teach us what we value. What I suggested in my talk is that we start valuing the emotions too, start seeing what's really going on, at least in ourselves. We don't beat ourselves up for our culturally conditioned stories. We forgive ourselves, we patiently walk into our own truth, and we step out again when we can't handle it. And so on, with compassion, until we eventually make friends with ourselves. 

Empath(y) in Virtual Reality

A few hours ago, I did readings in virtual reality. That means I entered a virtual room as an avatar and read people, whom I saw as avatars, on a social VR platform.  It was the pilot (or beta test) for a VR show Eve Weston and I are developing, currently entitled "I Feel You: The Empath Experience."

Um, what?'

Screen Shot 2017-06-02 at 12.56.58 AM.png

Okay, here's how it works. A bunch of avatars join a room at an appointed time. Eve introduces the show and asks for volunteers to be read. Someone steps forward (that is to say they move their avatar to the center of the "room"). Then I ask them a question, any question, just to hear their voice. I use the sound of their voice to tune in -- and off I go. I do my best to see, reflect, and untangle people's emotional states.

The thing I love about being EMPATH in VR is: it's intimate and anonymous at the same time. I can go very deep into someone's psychology (last time I felt that someone was suicidal and said so) with a whole room of people watching all without violating their privacy. Because no one knows who they are.

We're still working out the kinks. But it's promising. People are loving it. Really loving it.  The company behind the platform, AltSpaceVR, is thrilled.  And it posits a new answer to a question the entire VR community is asking: how can we best use VR to generate empathy? Well, my answer is: put human beings together to engage deeply in their emotions.

You don't need a headset to experience the show. You can actually download AltSpaceVR on a powerful enough laptop and join in 2D. I'll post when the next show is when I know. Stay tuned.