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.


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 Cohen and I are developing, currently entitled "I Feel You: The Empath Experience."

Um, what?'

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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.