In the Eyes of the Beholder

by Judith Sarah Schmidt PhD

“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall
harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, (hu)man will have discovered fire.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Recent studies in neuroscience provide us with a profound understanding of how we develop our capacity to become human beings. It all starts with looking, with the infant seeing into the face of the mother, and the mother looking into her child’s face, gaze to gaze, smile to smile, breath to breath, voice to voice. In this first human mother mirror, the infant enters the blessing of being welcomed into a safe and life sustaining place. So it all begins in the face. Before words, before any conscious memory, there is this seeing into the eyes of the other, and of being seen by the eyes of the other, a mutual beholding of the other’s sacred being of knowing that ‘my face is good, I belong’.

This summer, I am reading a book called ‘Machete Season: The Killers of Rwanda Speak” by Jean Hatzfeld. It is about the Rwandan genocide in which, during a six week period, one out of every six Tutsis had been killed by their Hutu neighbors. What stands out for me in Machete Season is this statement by one of the Hutu participants in the slaughter:
“I don’t remember my first kill, because I did not identify that one person in the crowd….I just happened to start by killing several without seeing their faces…..Still, I do remember the first person who looked at me at the moment of the deadly blow. Now that was something. The eyes of someone you kill are immortal if they see you…the eyes of the killed, for the killer are his calamity if he looks into them. They are the blame of the person he kills’.

This staggering reflection, the eyes of someone you kill are immortal if they see you, speaks of our connection, our oneness, if we but look into the eyes of the other.

There is a Jewish philosopher by the name of Emmanuel Levinas who, after surviving two concentration camps, said that if you truly look into the eyes of the other, you would see the infinite and there could never be war, for you would want only to care for the vulnerable being of this other. The burning question arises: how does seeing the sacred otherness of the other change to seeing the threatening, enemy-other, the one who right now urgently deserves to and must be killed? The one who now does not even deserve a proper burial accorded to human beings?

How to understand the yearning for peace and the unfurling of war between husband and wife, neighbor upon neighbor, Hutu upon Tutsi, Serb upon Croatian. Understanding this human complexity is a burning issue one for me. Perhaps because I am Jewish, and lost family in the Holocaust, I want to understand, on their behalf, how it is possible for the relative peace of daily life to be blotted out by the unthinkable.

For me, the greatest understanding of this question I have yet received has come from neuroscience, specifically from the work of Steven Porges, PhD who has developed the Polyvagal System for explaining the evolutionary functioning of the human brain and nervous system. To greatly simplify Porges’s theories, to distill them to a basic but, for me, very helpful understanding, let’s begin with the infant held by its mother. This infant can rest in its breathing while looking into its mother’s face. While gazing and being gazed at, this infant is developing the area of its brain and nervous system that can participate safely in trusted social engagement. That emotional part of the brain learns the signal of: ‘you can relax now, no danger, you are safe in the face and eyes of the other. You are a part of the web of human love. You belong”.

According to Porges, in the oldest part of our brain resides our reptilian aspect, the one who in the face of danger will shut down. The problem is, we are not reptiles. We cannot shut down our breathing and blood flow and sit endlessly on a rock like a reptile can. If we humans close down in this way, we eventually die. According to Porges, this shutting down, this freezing, is to be avoided at all costs by humans because it potentially delivers the safety of death. Perhaps that is why there is spousal abuse, the machete season, strife between Fatah and Hamas, Israeli and Palestinian; for to fight enlivens and protects against shutting down into death.

This morning a call came from a couple asking for an emergency appointment. They had not had a violent fight for some time, but last night they fought, became violent, the police came. This is a couple that practices meditation. Later, I thought: How can we comprehend this complexity of the human mind and heart, the capacity for both violence and meditation within the same person?

Using the husband as an example, if we assume that, while meditating, he felt safe and quiet with a relaxed nervous system, then what led to violence so that the police had to be called? What turned love to hate, calm to upheaval? Let’s say that the wife said something offensive or hurtful or spoke in a tone of voice that activated some sense of shame in her partner. Applying Porges’s theory to our example, when the husband’s brain and nervous system received a signal of danger, of insecurity, there was a cascading of neurotransmitters in the emotional brain, and social trust turned to an urgent need to survive attack by fighting or fleeing. The trusted other quickly became an endangering, predator other. In this moment, the offended spouse quickly retreated to the next lower level of the brain’s evolution, to the part that lived in the jungle or forest and had to be prepared to deal with potential predators at any time.

Most of us, when feeling safe, are capable of limitless goodness and, if our sense of a safe place is threatened, are capable of extreme destruction. We all have this part of our brains, ever ready to flee or to attack in order to restore a sense of safety and power.

This, I believe is the lesson to be learned by what happened in Rwanda: if one group of people can be convinced that their safe place is being threatened by others, they can quickly come to see the other as an inhuman predator to be eliminated so as to preserve a safe life. It can be said that much of the strife in our world arises out of the desire to maintain peace and to preserve security against perceived threat. If we look at the Israelis and the Palestinians, we can see that the common tragedy they share is their unfulfilled longing for a safe homeland. Beneath their distrust and destruction of each other is a sacred longing for a safe place to call home.

Is there another way for us humans, other than saving face or losing face? Is there a way to stay open to seeing the face of the other, to seeing the infinite source of life shining through the face of every living being? Is there a way to choose to listen to the face of the other? I ask myself, what if the Rwandan man had continued to look into the eyes of his neighbor? What would have happened if he had stood there, listened to the eyes of the other, and taken in that pain and dread? I imagine that man holding the machete would have known a different kind of terror, the terror of taking in the other, of becoming the other, of knowing the absolute pure grief of a sacred life being destroyed. This is the terror of being fully human, of living out on the edge of vulnerability rather than in the old brain’s flight or fight reaction.

By wearing the pain of the other rather than destroying the other, deep down in the soul of the machete man an intimate knowledge of darkness and pain is being born. In locating the heart of darkness, of what suffering is possible in this life, within ourselves, being willing to taste it, perhaps begins the process of reconstituting the human brain and nervous system. Perhaps this begins a leap in our evolution out of the jungle of survival into a state of mutual care. After all, humans did evolve a new brain, a frontal cortex, did evolve the capacity for thought and judgment and language. If those leaps in evolution were possible, is it not also possible to develop – through the spiritual practice of looking into the face of the other and seeing the sacred source of life there – yet another new brain, one that links to the heart and bypasses the trigger of destruction for the sake of survival?

I do believe that amidst all the turmoil and destruction in our world today, there is this possibility emerging. People are looking into the faces of others far away, hearts are breaking open for the pain of others, and our collective brain is transforming. Ken Wilbur tells us that all we need is ten percent of people to change their ways of seeing for there to evolve a paradigm shift in collective consciousness.

As in any transformative process, when we are in transition from one state of being to another, we can experience our familiar identity breaking down and this can be destabilizing. If, however, we are gentle with ourselves and are committed to the spiritual practice of peace, we can be mindful of the part of our brain we are living in at any moment. We can ask ourselves, where do I want to live from? In this way, the husband who struck his wife can slowly become aware of beginning to activate his attack pattern. With his meditative consciousness, he can eventually come to a place of choosing to quietly look into the face of his wife and remember who she is in her essence. This spiritual practice of peace is a slow, mindful and meditative process to be undertaken in our exchanges with the others – whether an intimate or a stranger on the street – moving from experiencing the other as someone threatening to recognizing the human face, perhaps even blessing the life within it.

Imagine a machete man who has taken the pain of the other down into his soul and who is brave enough to stay vulnerable, to carry the other’s pain as his own, to not act it out: What would his lullaby to his new infant child sound like, what face would his son look into? Such a father’s face, like a song, would radiate an infinite tenderness and compassion upon the face of his child, so this child would grow to wear its vulnerability with grace and gratitude, and in the face of threat have the skill to take refuge in safety and compassion.

Judith Sarah Schmidt PhD, a clinical psychologist, practicing in Westchester and Manhattan, is Co Director of the Center for Intentional Living. To find out more about an upcoming conference, the Practice of Peace, July 13 to 15, go to www.intentionalliving,com

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