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Developing empathy for neurodiversity

Morning, friends!

The other day on my daily walk to nowhere, I started listening to the newest episode of This American Life, "What Lies Beneath."

A few acts into the segment called, "Penny for Your Thoughts," we meet Lilly Sullivan and her co-worker, Diane, who explains something that confounds Lilly just as much as it does me: she doesn't introspect.

Lilly is dumbfounded, and I'm with Lilly on this. When friends and family have pointed out how introspective I am, it's always struck me as strange because it's really difficult for me to imagine how anyone's brain could work any other way. Like, how couldn't someone spend time reflecting inwardly on every single input that comes into their worldview? How...do people otherwise know...what to think about?

So this segment was particularly fascinating to me, because if there's anything I love more than introspecting, it's introspecting about introspecting.

A few questions that Lilly poses to Diane:
  • Do you spend a lot of time mildly regretful about a thing you said a few minutes ago?
  • Do you think about your opinions and why you have those opinions and if you should have those opinions?
  • If you see something, does it pull up other associations and memories? And then does that memory bring up other memories and associations?
Hard yes to all for me.

But even more than this unofficial questionnaire, was the description that they both use to describe the inside of their brains. Diane says the inside of her brain is like a video camera that just points to different things. Lilly barely breathes the word, "Wow" at this description, which was also my reaction. Like, wow. That sounds so...simple. A little boring maybe, but also kind of spacious! I can't even get my brain to do that while I meditate.

And it started to make me think more about meditation practices and why as a teacher it's always been really important to me to offer a variety of techniques. Sometimes I worry I might offer too many, in my effort to provide a path for all ranges of neurodiversity that are out there.

For instance, in my yin classes, I'll typically cue up at least one pranayama technique, and through the first half of class also a couple types of either visualization or meditation techniques, practicing one per posture. Some people are going to be attracted to inner affirmation or even a quote to ruminate on. Some are going to be attracted to counting. Some will be attracted to visualizing a color, and so on. Some will literally tune my voice out entirely, I am certain, which is perfect too. Then, near the end the idea is that students practice what works on their own.

I'm fascinated by the idea that the inner shapes of our brains are all so different. We spend a lot of time trying to put ourselves into "camps" — blue, red, purple, apolitical — but inside our brains is a whole fresh landscape that is so unique. I would argue that in most cases, we benefit from attracting, aligning and exposing ourselves to humans whose brains are very different from our own, just like workplaces and businesses benefit when they hire from diverse backgrounds.

It's really critical to be able to empathize with the diversity of mechanics that exist inside others' brains, and not simply judge folks based on how they interact, speak or form relationships. And for me, it's almost easier to empathize on this level because I'm so acutely aware of the idea that I have very little control over how my mind mechanics work. I can practice meditation and mindfulness techniques, but I have a default setting for the circuitry during my day to day. 

We don't often take that into account when we work with each other or interact with each other, outside from the occasional (and somewhat limiting) corporate personality test. Don't get me wrong, I love personality tests (especially the Enneagram). But on a deeper level, it's good to keep in mind that there's also no wrong way to think, and that exposing ourselves to different modes of thinking, frustrating as it may be at times, can be beneficial.
I went on a hike Saturday in the Dragoon Mountains of Arizona, and I saw a tree I had never seen before. It looked like it was dripping with red velvet cake, and it had these tiny little cherry looking berries hanging from it. My hiking partner happened to know what the tree was called so I never had to look it up: Manzanita.

Little apple, I replied.

My mind went in 30,000 directions. This is how the inside of my brain works: like a tangled web of vines. I think when I was younger, it was more like a circuit board. But now I'm grown up and messier, and so seeing that tree made me think of Spanish class, and the taste of red velvet, and if the tree cared if I tried to scrape at the drippy-looking bark to see what was under it, and who named it Manzanita even though they were more like tiny cherries, and finally: that childhood board game that it reminded me of. It was on the tip of my mind-tongue....what was it? But there was no service to look it up.

A couple hours later on the way back, I yelled it out (to Adam? to the trees? to the Coronado National Forest?):

HI HO CHERRY O!!

Anyone remember this game?? (I'm fascinated to read now that in 2007 they updated the game to have a cooperative play variant versus all competition for scarce cherries and now my mind's going down the path of how board games early on instill values later and if playing this game was my first lesson in capitalism and...) 

For better or worse, this is how my brain works.

💖
Kelly

Try this at home ✍

How would you describe the shape or mode of thinking or mechanics inside your brain? Is it more like the camera lens that Diane describes? Or the washing machine that Lilly does? Or the vines inside mine?

Then, talk with a friend, coworker or loved one about what the inside of their brain is like. I know this is like...absurd sounding...but it might help create deeper empathy and understanding as well. Let me know if you learn anything cool.

Worth a read 📚

🍒 This gorgeous essay on cherries by Kelsey McKinney was a delight. (Side-note: it turns out that you can eat Manzanita berries! This information is thrilling to me, and I'm kind of wishing I'd plucked one to try it. Next time...)

🤖 I love the concept of "jootsing" and studying the rules so you can then go on to break them. I actually do this all the time but didn't ever know there was a name for it. Maybe I'll write more about some of my jootsing in action soon. (Also, I recently became a Ness Labs member, and quite enjoying it so far.)

🥰 When I hear the term "companionate love" it makes me think of an unhappy couple who don't challenge one another or help each other grow, cohabitate for convenience and definitely don't sleep together anymore. But I'm learning to appreciate the notion of familiarity breeding a different sort of love, whether in a romantic or friendship context. This article is a fresh perspective — no matter if you're single, coupled or in-between. (Arthur C. Brooks)

Spiritually Curious?

My friend Catherine and I are getting so excited to host our upcoming retreat in Sedona.Through daily yoga, hikes, workshops, guided meditations, and relaxation time, we’ll explore what it means to be a creative, intuitive and curious person in today’s world. We have one more space left, so if you are interested please reach out! You can learn more here all about it.

Tunes + Meditations 🎶

Playlist for streaming is here! Last week, a reader recommended Manoj Dias, whose meditations are excellent. Also, check me out on Insight Timer. I think if you leave me a 5-star review it helps me to reach more people. More meditations are on the way...
I hope this email finds you and whatever diverse circuitry of your brain you happen to have healthy and happy. Forward this to a friend whose brain works differently from your own.

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