Cultivating (Empathetic) Connections

Connection.  It is so utterly essential to healthy human and ecological functioning. Indeed, the mission of our garden program at San Quentin State Prison is to use nature “to reconnect people to themselves, their communities, and the natural environment.”

In past blog posts, I’ve suggested that the lack of connection may be at the root of many of our social and ecological issues today.  From my Good News post last November:

“…The conversation has to shift from talking about what’s wrong with communities to the root causes of community break down and what role we have all played in that. These “issues” are symptoms of something much deeper – our disconnection from each other and the natural world. If we weren’t so disconnected from the natural world, do you think people would have the “conquer nature” mentality or have such ignorance or disregard for our place in it? “

The world is most definitely shifting in big, bold ways.  Through recent natural disasters and social upheavals, one of our first reactions is to re-connect: families and friends to loved ones, people to place, country-to-country.  We want to help people in need and those who demand basic human rights for a dignified existence. Although things seem in total chaos these days, an undercurrent of this shift is one of helping…which is really about connecting.

The antithesis of that, of course, is to resist the change and remain entrenched in the status quo and our own fear-based mental models of what’s wrong (rather than what’s working), in a bi-polar place of good and evil, of the blame game.

This “scarcity” or retributive mentality really does tear people apart…and our leaders, politicians, law enforcement, media and other institutions are well-versed in fanning the proverbial flames…essentially, a strategy to maintain control to get what they want, not necessarily what we need.

The Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan recently completed a review of 72 studies of empathy among American college students. Each study used the same standardized test. The Institute found that in the last 20 years there has been a drop of 40 percent in empathy among U.S. college students.

So how do we become empowered to reconnect — to understand the needs and desires of others through empathy — despite the resistance to change all around us?

At the root of it, our organizations and institutions ARE human and deeply interconnected with our ecological systems. And as humans, we do have the ability to cultivate our empathic nature –to care for others and the natural world.

Empathy is a basic human characteristic that brings us together.  It’s a way to see through the differences, the polarization…and a way to resist the retributive status quo. The cultivation of empathy allows us to more meaningfully reconnect.

As an organization development (OD) practitioner, and one who has worked with prisoners for more than eight years, the cultivation of empathy (and indeed, intuition) to help facilitate connections is at the core of my work.  At the prison, we use gardening as the learning lab to discover our empathy for the natural world and each other; in organizations we design processes to help people reconnect so they can create a different future for effective, sustainable organizations that honor the importance of our human-ness.

Cultivating connection through empathy involves:

  • Exploring “self as instrument” – the ability to go deep within ourselves to examine our own feelings, triggers and experiences (in prison, we call this the “inner gardener”).
  • Having the practical tools to work through our resistance and “stuff” (feel it to heal it!)  Michael Brown, author of The Presence Process, suggests: “the only way out is through, and the only way through is in.”
  • Deeply listening to others, without judgment, blame or shame and building on what works (using the Appreciative Inquiry approach).
  • Finding common goals and purpose and honoring gifts instead of deficiencies.
  • Creating opportunities for people to actually be together, interacting on a personal level (instead of the technology option).  As evident in the research and article above, community matters.

When we work with feelings (vs. thinking) and with people (vs. stuff) we begin to cultivate our true empathetic natures, allowing us to open to deeper connections – even with those who are different or with whom we might disagree.  This is foundation of healing work, whether with people, communities, or organizations…and the natural world.

In tending a garden with prisoners who “pet the bees,” I have learned that most people (including prisoners!) have the capacity for empathy and care…just a bit of cultivation is required. And from tending to others and ourselves emerges a different frame through which to heal and experience our local and global communities and the natural world.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye…” – Antoine de Saint–Exupery, The Little Prince

About Beth Waitkus

Gardening as a revolution. Most recently, as Founder & Executive Director of the Insight Garden Program, I built a $1+ million nonprofit that works across sectors to provide experiential, transformative gardening and landscaping training in prisons, participant re-entry programs, and advocacy for systems change at the intersections of environmental, criminal, and social justice. To become environmentally aware, all people need is a little time in the garden, or outdoors -- nature teaches us everything we need to know.
This entry was posted in Associational Life, Community, Environmental Care, Gardening as Transformation, Gratitude, Organization Development, Prison Reform/Prisoner Rehabilitation. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Cultivating (Empathetic) Connections

  1. Michaela Daystar says:

    Thanks for sharing these inspirational thoughts! I’ve been feeling very disconnected lately, and this is helping me to rethink how I approach it.

  2. Jeff Rutland says:

    I have been feeling a disconect. And now i am looking in.. Thank u Beth. I love to pet bee’s 🙂

  3. Xochitl says:

    Real transformative words, Beth! Thanks for this post.
    Thought this link below was a logical next thought: Bestselling author, political adviser and social and ethical prophet Jeremy Rifkin investigates the evolution of empathy and the profound ways that it has shaped our development and our society.

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