It is a deceptive question, but it hits home. How do I react to life, not the big moments when I am trying to understand or comfort, but the infinitesimal, minute by minute responses? Got the nail on the head. I know I am highly sensitive to stimulus and know viscerally what I like and why, what irritates and what soothes.
Just the feel of a word resonates. “Peace” feels different in my body to “beautiful”, “torrent” to “stream”, “rush” to “wander.” Names attract or repel; sounds can feel like velvet or a cat's fur brushed the wrong way. I can sense my emotions twang in sympathy like a guitar string.
That was the question: am I, are you, sympathetic or empathetic reactors? Do we blow like grass in the wind or are we rooted, compassionate, empathetic? Diana's problem was super-sympathy – the candle in the wind. She gave hugely, but the emotions caught and hurt her heart.
Or empathetic, acting from what Dr. Rob Krakovitz describes as the centre position of balance and peace, a place of non-attachment, where we can see all the finer shades, yet not be drained or over-excited.
Yes, I am ridiculously sympathetic and score highly on questionnaires for Highly Sensitive People. I can feel the toll in my body, but again don't want to lose the ability to feel, care, be blown away. My Tai Chi teacher told me to imagine roots growing into the earth from my feet. “With most people I try to raise their energy levels,” she said, “but with you, it's like a balloon on a string.”
So what to do? Try to catch my energy when it leaps forward eagerly towards another, beyond my boundary. Not only dangerous and exhausting for me, but extinguishing for the recipient. There's a martial art exercise that makes the point. Stand with your energy fuzzy and blurred – see how easy it is for a partner to knock you off balance. Bring your energy back down inside and you can't be moved. Nor can you easily be lifted.
Yet another demo I used to run for groups: stand with one arm outstretched and think of someone who upsets you. Your partner tests your strength by pushing down on your arm. However hard you try, it will test weak, bending like a sapling. Then centre and ground yourself, imagine an X between you and the person who upsets you – and you will test strong, your arm firm.
We have phrases we use unthinkingly that describe it: beside himself with anger, out of her mind, over the top. The point the book was trying to make was: if we react sympathetically, it's not just our hearts, our sympathetic nervous system lights up. We are stressed. Even when thinking, there's a static fuzz in the background.
But if I lose the sympathetic response, do I become less caring? Do I switch off my heart? Do I become cold and does the music of my life dull to a drone?
Let's think about the person on the receiving end, perhaps a friend bereaved. What does she need from me. Certainly not wailing in unison. When my mother was dying, I called a friend, “Margaret, will you come and sit with me?” What I needed and Margaret gave was a calm centre and a hot cup of tea. She sat with me, pacing my erratic grief, slowly, gently leading me to coherence, but never leaving her centre.
Empathy doesn't feel as glamorous; life lived from centre isn't as vivid. Yet all that is lost is the tinsel, hysterically distorting the gold beneath.
I am reminded of The Prophet which I read at our daughter's wedding:
Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.
High Energy by Rob Krakovitz, MD.
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran – the section on marriage.