Wednesday, September 12, 2018

I feel you

I have a condition called Mirror Touch Synesthesia (MTS). I don't know how long I have had it. I didn't know that I had it until I listened to the Invisibilia Podcast on NPR back in 2015.

All my life, my family members have complained that I am "too sensitive," but really, none of them knew exactly how sensitive I was.

In the Invisibilia episode, a woman named Amanda suffers from MTS. She becomes housebound due to her condition.

How could synesthesia make a person housebound, you ask?

MTS, scientists think, happens when there is confusion between the touch and visual systems. People with MTS can, simply by looking at a person, understand what that person is feeling with their body. For instance, I can look at a person using a fork and feel that fork in my hand.

What this also means is that I can look at a person's face, and feel their expression - feel what they are feeling.

It is a condition, psychologists claim, of extreme empathy.


Apparently, there is some comorbidity between having various types of synesthesia and being an artist and scientist, so much so that there is an organization for such individuals called The International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists and Scientists. I learned this fact after discovering founder Dr. Joel Salinas' book, Mirror Touch, at my local book store this Spring (2018).

Dr. Salinas is a Neurologist, which I found fascinating considering my own professional rabbit hole - neurobiology. Much of what he described in his book in his experiences from childhood onward were familiar to me, even down to what it feels like to watch someone die.

I'm thinking it must be pretty rare to  have had two near-death experiences and also have watched someone die, and have MTS. Dr. Salinas describes the feeling of watching someone die in the first chapter of the book - and since I had the same experience in February 2015, seeing my neighbor in cardiac arrest, I could feel it all over again. I can feel it now, just writing about it. During my working career, I had to sacrifice numerous animals for medical research, and the feeling was the same for me.

Last week I went to a concert with some friends at a local venue. During the opening act, around 9:30PM, six people carried another person toward the door. They put the young man on the ground, and he was unresponsive. I just stood there. I couldn't stop looking. I was having the feeling - the feeling of The End. A tightness in my chest that wouldn't go away.

I looked over at my friend. "It's ONLY 9:30." Was all she said.

"Huh? Yeah, it is only 9:30, but I have never seen that happen at a concert. Never." I was feeling old, as I haven't been to a concert in over two decades. But the last ones I went to were surely in New Orleans, and I don't recall seeing anyone near death back then.

"Oh, that happens all the time. But not usually this early." She replied.

"What the fuck." I shook my head. It was a Thursday night.

Another guy who was with us said he was certified in CPR and went to check on the victim. He came back and informed us that the guy had track lines and that it was probably a heroin overdose.

Not much later, an ambulance came. I was still standing there, eyes like saucers, unable to shake the feeling of death, until I saw a foot move. Only then did the odd squeezing feeling in my chest subside.


"Om namah shivaya" is my preferred mantra for meditation. It is a salutation to the Lord Shiva, god of yoga, meditation and the arts. According to Wikipedia, he is often depicted slaying demons.

I am a very highly accomplished navel gazer. That comes of necessity when one is feeling all the feels. Of all the peeps.

In an initial discussion with several people who know me well, when asked if they thought I might benefit from meditation, they said, "Yeah, most likely not. You don't suffer from lack of self-awareness." And such things. I decided that shelling out $1000 for a meditation course was not really a responsible use of my money, even though it has been shown to reduce blood pressure.

A few months later, however, I started going to contemplative yoga with my artist friend, due to a lot of stress and a shoulder injury. Many of the class participants are dealing with chronic pain. Part of the contemplative yoga are two guided body-awareness meditations, one at the beginning of a gentle yoga practice, and another at the end. The first time I went, I was amazed at the amount of time spent moving blankets around (seriously, there is a lot of blanket rearrangement), but afterward, I felt the most profound sense of calm I had felt in a very long time. I felt like I was in a Bubble of Peace.

When I went home from class, I had the presence of mind to tell everyone swarming me in the kitchen, "Um... so... I feel this amazing sense of peace, and I would like to hold on to it for a bit. I am going to go sit outside."

"Whatever you just did, you need to do it more," my husband and kids all said.


When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of time happily playing alone. I wasn't particularly imaginative - or at least I haven't thought I was. My favorite games were "Librarian" where I organized all my books by the Dewey Decimal System and wrote call numbers on their spines, and "Elizabeth Stevens" where I was a grown woman named Elizabeth Stevens with her very own (homemade) checkbook, purse made out of notebook paper, and a job in an office! I don't remember feeling lonely, although I do remember feeling disgruntled about interruptions. Hmm... that hasn't changed... although now I have too many books to organize, Costco makes my checks, my purse is made of vinyl, and I have several jobs at home.

The thing nobody tells you about marriage or motherhood is how your primary function is to protect everyone else's head space, and that you almost never have any of your own. Well, that's not entirely true - you just don't have any control over when you get that head space, so when it randomly comes up, you fail to think "I really need head space, too! How can I make sure I get productive head space?"

"Head space?" You're asking. "What's that?"

Head space is what produces brilliant people, like Einstein, Sagan, and Hawking. In fact, Einstein was a notoriously bad husband because he had strict rules for when his wife could and could not interact with him. What a douche.

A brilliant douche.


I am surrounded by brilliant people. I can only attribute this to the values my father instilled in me - to protect the solitude of my loved ones. Anyone who knows my father will agree, he is one of those surprisingly brilliant individuals who accomplished such feats as graduating from high school at age 16 and winning a full-ride scholarship to any college he wanted to attend in New York State. He continued such successes through adulthood. Recently, I learned another interesting thing about him - he taught himself meditation and self-hypnosis early in life. And he fiercely defended his head space when I was a kid. In fact, I was pretty sure my parents didn't like each other, but now I see they did, and do, very much. They just protected each other's solitude, as the poets Gibran and Rilke both advised.

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. 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.”- Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

Dad shared some more of his wisdom with me, when I used to come home from high school with headaches from not eating enough. He would have me lay down on the sofa and he would do a guided body awareness meditation with me, while massaging my temples. It worked, every time. Because of that experience, I have always been reluctant to take any sort of headache medicine. I can usually rid myself of headaches by laying down and working through awareness of my body, from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.

When I let go of one desire (say, a $1000 meditation class), something even better often comes to fill its space. For example, one that costs a lot less, is closer, and just feels "my speed." My contemplative yoga instructor ended up offering a meditation course nearby. Close enough that I could walk. The Universe is wonderful that way.


Sometimes when I am meditating, I feel like I am in a time machine. I meditate for 10 or 15 minutes, and it often feels like less than a minute. The first time this happened was in my second day of meditation class. When the instructor told us to start wiggling our hands and toes and take a deep breath, I was so disappointed it was over. But when I sat up, I felt profound peace. The peace was so enveloping that I looked at her and noticed that I could not imagine how she felt.

The following week, she would announce that she wanted to talk about synaesthesia, and asked what kind I had. She had been on my website, and knew I was an artist, so maybe that's what influenced her guess that I was a color-sound synesthete. "No," I said. "I have Mirror Touch."

"Oh," she said, seriously, "I wish I had known that before we started class."


Another part of being a mother is having to interact with a lot of other kids and parents. If homeschooling, it might mean even more interaction with other kids and parents than one might have if one's children attended school, because one is being proactive about socialization, since that's what everyone will ask about when they first are shocked by the announcement that the kids within earshot are not attending school.

So, hauling them to at least one - no two, because more is better - "Park Days" every week becomes an imperative. On top of that, there are probably one or two private "playdates" at friends' houses, and then on the weekends time with extended family. In a week, a homeschooling mother might see, on average, fifty people, most of whom she has some level of personal knowledge. Maybe she even has some "thing" she talks about with each one of them, and since she is a neurobiologist, it is something along the lines of nutritional or psychological well-being. Technical, but simultaneously emotional stuff. Lots of the moms are worried or flustered when talking with them because one of their kids has some difficulties. Many of them are exhausted. That's a lot of contact. That's not even counting the internet forums, where one is feeling, either correctly or incorrectly, the words spewed forth by people from all over the world.

Maybe this mom had taken a personality inventory when she first got out of graduate school, during the interview process to become a technical recruiter, and the psychologist had said that she "Would be a great recruiter, except [she is] too empathic and it will be psychological torture." Maybe she was offered the job and had the wisdom not to take it.

She said, "No thanks!" and went on her merry way to dirty closets at the Veterans' Administration where she would be degraded by her boss for her ineptitude at being unable to keep 60-70 plates of Henrietta Lacks' cells alive (Hey - her cells are supposed to be immortal!). And that experience would be so insanely isolating that when she became a mother, she wholeheartedly embraced the community of fellow mothers, many of them also empaths.


The thing about Mirror Touch is that sometimes it can have the effect of amplifying emotions, especially in the context where I'm with another empath.

This can be really fun, because it means I make a happy get together even happier!

Or it can be really horrible, as all non-happy feelings get felt deeply and transmuted into despair.

It means that if a person has a convincing mask, I really believe it, unless they clue me in otherwise. Because of the profound empathy I feel, it takes me a long time to give up on a person.

This is precisely the reason a few of my friends told me they didn't want me to do meditation. They were worried I would lose my empathy. That I would be a different person. The kind of person who gives up on others easily.

But what they didn't know is the intensity of my sensitivity - the enormous burden I was carrying. Before I started making art, I remember having the conscious thought that I was giving away little pieces of myself all day long, and that I didn't have anything left for myself. I actually had the thought that this must be what a sex worker feels like. I felt like it was my duty to make life richer for everyone else, without concern for myself.


Invisible Labor is the type of work primarily handled by women in our culture. It consists of all of the thankless (and uncompensated) tasks of motherhood that make life richer for families, like paying the bills, planning vacations, taking care of the automobile maintenance, replacing broken dishes, weeding, shopping for birthday and holiday gifts, making dentist appointments, emptying all the trashcans in the house, going through household stuff to get rid of things... okay, I am going to stop because the point here is that it is all the stuff that someone has to think about, and regularly do.

The commonest complaint among my mom friends, kids in school or not, is lack of time to themselves. I can't even imagine, really... because I try my damndest to have time in Ye Olde Mind Palace, specifically through being fairly heavy handed with my evaluation of whether various "Invisible Labor" tasks are Worth It or not. And frankly, over the years, Elizabeth Stevens, office worker, has decided that All Work and No Play make her a VERY dull girl.

Luckily, play can just mean being alone. It can mean journaling. It can mean drawing, painting or any act of creation. As long as the mind isn't being directed.

And recently, I found, it can mean meditating.


Yale Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that we, as human beings, should do away with empathy. He claims that compassion is superior because it does not incorporate unconscious motivations. With empathy, the feelings of another are felt - unless we are incapable of identifying with the other, for some reason. Prejudice and internal biases, for example, can prevent an empathic reaction. However, it is possible to have compassion for people, because it is a conscious response and can incorporate the conscious decision to ignore our biases. Compassion, therefore, is empathy evolved.

My meditation instructor would argue in favor of compassion in a different way. She explained that profound empathy was due to a loss of the life force, prana. Throughout our lives we are to learn karmic lessons, which essentially help us to reach higher states of consciousness. In Mirror Touch, and empathy, one takes on the karmic lessons of others. We were not meant to take on the karmic lessons of so many other people. Certain Saints were capable of doing this to heal people, but, she said, it is extremely rare.

So, the pain empaths feel for others are the karmic lessons of the other people. The pain manifests as samskara, which are repetitive behaviors, thoughts and emotions. Compulsive repetition of unhealthy behaviors, thoughts and emotions are due to an unconscious desire to avoid a certain pain.

During meditation, as visions are seen (like in my particularly quick trip in the time machine), and symbolize the burning of these painful karmic lessons. During our recollection of our time meditating, I apologized because I thought I might have vocalized, and the class said I had giggled. My instructor thought it was a manifestation of the burning of a samskara. This is precisely when I noticed I could not feel her as I gazed at her.


"There’s some evidence that meditative practice and mindfulness meditation makes you into a sweeter person. There’s no definitive evidence of this, but the argument is that mediation makes you more compassionate by diminishing your empathy, so you can help without feeling suffering." - Paul Bloom, Yale Psychologist


I had figured out, over the past two years or so, how to turn my MTS off and on. So not being able to tap into it at all was - weird. One would think it would be disappointing, but since the inability was accompanied by a profound sense of calm, I was thankful.

I always thought, when someone said, "I feel you," that they really meant it. It's not something I have ever said, but something I have felt deeply for most of my life.

Don't get me wrong - it hasn't been all horrible. As my mom said, once, because of my deep feeling, my life has been full of the highest highs, and the lowest lows. That's a gold mine for a creative person.

I feel like meditation has unlocked the ability for me to have power over whether or not I feel another. Maybe it is the power to fly too close to the sun and come back stronger than ever - one of my very favorite pastimes. So, look out Sun - here I come.

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