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"This Story is Not Meant for You": A Lesson into Empathy through Mindfulness with Dr. Step

How can mindfulness teach empathy? Or what is ‘mindfulness’ in the first place? Dr. Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, an American Japanese psychologist and co-founder of LifeWorks at Stanford University, shed some important light on these questions during a weekly meeting of the "Mind, Body, and Culture Workshop" organized by the Stanford Research Group on Collective Trauma and Healing. During the session, fittingly entitled “This Story is Not Meant for You,” Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu raised profound and often uncomfortable questions about race, identity, and the search for human connection. Drawing upon his family history and personal experience, he told the workshop about the practice of mindfulness, encouraged participants to share their own stories, and asked the group to consider what makes certain stories appropriate or not appropriate for certain audiences.

Dressed in a black kimono, Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu opened the workshop by standing at the front of the room and delivering a long monologue in Japanese. The audience’s discomfort and uncertainty was palatable. After speaking for several minutes, he stopped and asked participants to share how they were feeling and what they were thinking as he spoke in Japanese. The group agreed that the experience made them feel uneasy, anxious and even encouraged detachment and judgement towards him. Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu explained that he opened the workshop with this exercise to make participants feel vulnerable, uncertain, and even disoriented. By cultivating a sense of bewilderment among the audience, he encouraged them to abandon any assumptions or expectations they may have brought to the session.

This exercise also introduced the group to mindfulness, the practice of focusing on the present moment and becoming aware of one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. By asking the audience to mindfully consider the feelings of discomfort and uncertainty they felt while he spoke Japanese, Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu encouraged the group to open up to the feelings, perceptions, and experience of those around them and, by doing so, to transcend the barriers that often prevent us from empathizing with and understanding others.

“If You Want to be Japanese, Wear a Kimono”: Questions of Authenticity in Storytelling

Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu then asked the audience a simple question: why did he choose to wear a kimono to the workshop? What ideas or feelings did this garment conjure in the audience? Participants responded that it set him apart from others in the room, served as a marker of culture, and also could be used as a means to establish authenticity. Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu playfully responded that “trying to look like them” is a very common strategy when trying to tell a story or represent a community.

But to complicate the matter further, he pointed out the ways that his kimono did not actually represent “authenticity” in the way the audience first assumed. For one, he wore it incorrectly, crossed in front in the wrong direction; he was not wearing an obi; and the kimono did not have his proper mon or kamon, a symbol used to identify a family. Those who knew about Japanese culture may have noticed these elements immediately, but for others it raised questions about the authenticity of both the kimono and his identity as Japanese. This exercise raised broader issues about the socially-constructed meanings we associate with cultural signifiers or simply paraphernalia we use to represent ideas and express identity. As Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu himself pointed out, this also raised pointed doubts about whether he really had the authority to tell Japanese stories. The exercise thus served as an important discussion of cultural appropriation: just how Japanese was he really? And how and why did this matter?

Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu devoted the rest of the workshop to the story of his personal and scholarly journey to “find his people”--mixed-race population of Japan that descended from foreign soldiers who came to the country in World War II and, in some cases, remained there afterwards. His journey led him to Okinawa Island, where he grappled with the challenge of how the stories of this group could be told, and whether or not they should be told at all. He documented this experience in his book, When Half is Whole. The book collects the stories of multi-ethnic Asian American people whose lives were balanced between diverse cultural heritages, social constructs, and identities that transcended borders. The stories detailed how the storytellers balanced their “halves” and found meaning in multiethnic roots.

On Becoming "Whole"

Stories of feeling fragmented and becoming whole resonate with many people of multi-ethnic backgrounds. The process often involves seeing and exploring how one has connections with others. Once this journey of discovery is undertaken, the individual realizes that there is much more uniting human beings than separating them. This insight raises key questions about the significance of contested concepts of race and ethnicity. Would their omission resolve the emotional and psychological disconnect they often reinforce? If we did not have these concepts, how would we make sense of who we are? Considering that so much of our sense of identity stems from our social, cultural, and ethnic heritage, how would we construct a sense of identity? Possibly only by balancing a deep awareness of the social realities of race and ethnicity with an understanding of their superficial meaning.

According to Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu, Eastern cultures provide an answer to this question in the dual concepts of “yin” and “yang”: contradictory, yet complementary forces that together make a whole stronger than either of the two parts. This way of holistic thinking can create balance in life where one might only perceive dissonance or disconnectedness. People, he stated, are complex beings. And although aspects of our identity may not always be in agreement, that does not mean they have to be in opposition. Understanding and valuing how individuals can embody two very different identities is an important tool that allows us to see and accept human beings for the complex creatures as they are.

The Value of a Counter-Story

According to Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu, stories serve as medicine. To explain this assertion, he recalled how Okinawa Island today has been shaped over decades by the American military base it hosts. The base has been blamed for social problems such as high rates of school drop-outs, drugs, and prostitution, and the mixed-race descendants of American soldiers have been stigmatized as living symbols of these social ills. When he first began his work with multi-ethnic Okinawans, Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu thought that sharing their stories would help bring these negative experiences to light.

But he began to question whether his telling their stories would contribute or counter the dominant scapegoating narrative. For one, many residents were reluctant to have their stories shared, as they felt embarrassed by their experiences or felt it would cast them in a negative light. For Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu, the ethics in these cases were clear: whether or not individuals had signed a disclosure agreement, or even once him manuscript had been accepted for publication, he would--and did--withdraw any story at the request of the person. He, after all, did not “own” these stories once they were told to him; he was a guest in these communities, there to learn the stories of residents and only sharing them with their consent.

But he also concluded that simply telling stories that countered existing stereotypes would do nothing to challenge the structures, events, prejudices, and inequalities that shaped the circumstances in which mixed-race Okinawans lived. Instead, he believed the best means to counter stereotypes was to tell a number of diverse stories to portray a more holistic picture of the residents of Okinawa, thereby humanizing them. By telling stories in a way that didn’t betray the identity of individuals or fixate on issues tied to a specific race or ethnicity, he believed the stories could speak directly to the experience of mixed-race people in Western societies.

Scholarly Identity vs. Personal Identity in Academic Work

The most poignant lesson learned from Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu’s workshop was the injection of the “self,” i.e., one’s personal identity, into storytelling, especially within academic work. His workshop drew attention to the fact that as humans, we live in and through stories. The body of work he discussed made it evident how stories and storytelling can deepen our lives. He also imparted to us the importance of interweaving our personal and professional self. He made us reflect how as scholars we must insert who we are and where we come from in the work we produce in order for it to be meaningful. He stressed that bringing “self” in to our work would encourage empathy and understanding which would ultimately inspire change.

The question underlying Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu’s workshop was a simple one: who has the right to tell stories of a particular community? In my own cross-cultural study of immigrants in Canada from 2000 to 2003, I encountered numerous challenges relevant to this question. My research explores personal immigration and integration experiences of the culturally diverse, foreign-trained professional migrants in London, Ontario. The study was based the marginalised accounts of a specific constituency group of these professionals-- such, the way in which these individuals gave meaning to their experience was at the core of my study (Stanley & Wise, 1993). Cohen and Taylor (1977: 76) argued that the right to control talk has often been a prerogative of the powerful within the society. Cohen and Taylor claimed that: “Talk [could] be deviant… and controlling the right to talk [may be used as] a tool for protecting the powerful.” (Ibid.) Given this, the methodological approach for this study was guided by a commitment to conducting non-hierarchical, non-exploitative, and reciprocal research (For examples see Oakley 1981; Finch, 1984; Mirza, 1998, Skeggs, 1994).

Nevertheless, cross-cultural research brings its own particular set of epistemological and methodological difficulties. For instance the researcher’s self-representation and demographical identity (age, gender, ethnicity, class, level of education, etc.) and religion/faith, political views, physical appearance and even attire, as well as broader cultural/societal perceptions and stereotyping encourage “insider”/ “outsider” polarity rooted in “race” and ethnic matching between the researcher and the researched. Such polarity influences the extent to which rapport is established with the participants (Berik, 1996; Bhopal, 1995; Egharevba, 2002; Marshall, 1994; Mizra, 1998; Phoenix 1994; Rakhit, 1998; Raza, 1992; Reinharz, 1992).

Research participants often have their own prejudiced preference for the type of researchers they are interested in engaging as well. On several occasions I was explicitly told by the participants, “I wasn’t expecting someone like you doing this research!” referring to my age and disposition, which was supposed as essentially “too young” and “Westernised”. Moreover, my dual cultural identity and assigned positioning as either “Canadian” or “Iranian” resulted in certain level of “disidentification” (Song & Parker, 1995: 246) by the participants, which in turn influenced the nature of stories they shared with me. As a result, shifting how I understood my own identity had both a negative and positive impact on the interviewing relationship in terms of what participants told me and my interpretation of points of connection and distance within the interview process.


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