Can Trees and Animals Show Empathy and Altruism?

Empathy is a genuine part of our own nature. Moreover, we can improve this quality by training our brain through the practice of focused meditation, mindfulness and loving kindness. But, are humans the only beings capable of showing these positive traits of kindness, compassion and empathy towards our fellows? What about other living beings, like animals and trees? Which lessons can we learn by observing the natural world around us?

Empathy and altruism in non-human animals

Photo credits: Zanna Clay

The answer is, we are not unique in this, and by observing the natural world we can find many examples. In the book The Age of Empathy, biologist Frans De Waal shows innumerable evidences of altruistic and empathetic behaviours in various species of animals, mostly based on his own scientific studies of great primates, such as chimpanzees, bonobos and capuchins. These studies show how they have a true capacity for fairness, and reciprocity; they care about their peers and are willing to help each other, in some cases even risking their own lives to do so. 

In the case of chimpanzees, for example, these traits of empathy and compassion have a determining role in maintaining the cohesion and social harmony of the group. Thus, males or females occupying the highest hierarchical positions can have the key roles in resolving conflicts, often intervening when disputes between the members of their group become more aggressive and helping to mediate reconciliation. As a consequence, these individuals on top of the chimpanzee social hierarchy, are extremely important in sustaining the peace and survival of the members of their groups.

But, what about plants? – The Wood Wide Web

Wood Wide Web by “Hiking Artist”

It’s been recently discovered that empathy, as an ancestral trait, characterizes not only animals, but also plants. Studies conducted by Suzanne Simard, who has spent more than 30 years studying communication among trees in temperate forests, have shown how trees have an intricate system of communication in the soil through their roots, that extend even for kilometres in the forest, as if it was an immense underground secret “internet”. This system of communication and exchange of information through a network is called Wood Wide Web and consists of mycorrhizas. The word mycorrhiza describes the mutually-beneficial relationships that plants have, in which the fungi colonize the roots of plants. The mycorrhizae connect plants that may be widely separated. This network promotes communication between one tree and another, even allowing them to distinguish between those who are their direct relatives and those who are not.

This communication system is so complete and effective that it considerably helps the survival of the trees, allowing coordinated actions in case of emergencies which lead to a remarkable solidarity between individuals. Thus, this underground network between roots and fungi allow them to transfer nutrients, share information about hazards such as pests, and also allow them to attack invasive plants or predatory animals. When a tree feels threatened by a pest (insect attacks, for example) or by other plants such as weeds, it sends a signal to other trees to produce a protective barrier in the form of volatile substances that modify the production of proteins, giving the leaves an unpleasant taste.

Solidarity in the vegetal kingdom

Photo by Ryan Wan on Unsplash

On the other hand, larger trees (called Hubs or Mother Trees) give part of their nutrients to the smallest, favoring and protecting their growth. But this help does not only happen between relatives of the same species, but also between different species that are interdependent, which would be signs of solidarity in the vegetal kingdom. Regarding this, researcher Suzanne Simard stated: “We all know that we favor our own children, and I wondered if cedar trees could recognise seedlings from its own species. So, we started our experiment by growing mother trees along with “kin” seedlings and “foreign” seedlings. As a result we evidenced that they do recognise their relatives, but not only that: mother trees colonised their “kin” seedlings with larger mycorrhizal networks, sent them more carbon underground, and even reduced the competition of their own roots to give more space to these seedlings to grow. So, mother trees created a frame for their children in order to secure their survival. In other words, we found that trees can really speak.”

Featured image: credits 

 

Why Taking Time for Yourself and Meditation Is Not a Selfish Act?

“You can’t pour from an empty kettle” is a common saying, but one that nobody seems to live by. Increasingly, it seems that taking time out for yourself is a selfish act. Meditation is often seen as an even more selfish act because modern people don’t often understand the benefits of meditation. The ability to sustain silence, quiet, and look inward is a self-survival tool. In fact, meditation is an effective stress management tool, and stress is linked to a number of diseases. A stressed out person is not operating at full capacity which means every part of their life is suffering from health to all types of relationships.

Stress is not success

Stress has been linked to depression, anxiety, heart diseases, and the exacerbation of countless injuries, diseases, and disorders. Still, we live in an era where “stress” is equated with hard work, and hard work is revered. Another common saying is to work better, not harder, and that “mantra” is often ignored, too. Somehow, we’ve developed into a society where the mark of a “good person” is that they’re constantly on the go and busy. That’s not necessarily the mark of a good or even successful person. It might just be the sign of a person who doesn’t take time for themselves, doesn’t know how to say no, and isn’t giving 100 percent to any of their endeavours.

Taking time for yourself isn’t selfish. Meditation isn’t selfish. Rather, taking time for yourself and giving yourself permission to meditate means that you are making sure your machine is working at top capacity before giving away any of your resources. Consider if you had a collaborative project meeting at six in the morning. However, you were so busy the day before with other tasks that you didn’t go to sleep until midnight. You were so worried about an unrelated event earlier in the day that your sleep was compromised. When you do get to the early morning meeting, you’re tired and might be on your third cup of coffee (the caffeine further stressing you out).

Do you think you’d be a very good or effective team member? Probably not. Simply showing up doesn’t mean that you’re successfully joining the meeting.

Types of Meditation

However, if you take time for yourself, you allow the body to recuperate. Meditation is the practice of sitting in comfortable, sustained relative silence. You’ll have outside thoughts creep in. Acknowledge them and send them on their way. Pranayama, or breath control, can be part of a meditation practice (either before or during). Relaxing pranayamas such as three-part breath allow you to concentrate on counting breaths and the inhalation, hold, and exhalation which helps keep outside thoughts at bay.

Others prefer to meditate with japa beads, which are 108 beads similar to a rosary. You recite a mantra, internally or externally, as you roll the bead between your fingers. The mantra should be positive, short and sweet. Some people prefer to chant the names of Hindu deities, while others prefer a secular but heartfelt saying.

Making Time for Yourself

Making time for yourself and meditation don’t have to eat up a lot of time. You don’t need to travel far or black out a large chunk of time for these mini-retreats. A lot of people prefer to meditate first thing in the morning and right before bed. For newcomers to meditation, five minutes is a great starting point. Moreover, taking time for yourself doesn’t always have to include meditation, though it can. It does need to be a relaxing, enjoyable experience though where you feel the stress in your body reducing. It can be virtually anything from a manicure session to a walk around the neighborhood. The only rule? No multitasking with tasks that can cause stress.

 

You want to give the best of yourself to the people in your life, particularly your loved ones. However, if you don’t take time for yourself, how present will you be at date night? How about at your child’s recital or during that important meeting? Selfish is putting yourself before others regularly with no care to how that affects your relationships with them — taking time for yourself couldn’t be farther from this definition. When you take care of yourself, you’re ensuring a higher quality relationship with yourself and with others. When you meditate, you re-learn how to appreciate and recover by way of quiet and reflecting inwards. Both are important tools in a society where we’re expected to be “on” all the time. Consider them a means of survival and bettering every other part of your life.

This is a collaborative post supporting our Peace In Peace Out initiative.