A Gateway to EmpathyBY LAURENTZ
If you asked me about my spiritual beliefs and practices a few years ago, I didn't really have any. I studied different religious and spiritual beliefs in school. But I’m much more of an earthy, grounded type of person. I’ve really been all about what I can quantify, what I can touch, and what I can measure. I haven’t really been what I would call an empathetic person.
I was born in Alaska and was raised as an Army brat, with both parents in the military. Our neighbors in Alaska were all different ethnicities, Japanese, German, Puerto Rican, and even my babysitters spoke different languages. This was back in the 1960s. Integration wasn’t happening yet in the rest of the United States but it was already well underway in the Army.
When we left Alaska and moved down to Virginia, outside of DC, it was like Future Shock. Every situation showed that I was way behind, socially stunted by living on these Army Reservations. There were so many people, I'd never seen that many people in my life. My environment was fast-pace and loud, TV was so colorful – I was out of my element. It was a major adjustment after being in Alaska for all those years.
Both of my parents came from Cleveland so when my dad retired, we moved there. I went to a mostly black junior high school and it was there I was introduced to racial prejudice for the first time. There was a race war raging, and I hadn’t even know about it, which made me feel sort of betrayed. I was 13 years old when a friend took me to the library and showed me all these glossy pictorial history books of black America, and for the first time in my life I really got that I was a minority and born into being kind of a second class citizen. That was a shock to my system. I felt the heartbreak of it all in that one moment. And then I got angry.
It was this late introduction into racial prejudice and the Civil Rights Movement that put me on a track to study history in college. During my college years I realized that prejudice—racial prejudice, religious prejudice, sexual prejudice—is a long, protracted situation. Even though it looked like there might be a big breakthrough in the 70s, it didn’t happen. And it was depressing to me to realize that it might be hundreds if not thousands of years before humanity gets it right, if it ever does.
I became real pragmatic really fast. Which is why I ended up enlisting in the Army in my early twenties. I’d gotten married, and it just seemed like the right thing to do. I did my basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey and, because I had a college degree, after basic I was asked to go to Officer Candidate School. As a lieutenant, I had to move into a mindset of authority real fast. That's really what made me understand that it’s possible for people to change. When you put people in new positions, they really rise up to it. I saw it in myself. I saw it in the kids I trained. I saw it in martial arts training. If you can support people, give them accolades at the right moment and steer them in the right direction, it builds their egos in a good way, and then they can just go and do all kinds of things they never would have thought possible.
The same thing is true being a teacher. When I retired from the Army, I trained to become a science and mathematics teacher. The kids just amazed me. They were brilliant and caring and so receptive. I think maybe it was being exposed over and over to how people can grow and change for the better given the proper caring and support, that got me into OM.
Right after I retired from teaching, I went to visit my lifelong friend Charles in California and he introduced me to OM. Our friendship is built on a deep trust, so I was ready to try it at his recommendation. My wife, Jennifer, and the kids and I were living in Ohio at the time. And although I introduced Jennifer to the concept and showed her a lot of websites, she just didn’t have any interest in it. But she supports me in the things that interest me and didn’t feel threatened by it, so I started flying back and forth from Cleveland to LA, taking classes to learn more about OM and building my practice
I was enjoying the practice so much, I told everyone I knew about it. At first, my friends who didn’t OM would question me. “Why would you want to do this?” they’d ask. “What do you get out of it?” In the beginning, I didn’t know how to respond to that. I knew something was coming but I didn’t know what exactly. My first OM was awkward – getting into position, doing all the steps in the right order – it was a lot to remember, while also focusing my attention on feeling whatever was going on in my body. It was with a woman who had been practicing OM for a while. She was very supportive, she understood I was new at this and still learning. I could feel her body respond while I was stroking, and I liked the feeling of sitting inside the reception of a woman in the OM.
OM also connects me back to my younger self who was open and inquisitive, exploring beliefs and things that can't be seen, trying new things. Growing up, I read a lot about Kirlian photography and how we have all these different energy bodies around us that we can't see with our eyes. But they're there. Through OM I’ve learned to feel them. Six months into my practice, I realized that I could feel what my partner was feeling. This was a first for me, experiencing limbic resonance and empathy. We are connected in a way I didn’t know was possible.
OM is increasing my sensitivity to all kinds of things. Overall, I’m just becoming a better person. When I'm talking to people, I'm much more into listening. I'm much more patient. I used to be the kind of person who would argue and have to get my point across and be heard. But I'm not like that anymore. I'm listening. I'm feeling and looking out for the other person.
Right now, I’m taking care of my mom, who is 88. The new empathic skills I’ve been learning, the patience and openness, have made it so much easier for both of us to be around each other in what otherwise would have been a trying situation. I'm straddling the line of empowering her to have autonomy, while at the same time taking care of her needs and my own.
The OM practice has been a gift to me and all others that I’m around. I have found it to be a true gateway to empathy.