A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behaviour of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.
This is evidently the only way a human can take in information aside from using one’s own experience and therefore accumulation of sensory inputs. Vicarious experience, mirroring someone else’s experience, can convey content that is not rational but bodily, like emotion. When we watch other people, if we have functioning mirror cells (which are above the eyebrows behind the forehead bone), detectably our muscles and emotions go along with those we are watching. This is the basis of theatre and of psychological therapy.
Eugene Gendlin’s idea about “Focusing” depends upon imagery to metaphorically clear a floor or stage for action, to take us to a special place in our brains that Victor Turner made famous as “liminal space.” It is a mode in which a person can feel safe and supported. Gendlin recommended that this be done with an understanding (mirroring) friend who could provide a “holding companion.” He maintained this could even be done on the telephone, even if the persons were not speaking. Carl Rogers taught how to be a “holding companion,” though he was mocked as being only a mirror. That, in itself, turned out to be powerful. A family, a friendship, an institution, can also be a “holding community” -- or not -- and much of the “holding” seems to be a matter of empathy, someone who “feels with” the person. If there is too great a distance between the beliefs and practices of the persons, maybe due to being from different cultures, empathy will be difficult -- maybe impossible.
An intimacy is formed by empathy. Also dependable bonding. We tend to interpret new intimacies according to our experience of previous intimacies. In terms of therapy this is called “transference,” but in being a “holding companion” the therapist supplying empathy also experiences counter-transference. The idea is to re-live or at least recognize the places where structural assumptions became unreal or damaging and then find the courage to change them. Since they are actually recorded and embedded in neurons, this is not easy.
In theatre the actors offer vicarious experience to an empathic audience. The stage defines the “safe place.” Whether this works or not depends on the skill of the actors and director in identifying and conveying chunks/structures that the audience can recognize and accept as real, or at least meaningful, because they relate to the cultural structures of the audience.
In the church the congregation might be audience or actors or a combination. The word for their “safe place” is “sanctuary” which is meant to suggest that it is a protected place and that what happens there is “liminal,” which is a metaphorical way to say one has entered over the threshold into a boundaried protected place. The “holding community” is certainly -- and ought to be -- the congregation, but it is understood as being held in the “hands of God” by those who are believers.
One of the questions going around in the years that I was a minister was how many needy parishioners one congregation could “hold” without falling apart because of being overwhelmed. This assumes that needy people are not capable of “holding” other people and reveals that the congregation is based on weak bonds. The more intense and clear the shared belief system might be, the more needy parishioners they can absorb.
Circling back around to the larger society, states and nations, cultures, the same dynamic operates. If those larger social bodies believe that what matters is prosperity and individuality (entitlement through status), then their natural response will be to stop “holding” those who seem unnecessary or damaging, a drag on the system. In fact, there may be successful efforts to simply forcibly eliminate them as a category. We call this genocide and we name the systematic destruction of Jews and American Indians, those sexually out of the mainstream, and any other stigmatized groups including criminals -- whom we fancy are a coherent group. (They certainly are if they are imprisoned, which is a toxic version of a “holding community.”) To use stigma, withdrawal of “holding” support, and genocide requires that the persons who promote and protect stigma deny and repress empathy. Most people can do it.
Empathizing with stigmatized persons is dangerous, partly because the larger society will extend the stigma to any connected or defending persons and partly because the “holding” person may lose their own internal boundaries and join the stigmatized group. Ace Powell, alcoholic cowboy artist used to say, “Shake hands with the Devil and He will pull you into Hell.”
But there is another danger, less perceived or discussed, but fairly pernicious. If a “helping” person loses or never had an empathic “feeling with” connection to the stigmatized whom they help, and is engaging in it as a practice that will give them status and admiration, then it is patronizing. We CALL them “patrons.” It creates a class barrier, a power gradient that goes only one way. The patron acts on his own behalf, not that of the receiver, and therefore may be inappropriate or even damaging. Too often we send high heeled evening sandals to nomadic desert people because we know how to dress up, but not how to walk in the Sahara.
The receiver has some obligation to provide the information that would evoke empathy, but since what support there is from society often comes in the form of authorities trying to enforce compliance to rules and protocols, it takes a huge leap of energy -- which may not be there -- to get the appeal out where it can be responded to by the larger culture. Some of the energy can come from affinity groups making common cause -- AA or NA or (gulp) the NRA -- some of it comes from having a strong and clear grip on the intense meaning of their internal belief systems. Some can come from art, esp. revolutionaries and guerrillas. Tell the stories. Make the world vivid. Expose hearts and minds. This means self-examination. You’ll need a mirror.