Shabazz Larkin You know, my own sort of fear of bees…It’s really deep, actually. You know, I’m the guy that, like, when a bee comes across your picnic and he just screams, you know, in a high pitch and runs away, you know, whether you’re at a restaurant or—it’s pretty bad. It’s all I could say about—it’s an embarrassing thing. And now, whenever people see how ridiculous I am, I could say, “Well, guys, it’s so bad, I wrote a book about it.”
I also wrote this book at a time where I think that the world was sort of dealing with a lot of intolerance and fear. And so there is this sort of underpinning in the book about tolerance and sort of understanding that there are some things that are very scary and some things that you feel might hurt you. But the fear alone can get you, you know? And this book was sort of my way of trying to subversively get to some of that.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner, and welcome to The Science of Happiness.
Sometimes the best way to face our fears is to step into them.
Today’s guest did that by researching everything he could about bees and then writing a children’s book about them. Shabazz Larkin is an artist and author of The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter.
Shabazz joins us after taking on another huge fear—but instead of doing it through his writing, he did it through a compassion exercise.
Later in the show, we’ll look at what happens when we train our brains to think more compassionately.
Gonzalo Brito-Pons For instance, people are instructed to walk on the street and to look at people, especially to take interesting people that one wouldn’t look at normally and have this reflection, “Just like me, just like me, just like me.”
Dacher Keltner But first, Shabazz, thanks so much for joining us on the show.
Shabazz Larkin Man, thank you so much for having me on.
Dacher Keltner You know, there’s growing literature on just how important art is to handle fear and shame and trauma. And, you know, the benefits of art therapy. In doing the book, did you become less afraid of bees?
Shabazz Larkin Oh, man. It’s funny because when I finished the book, I remember getting sort of my early copy. And just in that moment, a swarm of bees sort of flew across my path that I remember throwing my books in the air and running away. I’m like, “Well, I guess I didn’t learn much.”
Dacher Keltner So much for literature.
Shabazz Larkin So much for literature! But actually, there is this part in the back of the book that sort of really examines, “Hey, what are the different kinds of bees and wasps and carpenter bees and the honey bees?” and “Oh, that’s a bumble bee. That’s the friendliest of all the bees. Hey, you don’t have to worry about that one.” So far, I’m comfortable with the bumble bee and that’s pretty much it.
Dacher Keltner So for our show, you took on another fear. You tried an exercise where you meditate on your common humanity with a person or people who are different from you and maybe you don’t even agree with. Tell us about this practice.
Shabazz Larkin Well, the common humanity practice is really a meditation. And, it’s a meditation that asks you to see someone that you might be having trouble with—see them just like you, right? They’re someone that has feelings, they’re someone that has hardships, they’re someone that breathes. They’re someone that cries and that they’re ultimately someone who wants happiness and who wants friendship and camaraderie.
Part of the fear that I wanted to overcome is the fear of people. I think that in 2020, it was a year that sort of brought out the best and worst in many of us. And you know, it was a year that my wife and I pulled our kids out of school because of the coronavirus and we homeschooled them. And so, fear of people, right? But 2020 was also a year where my relationship with the church changed dramatically.
I think I, for many years, there were things that I didn’t necessarily agree with from sort of my conservative evangelical background. But, you know, I thought, “Well, it’s still more good happening than bad.” My community’s here, my family, my friends are part of this. But In 2020, it became incredibly obvious and the years sort of leading up to it where, you know, the conservative Christian movement came out to support the the sort of murders that happened in Charlottesville with the Unite the Right rally if you can remember. I had friends that were actually there, you know? And I remember going to church right down the street from the protests and the pastor gets up and he talks about it for two minutes and then he goes on to preach a sermon entitled, “How to get over it.” I couldn’t make this thing up. You know?
Dacher Keltner So, who specifically did you orient those thoughts to?
Shabazz Larkin One time, I picked a really good friend of mine who actually was sort of tantamount in introducing me to Christianity. But in recent years, also sort of showed me, even though that we’re friends, he really hurt me. Because when the George Floyd things were happening, I asked him, “Hey, what were you doing in your church?” He’s a megachurch pastor now in my hometown. And you know, he said, “Well, I can’t really focus on all the racial things because I’d lose all my people.” But, we were best friends like, you know, you wouldn’t care about it enough because of your friend?
And so I looked at him, I thought about him and I sat with him in my meditation. He was my first and I’ll share my last. My last was one of the guys that shot Ahmaud Arbery. One of these these guys that was in—I just saw him on the news and I see him, and he’s the epitome of what I’m afraid of. You know, some guy, this shotgun that sees me or my sons and thinks that we’re not allowed to be there for whatever reason he chooses. And I sat with him.
I certainly felt a softening towards the humanity, to the humans involved. But it’s a luxury—this softening—because I’m not really allowed to sort of live out of that softness outside of this meditation space.
Dacher Keltner Yep. I’m curious if you could describe that softening?
Shabazz Larkin It’s hard to describe because it’s sort of a fantasy. It’s sort of this world that I begin to paint for myself to feel safe and okay. Right? The truth is that I can’t actually be soft. But, the softening, if I were to describe it, comes in the form of “We are the same, we got here the same way.”
And, I’ve actually been there. I’ve actually been the person that I’m afraid of and I know how I got there. I got to say, I sort of know that I’m tricking myself when I do this meditation, right? I know that like, this person doesn’t really actually deserve this humanity that I’m offering. But, I have this empathy because I know how you got there and I know how you make the justifications for the ideas that you have. But it’s important to do the softening because it helps to walk the Earth and helps you to sort of, you know, not be afraid of every single person that you meet.
Dacher Keltner I hear you.
Shabazz Larkin To sort of like, kind of marry this conversation back to my book, I also wrote this book at a time where I think that the world was sort of dealing with a lot of intolerance. And this book was sort of my way of trying to subversively get to some of that.
There’s sort of these words in the back of the book that says “Love will conquer fear.” And it’s sort of like a two edged dagger, right? Because I wrote that as a message to the people that don’t love me. I’m the bee in this book but when the dagger turns around and it shows me, “Hey, also Shabazz, you might have written this book to sort of tell other people to just, “Hey, take the time to get to know each other.’” Because for me, love is understanding. Like, to take the time to understand others will help you to conquer your fear. The same is true for me—I have to take my own advice. You know, don’t swat the bees. The bees are there.
There are people in this world that want to do me harm, but also, you know, just like the bees, if I don’t swat at them, sometimes they won’t sting. And so, I think that in order to be a Black man in this world and sort of live at peace, you have to find a way to stay woke, to stay understanding of your history, but not to swat the bees all the time. And, to sort of understand where they are—and accept where they are—and let that be what it is. Bees will always have stingers, right? So we’re never going to get the stingless form of that. So, the same thing are with people that sort of are scary and mean to hurt and harm you. They’re always going to be there. You just do what you can. Find peace where you can.
Dacher Keltner You know, you’re pushing the common humanity exercise in the toughest context. What do you take from it? What’s it given to you?
Shabazz Larkin You know, the conundrum of this all is that I believe that there’s something innately in our common humanity that makes us more connected and when we can find some common ground—we can feel at home, we can feel safe, we can feel love, we can feel understood. And I believe in the God that’s in you, even though you might not be listening to it yourself or I might not be listening to it myself. Just because this is a hard practice doesn’t mean it’s not one that I don’t believe in.
And I think that that’s sort of the god loving person that still exists in me, wants to see it. That I can see the humanity in people that sort of might be opposed to me and love what I see. So maybe I didn’t do it today, but I have to keep trying. We have to keep trying.
Dacher Keltner Well, Shabazz Larkin, I want to thank you for your extraordinary books. The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter is beautiful and so full of grace and wisdom. Thanks so much.
Shabazz Larkin Thank you for having me.
Dacher Keltner The essence of a common humanity meditation is to cultivate compassion for others through reflecting on our shared experiences as human beings.
We learn how to do this—and also look at the science—up next.
I’m Dacher Keltner, welcome back to The Science of Happiness.
We all have a strong natural tendency to feel compassion for people who are close to us like our friends and family members, and even more broadly for people who think like us, who vote along the same party lines, have similar spiritual tendencies, even listen to the same music.
Shuka Kalantari But, it’s harder to feel that compassion for people who are really different than us.
Dacher Keltner I’m joined by our senior producer, Shuka Kalantari. Hey Shuka.
Shuka Kalantari Hi Dacher. Hi everyone. I’m here to give a run down of how to do the Common Humanity meditation.
Dacher Keltner One of the things I love about this one is that it really traces back to the roots of different cultural and ethical traditions that really get us to think about the fundamental human similarities between ourselves and then other people who are different from us.
Shuka Kalantari That’s right. One tip before we start is to start small. Maybe start with someone who just bugs you, like the parent who always parks in the red lane when you’re trying to drop off your kid at school…I’m venting a little.
Dacher Keltner But you make an important point, Shuka, which is: the goal of the practice is to start slowly and build your compassion. You don’t want to start with your mortal enemy. Instead, you want to start by thinking of somebody you don’t know really well, someone who’s different from you, and even someone you’re in a minor conflict with.
Shuka Kalantari And, here’s how you start. First, you get into meditation mode. So, relax your shoulders and take five or six deep belly breaths and really notice your body and try to soften your body. Once you feel softened in your body, think about that person or those people that you’re in conflict with. And then notice your body and try to soften it again.
From that point, repeat these phrases to yourself:
“This person has a body and mind, just like me.”
“This person has feelings, emotions, and thoughts, just like me.”
“This person has been sad, disappointed, angry, hurt, confused, just like me.”
“They experience pain and suffering, just like me.”
“They experience joy, happiness, peace, just like me.”
“They want fulfilling relationships, just like me.”
“This person wants to be loved, just like me.”
Dacher Keltner How was that for you?
Shuka Kalantari I feel a softening in my body. I feel, just saying those lines quickly, more of a smile on my face, more relaxed when I think about this individual conflict—which doesn’t resolve the conflict but, like, my heart doesn’t tighten when I think about it?
Dacher Keltner I mean it’s amazing, just this simple breathing and reflecting on these important phrases shifts your vagus nerve activation and then when you get to the benefits of this, it’s less stress and lower levels of cortisol, feeling like you have more time, more happiness, better health outcomes.
So, based on these findings, researchers in Chile wanted to see if they could train people to feel compassion. So, they created a ‘compassion boot camp’ that included the common humanity meditation. Shuka, you spoke with the clinical psychologist who did that study.
Shuka Kalantari That’s right. Gonzalo Brito-Pons did an experiment a few years ago to see if he could train people to be more compassionate, and if that learned compassion could make them happier.
Gonzalo Brito-Pons So, we recruited 50 people for the compassion intervention, and we split that group into two groups.
Shuka Kalantari One group took a course called “Compassion Cultivation Training.’’ The other group didn’t do anything. They were put on a waiting list.
The people in the compassion course met once a week for nine weeks straight.
Gonzalo Brito-Pons And we meet for two hours. And in each class, we focus on a specific theme and a specific set of practices that build up the capacity for self-compassion and compassion for others.
Shuka Kalantari The idea is to slowly widen the circles of compassion. First, focus on yourself and the people you love…
Gonzalo Brito-Pons And then we start expanding the circle of compassion with the ideas of common humanity, interdependence, compassion for neutral people, compassion for difficult people, and so on.
Shuka Kalantari A few weeks into the training, everyone was instructed to try out the Community Humanity Meditation.
Gonzalo Brito-Pons For instance, people are instructed to walk on the street and to look at people, especially to take interesting people that one wouldn’t look at normally—one doesn’t feel attraction for them—and have this reflection: “Just like me, just like me, just like me.” So, that’s a way of reinforcing the same perspective of common humanity in and out of the meditation space.
Shuka Kalantari Researchers measured everyone’s well-being before and after the training.
Gonzalo Brito-Pons We included anxiety, stress, depression, subjective happiness, and well-being.
Shuka Kalantari They also measured compassion for self and others, and how much they identified with all of humanity.
Gonzalo Brito-Pons To which extent people can identify with others, even if they’re not their in-group.
Shuka Kalantari People who did the compassion cultivation training reported feeling less depressed and stressed out and also happier and more satisfied with their lives both right after the study and two months later. They also reported feeling more empathic, compassionate, and connected with all of humanity.
When Gonzalo Brito-Pons saw that, yes, you can train someone to be more compassionate and yes, it does make a difference for their wellbeing, he started doing trainings internationally—in Argentina, Colombia, Spain, the U.S. He was surprised by how easy it was to introduce the concept of compassion in all of these countries.
Gonzalo Brito-Pons When I presented compassion sensitivity to suffering—and we all suffer, we can agree on that. I found really like, not much resistance to the concept of compassion. And on the contrary, what I found is that when people get in touch with this mindset of training compassion and see the value of that and the benefit, people are very eager to experiment.
And I’ve been teaching continuously since then until now and every group is filled. There are many peoples everywhere I’ve been going. Many people see the value of training compassion, for self and others.
Dacher Keltner Thank you, Shuka.
On our next episode of The Science of Happiness, we’re going outside to take pictures of the things in nature that move us.
Tejal Rao I would go outside, sometimes with a cup of tea, and just walk around my garden and hummingbirds, little tiny wasps and flies—oh, and this very large cricket—and I also cannot imagine getting tired of it because it keeps changing.
Dacher Keltner What in nature brings you delight? Take some pictures of them and share it with us online by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or using the hashtag happinesspod online.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. Our Senior Producer is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Our Associate producer is Kristie Song. Sound design by Jennie Cataldo at BMP Audio. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.