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From Empathy to Compassion-- Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

Updated: May 30, 2022

Human kindness is as natural as human selfishness. We can tip the balance by shifting our focus to one or the other.

By Fleet Maull, PhD, CMT-P

Most of us likely know people who seem naturally kind and giving—who are always doing good deeds: bringing homeless people hot food, visiting the elderly, or reaching out to neighbors who are ill. We see these individuals perform these acts of kindness quietly, without fanfare, as if it were the most natural thing to do. We might think that such people are the exception—even saints, in some cases. But the fact is that we are all wired for instinctual empathy, compassion, and altruistic behaviors; it’s just that other factors sometimes get in our way. Culturally, most of us grew up with the widely held belief that humans are naturally selfish, competitive, and greedy. It’s not hard to see how such a collective negative view of human nature becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we expect others to operate from a default mode of self-centeredness, we might then conclude that it would be naïve not to focus primarily on getting our own needs met, even at the expense of others, since that appears to be how the game is played. Though we still hear about positive values of respect, kindness, and compassion in the public square, our modern winner-take-all culture is actually centered around the worship of wealth, celebrity, power, and—above all—winning at all costs. We propagate this negative outlook on human nature to our significant detriment and peril.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama explains: From my own limited experience, I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. . . Ultimately, the reason why love and compassion bring the greatest happiness is simply that our nature cherishes them above all else. The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence. It results from the profound interdependence we all share with one another.

Some of us may feel the need to cultivate these prosocial mind states for immediate personal reasons: a general dissatisfaction with our lives; the pain of internationalized trauma, shame, and oppression; increasing isolation and loss of community. Perhaps we just feel the need to care because deep down inside we always have. Whatever your aspirations—to be happier, enjoy more rewarding relationships, create more abundance or financial security, or help establish a more equitable and sustainable global society—you can begin by recognizing the futility and destructive nature of fear-based, reactive-survival mode coping strategies. And from there you can begin to cultivate your potential for caring, compassionate, and altruistic behaviors in service of co-creating a more enlightened society for all—a healthy and sustainable world that we can pass on to our children and grandchildren. Cultivating greater empathy and compassion for our own and others’ very human struggles is a great place to begin. EMPATHY The meaning and use of the word empathy has varied over time, but I like to define it as the capacity to feel with relative accuracy what another is feeling, not simply through making an observational assessment but by actually experiencing similar feelings in oneself. In other words, when we feel the happiness or distress of another person, we may actually experience happiness or distress ourselves. What we do with that experience is another matter altogether. Sensing another’s happiness could, on the one hand, produce feelings of sympathetic joy, a traditional Buddhist term meaning that we are happy for another person’s happiness. On the other hand, it could lead to feelings of envy, jealousy, resentment, or unworthiness. Our capacity to feel what others are feeling is sometimes referred to as resonating with them. Resonance as a scientific term describes how vibrating systems impact one another in terms of the amplitude and frequency of oscillations and how one system can become entrained with another. Related: Double-Edged Empathy Psychotherapists use the term empathic resonance to describe a therapist’s ability to provide a client with the experience of being seen and understood. In psychiatrist Daniel Siegel’s words, the client feels felt, an experience that has tremendous potential for fostering healing and improved integration of brain function.

COMPASSION Empathy doesn’t necessarily lead to compassion—that is, the desire to alleviate the suffering of others. In order to better how to cultivate greater compassion, it helps to define compassion more precisely as a caring response to another’s distress or suffering. This can take two forms:

  1. Being willing “to suffer with” another; to bear witness and not turn away in the face of their distress; to accompany and provide solace to them through one’s caring presence.

  2. Acting to alleviate or mitigate another person’s distress or suffering.

The first form of compassion described above is critical to any genuinely compassionate response to another’s suffering. In some instances, this may be all we can do in the moment, or it may be the most truly supportive thing to do for someone in pain. Any rush to fix or alleviate another’s suffering—unless it is something as simple as lending a hand to someone who has fallen or calling for help in a medical emergency—may, in fact, be more about alleviating our own empathic distress. However, the willingness to patiently accompany another in their time of suffering with care and awareness—while realizing it is not one’s own, despite feeling empathic distress—may be the necessary means for discovering how we can best help that person. So compassion is the willingness to be with suffering—our own and that of others—without resentment, blame, or other fear-based, reactive-survival mode behaviors that will just make the situation worse. Acceptance is key to embracing suffering, our own and others’, in responsive-relational mode as well as a radical act of self-empowerment. I think of the Serenity Prayer here, which could just as easily be called the Wisdom Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The power of acceptance can’t be overestimated. Accepting the basic fact of the suffering and pain we witness and remaining willing to experience it is what allows us to access our innate capacities for compassion. Our initial impulse may be to turn away from suffering. Our empathic sensitivity may even trigger avoidance mechanisms or fight-flight-freeze responses. However, we can also recognize our empathic distress as the natural response of our tender and vulnerable heart to the pain of others. Doing so will help us shift away from a threat-avoidance response, move into a healthy stress response, and discover the courage to move from empathy to compassion. As we learn to recognize our experiences of empathetic distress as the first sign of our compassion response, we develop even more confidence in our basic goodness. Living bravely with empathic awareness, when I encounter someone’s sadness, it touches me—I care and resonate with their feelings. It’s more than a disinterested observation of what another person is experiencing: it actually opens my heart. This doesn’t mean that I have to respond in some way, or even that a response would be helpful. It does mean that I’m living courageously with an open heart and developing greater confidence in my own and others’ basic humanity. We don’t have to be victims of our conditioning or even our genetics. There are countless examples of people facing the worst circumstances imaginable who have chosen to rise above their situation with self-compassion and bravery. We can do that too. It’s all right there within our reach. Adapted from Radical Responsibility: How to Move Beyond Blame, Fearlessly Live Your Highest Purpose, and Become an Unstoppable Force for Good, by Fleet Maull, PhD. Sounds True, May 2019. Reprinted with permission. This article was originally published on June 14, 2019.

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