Empathy: Flowing with Others
Dr. Stephen Fulder
Empathy is a quality that all of us know something about. It is our ability to feel with others, to feel what they feel, to know something about what they are going through. Empathy is about feelings, it is not about cognitive processes. We can be aligned with the views of someone else, belong to the same group, understand what they are talking about, and yet empathy is missing. Our daily life is full of encounters, whether productive or not, in which we are as distant at the end as at the beginning, and we can get no sense of what is going on behind the screen of the other’s eyes. But we can also really sense where someone is coming from, even if we disagree with their views.
Empathy is the kind of intuitive and emotional knowing that reaches inside the other, inside the well manicured public face, inside the mask that we all wear towards the outside world. It is a knowing that is non-verbal, non-conceptual, and non-cerebral. It is beyond time. Empathy is in the first impressions, the immediate sense we have about the inner world of another. If we have to think about it, we have already lost it.
Many of us feel that we don’t have enough empathy, and indeed this is often the case. It is most clear to us in the field of family and couple relationships which can be a garden if there is empathy and a prison if there is not. How often do we hear the refrain – ‘he doesn’t understand me’, ‘she doesn’t know what I am going through’, ‘we are living in separate worlds’, ‘I can’t get through’. In those situations we can often feel completely helpless at our inability to know what someone close to us is feeling, and we don’t know how to develop that power.
The strange thing is that we all do have empathy to some degree, from childhood. Before learning speech, children communicate by body language, emotion, signs, and so on. They know immediately what a mother is feeling toward them. It is an intuitive reading of subtle clues and subliminal messages that express outwardly the inner climate. We all start off with this power, although in some cases such as Asperger’s Syndrome, it may be reduced. But then something happens. We lose it. Where did it go? The answer is that it didn’t go, it got covered over by layers logical thinking, concerns, busyness, planning, information and the emotional anaesthesia that we often need to cope with the demands and threats of the adult world.
Therefore to be more empathic is as much about removing the blockages as learning the emotional intelligence and intuition. One of the best ways both to develop empathy and remove the blocks, is mindfulness meditation. This is the practice of mindful attention on what is really happening in the present moment, and not just on our comments and thoughts about it. Mindfulness meditation can be practiced by careful and persistent attention to the simple experiences of life that are usually below our radar. The touch of our feet on the ground as we walk, the weight of our body on the chair, the rising and falling of the stomach as we breath, the sensation of the breeze on our cheeks, the sounds of the birds in the trees, the moment of stopping when we look up into space from our computers. From there we can move into the world of feelings, paying a similar close and caring attention to the peaks and valleys of the inner emotional landscape of our life. We embrace with our awareness all the range, from ecstasy to misery and everything in between. Intimacy with this territory in our inner world, will help us become familiar with the inner world of others. We will know what is behind those eyes of another that look at us pleading for understanding and contact, because we will have seen it behind our own eyes.
We can also direct ourselves to be more empathic by just being interested and curious about others as we go through our ordinary life. It simply needs an intention. As we go into a shop, can we feel what it might be like to be in the shoes of the sales lady? or the clerk at the bank, the bus driver or the lady walking her dog in the morning? It needs an energy, a bit of effort. Look people in the eyes, watch their body language, look what they are saying with the lines carved into their faces. How is their life treating them? Let our intuition speak, let first impressions arise, passing insights. The effort needed is not just about watching, as if we are a good policeman. We need to get out of our comfort zone, to jump out of our perpetual self-concern and self-importance and let the others in. At first this will be difficult, but if we persist, it becomes easier and easier. So in your next work meeting, just take the time to look at each person as he speaks and ask yourself again and again what is really going on with him or her, what it is like to be in their shoes right now. Suddenly this meeting will become a spiritual experience for you…..and just watch how it changes the atmosphere.
Our heart responds to others if we can be totally there for them when they tell us their story. There is nothing that can bring us so close to someone as deeply listening to their honest expression of the suffering they are going through. Listen deeply, drop our perpetual self-interest and self-obsessions, and let our heart resonate with the experiences of others. See how our heart expands. Empathy drives compassion, and compassion drives empathy.