When Empathy Says Hello to Suffering
“Your task is not to seek for Love,
but merely to seek and find all the barriers
within yourself that you have built against it"
– Rumi –
Are you kinder to friends than you are to yourself?
It can be a complicated question to unpack. Our culture promises us much in the future if we only could become a little smarter, look a little better, have a few more shiny things.
It's a sense that we are incomplete that keeps some industries humming, and trapping us within a hamster wheel of craving. Even if we get what we want, when the future we imagined finally arrives, the mind moves swiftly to the next thing to strive for, and we tragically miss our own arrival.
Self compassion is essential to a healthy pursuit of self improvement. It's a balance of accepting who we are, and knowing that there is always something to work on. Understanding this both intellectually and experientially develops understanding of ourselves, which inevitably determines how we relate to other people.
“Self-love is an ocean and your heart is a vessel.
Make it full, and any excess will spill over
into the lives of the people you hold dear.
You must come first.”
– Beau Taplin -
In a neuroscience study by Olga M. Klimecki, Susanne Leiberg, Matthieu Ricard, and Tania Singer (Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training, 2013), it was shown that caregivers need go beyond empathy to generate compassion both for themselves and the people they were looking after to avoid the trap of emotionally burning out.
Suffering is part of the human condition. Since our perception & judgement plays a huge role in our experience of the world, how much of that suffering is self-manifested is worth exploring. Let's begin with definitions. Using language to express feelings is always going to be a compromised affair, so rather than fixating on these words, perhaps think about what they mean to you.
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Sympathy means you can understand what a person is going through.
"I understand & care about your suffering"
Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling.
"I emotionally feel your suffering"
Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering a person.
"I want to help address your suffering"
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Sympathy relates to understanding of the suffering of another. I personally like to map it alongside cognitive empathy, where it relates to the understanding of another person's mental state or perspective taking.
There is still deep debate on what the Empathy means, and it has evolved since the early 1900's when it was first coined. While we will anchor this article in the simplistic idea that the difference between sympathy & empathy lies in feeling, it is useful to explore social psychologist Daniel Batson's 8 conceptions of empathy:
1. Knowing another persons internal state, Including thoughts and feelings
2. Adopting the posture or matching the neural responses of an observed other
3. Coming to feel as another person feels
4. Intuiting or projecting oneself into another's situation
5. Imagining how another is thinking and feeling
6. Imagining how one would think and feel in the other's place
7. Feeling distress at witnessing another person's suffering
8. Feeling for another person who is suffering (empathic concern)
This list shows the ebb and flow of these definitions into each other, and it is important not to assume that we have interpreted those feelings correctly. Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, noted four attributes of empathy, that helps us get closer to truth:
1. Perspective taking - walking in the other person’s shoes
2. Staying out of judgment - trying to observe 'as it is' not as you think it is.
3. Recognise emotions - look within yourself to feel, being aware of the context
4. Communication - Checking in and validating the feeling with the other
Compassion arises as empathy meets suffering. The Latin root word of compassion (compati), is explained as 'to suffer with'. It's not about problem solving, which can be a defensive mechanism of preventing our own pain from seeing someone suffer. It is feeling that sorrow fully, for another who is struck by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate that suffering.
That seems a little contradictory, trying not to problem solve while stoking a desire to help others in a tough predicament. However, if you consider that just listening to the other could be the best form of support they need, that contradiction starts to fade. Simply being heard is a powerful thing.
Compassion (and self-compassion) has sometimes been misconstrued as a kind of weakness. Notably, Charles Darwin did not coin the phrase 'survival of the fittest' (it was attributed to Herbert Spencer). Darwin argued that our evolved orientation was in fact, towards compassion. In “On the Origin of Species,” he wrote: “it hardly seems probable that the number of men gifted with such virtues [as bravery and sympathy] ... could be increased through natural selection, that is, by the survival of the fittest.” In his mind, compassion and the resulting cooperation allowed us to build on our social strengths that began in small tribes and continues in large civilisations.
“Those communities which included the greatest number
of the most sympathetic* members would flourish best
and rear the greatest number of offspring.”
- Charles Darwin -
*note: Paul Ekman has argued that Darwin's use of “sympathy,”
today would be termed empathy, altruism, or compassion.
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In order to empathise, the act of listening can be obscured by the natural tendency to problem solve. While there may be good intension behind this volition, it does stand in the way of connection, and sometimes misses the all important step of meeting suffering where it is. Marshall Rosenberg in his book Non-Violent Communication, describes how this happens:
Reassurance: It's not that bad, it could have been worse.
Advice: This is what you should have done …
Educating: If you could just learn to …
Consoling: You did your best!
Shutting Down: Just get over it. It's not that bad.
Interrogating: What, where, when, why and how did …
Correcting: That's not true!
Analyzing: When do you feel this way? Perhaps this is from childhood trauma.
Holding the space for ourselves is a tricky thing. Words like "tell me more" are more powerful than ideas & solutions, because problem solving implies "tell me less". Knowing suffering through awareness also exposes the nature of our own mind to multiply suffering by worrying about it.
"With empathy we don't direct, we follow. Don't do something, just be there."
By meeting suffering with presence, a mutual giving will flow from hearts, sometimes even in pure silence. It is not an easy conversation, but one that is deeply profound. Putting our own ideas, good intensions & ego aside is hard to do, but it's all a practice. With presence, suffering can be a path to the alleviation of that suffering.
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We have some ideas to play with, but there is a fine line between self improvement and self-acceptance. The practice of this stuff has to be balanced with the understanding of our own suffering, feeling for ourselves and meeting ourselves with compassion.
If we can't do it for ourselves, we can never extend it outward. If you have made it this far, how are you gentle with yourself when confronted with painful experiences? Even the pursuit of improving our own capacity for empathy and compassion can conversely pull us further away as we miss self-acceptance and maybe a little kindness.
In her book Self-Compassion, Dr. Kristen Neff describes this tension of the opposites through the balance of self-kindness vs. self-judgment. Self-kindness emerges as a balance to self judgement, to understand that we will always be imperfect, and that life will inevitably bring us unexpected twists and turns. Instead of holding a hot coal of anger for ourselves in our balled up, shaking fists, we gently put it down and soothe our burnt hand. We can't always get what we want. We sometimes fall short of who we want to be. We're human and we will fuck up.
Even reading this article, may be a subtle form of self judgement! It's all about where we are and a deep deconstruction of our intensions. In her book, When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron writes:
In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the temperature, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep looking for alternatives.
In a nontheistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.”
- Pema Chodron -
Knowing that the past is gone, and the future is merely an illusion, the acceptance of ourselves as flawed mortals living in the present starts our journey relating to the wider world. Dr. Neff describes reflecting on our common humanity vs. individual isolation. Our struggles are an intrinsic part of the human experience rather than as proof of our inadequacy, which just leads us to disconnection. Through gentle observation, we can relate our own experiences to those who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation into a larger perspective.
Here is a wonderful illustration by Seeyourwords.com that bring her ideas full circle.
Transforming our empathy into compassion in ourselves is the first step of extending that out into the world. Mindfulness is a state of being aware, being present. In the age of distraction and relentless flows of information, this state of awareness needs to be cultivated through the practice of meditation. Going back to Tania Singer's work on compassion, she studied Buddhist monks - renowned for being experts in "pro-social" meditation and compassion.
When exposed to videos of people suffering, fMRI scans demonstrated that non-meditators would trigger the brain areas associated with unpleasant feelings of sadness and pain. The monks, who have trained for thousands of hours in compassion meditation practices show heightened activity in areas that are important to care, nurturing and positive social affiliation.
In metta meditation, we generate loving kindness toward ourselves and expand it outwards to people we love, to people who we are ambivalent towards, and even to people we don't like. Through this training we extend it ultimately toward all beings everywhere without distinction. Building that muscle could be the most important thing we ever do.
“We need the gentleness and the strength of compassion.
The more lucid we are about the world, the more we accept seeing it as it really is, the easier it is to accept that we cannot face all the suffering that is encountered in the course of our lives unless we have this strength and this gentleness.”
– Christophe Andre -
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