I watch the precious little girl’s sullen look as she pouts her lips and curls up her face, ready to cry.
She is completely absorbed in the cartoon she’s watching, emotionally attached to the lost baby penguin finding its way back home. The scene touches a chord in me as I become emotional myself.
For her ripe young age, this toddler is showing an immense amount of compassion. And I realize, the chord tying us together is empathy.
The word empathy has been thrown around in psychological and wellness-related discourse for a long time, but I still feel it has not been given the necessary mainstream attention, especially in the current times we live in.
I cringe at the thought of living in a world with no empathy at all. I would go so far as to say that we will not survive much longer as a species if we don’t learn how to display more empathy for one another.
Just like anything else in our spiritual life, empathy requires practice. It can be said that some of us are born with a temperament that makes us naturally more empathic. But nonetheless, it is something we must continue to apply in order to make it a part of our life. Is it by no means easy, but the spiritual life was not meant to be easy; it’s meant to be enlightening.
Parents, in particular, play a powerful role in nurturing empathy in their children. I would argue that teaching our kids empathy is just as vital as teaching them to walk, eat or speak. It begins in childhood, where we are first exposed to how our actions affect others.
In order to understand how we can practice more empathy in our everyday lives, let’s take a look at what empathy is and is not.
Empathy is not:
- a half-hearted apology for someone’s situation
- feeling sorry for them
- attempting to change their situation
- giving advice or solving their problem
- endorsing or justifying the harmful actions of others
- identifying with someone’s pain
- putting yourself in their shoes
- compassion for their suffering
- a vicarious experiencing of their feelings or thoughts
- understanding where they come from
When we are empathic towards the pain of others, we enter into it and experience it as our own. We remove the barriers between us and come to see the “other” as simply a reflection of ourselves.
Empathy is the invisible bridge that shatters the distance between people and brings them standing heart to heart. It is the expansion that invites love in and makes room for our humanness. We are forced to surrender our destructive beliefs, and along the way shatter our illusion of separateness.
Empathy is paradoxically a soft, yet potent force. It is graceful in its delivery, and incredibly transformative in its effect. We will recognize the places in our life where we must practice empathy by measuring the difficulty and resistance we have to applying it. It’s hard for me to have empathy for bullies, but when I step back and consider how they might have been raised, what types of parents they had, or where in my own life I bully myself or others, I begin to open the door to a breakthrough.
Empathy allows for the possibility of a different perspective; a more compassionate outlook that is the foundation for resolving conflicts and finding solutions. It takes a stepping back that we may create the space between ourselves and the other large enough to see their whole being, not just their mistakes and harmful choices.
If empathy could be boiled down to one simple statement, it would be this: “What I do unto myself, I do unto others; and inversely, what I do unto others, I do unto myself.”
Dear ones, there is nowhere I end and you begin. We are forsaken silhouettes slowly learning how to come back to life. Our lines are blending into each other without us even knowing. Let us remember that we are merely forms, taking shape in a human body to experience this life. And beyond the form is the formless, the place where our essential nature resides. If we have learned anything these last two millennia, it is recognizing that we are more alike than different. The precursor to that truth is empathy. It is and will always be our saving grace.
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Author: Anokina Shahbaz
Editor: Travis May
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