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Empathy is “a quality of character that can change the world,” as the first Black United States president said.
Hemingway, Steinbeck, Einstein, Gandhi, Susan Sarandon, Harper Lee, and Amit Ray agree.
Empathy is a wild stallion—lead it to its pasture, and compassion.
Karen Armstrong, a scholar whose famous TED talk offered the idea of bringing back the Golden Rule, suggests that rationality without compassion and empathy leads us astray. Empathy and compassion are different qualities. It is important to understand the difference between them so that we do not become swamped in empathetic distress, followed by the numbing out of suffering.
What’s the difference and how do we know how to regulate empathy so that it blossoms into caring action?
A petri dish for such a study is the mission work with the dying, in hospices and elsewhere. When we sit with a dying person, their suffering may penetrate us beyond our ability to process it. We may empathize so intimately that our body begins to experience the amygdala fight-flight-freeze response.
At that level, we have lost contact with whose suffering it is. This is empathy in overdrive. The problem with this is that we may turn away from the person who needs us if we do not have the skill to recognize what is happening, to come back into our own personal experience (we are not the one dying), and find a way to move toward the suffering of the other person so that they can experience the warmth and relaxation that they need.
If we want to be of help to those around us, we have to learn how to move toward suffering—this is hard.
A pioneer in hospice work, Frank Ostraseski, speaks of the willingness to stay in the room—a bravery, a courage to stay. He isn’t speaking only of being with the dying. He is talking about a “misperception of the way reality works…an ignorance of our basic nature. [We] fail to understand that we are interconnected and mortal. We are continually tripping into suffering.”
We cannot aim to embrace all suffering. But, we can expand our capacity to stay in the room.
During an online conference on Love and Death at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, Ostraseski discussed how we procrastinate our relationship with empathy, and thus, compassionate action.
Three Ways we Procrastinate our Relationship with Empathy:
We demand that things be other than they are. We have an inner thirst or hunger that has us always striving for an unattainable goal. So, we stay in a cycle of suffering. We feel this in the body as an energetic pull. We lean forward in life. Inherent in this demand is a sense that life is not good enough.
We are defended against life. We’re always finding enemies around us. We are endlessly occupied with strategies of control. We create conflict all around us and within our own being.
Whether it’s multitasking or following shiny objects, distraction is tied to our lack of trust in our capacity to meet suffering in ourselves and others.
What can we do to avoid empathy overload?
Melissa West, Ayurveda and yin yoga teacher in Victoria, B.C., suggests some techniques to better our relationship with empathy and compassionate action:
>> A little at a time, we can expand our window of tolerance. If we are out of our window of tolerance—get into it.
>> If we’re triggered and feeling overwhelmed, get in touch with the physical body. Deliberately slow down the breath. The sympathetic nervous system calms when the out-breath is longer than the in-breath. For example: two counts in, four counts out.
>> Stay present.
>> We don’t have to fill the space with words. We can listen.
>> If we feel uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean we must fix it. Premature problem-solving can distance us from others.
Roshi Joan Halifax, Zen priest, social activist, anthropologist, and missionary, has developed a tool for anyone to use for titrating within the window of tolerance, nurturing compassion, and teasing skillful action out of empathy.
She offers this as G.R.A.C.E.
G—Gather your attention.
R—Recall your intention.
A—Attune to yourself (physically, mentally) and to the other person.
C—Consider what will serve.
E—Engage and then End (bring the interaction to an appropriate close).
If we desire happiness for ourselves, we will find it. We have to take the long way though, by bringing the whole world with us.