Empathy is one practice of an awakening being.
When others suffer and we align without judgement or anger, we move into a deeper understanding of the universe and our relationships. We are living and functioning at a different level than when we were angry and unconscious. We feel freer, more peaceful, and less reactive in our relationships.
Yet the practice of empathy teaches us something difficult. There are people in pain everywhere and we are almost drawn to them. The universal desire to empathize with others as you recognize suffering in them is designed to help you discover and resolve your own pain.
Every emotion (or tiny urge to help) you feel in response to another person’s suffering is your pain being awakened through their situation. Ask yourself: How can another person’s situation cause me pain? Hmm? The emotional “pull” and desire to help them is unacknowledged pain in yourself that you may or may not yet recognize.
When we witness pain in others, we are witnessing our pain, too. So, how do we help others? How do we help ourselves when we recognize “this is me too?”
Consider this brain teaser. If you saw a homeless person on the street and were to give him a blanket, what is your goal in doing that?
To save his life? To warm him? To love him? To serve your guilt? Do you feel better? More importantly, what is the effect? Is he still suffering? Have you changed him with your act?
Maybe. But that is not up you. That is up to him. It’s the free will thing—his free will may or may not allow your act to emotionally impact his state of being.
Empathy teaches us that we can understand others, yet we have absolutely no power to ultimately change their lives. It truly sucks to discover this. Yet this is benevolent, too. If you could only be happy when everyone else is happy, wouldn’t that be the most miserable life of all?
We can only save ourselves. Other people have to save themselves. Empathy teaches many things, but this is the benevolent biggie. We can support, we can understand, but ultimately it’s not our job to save other people.
The goal of empathy in your relationships is to find the “empathetic bridge” within each relationship. The empathetic bridge is the part of you that needs healing or understanding from this desire to support someone or by witnessing suffering in someone. In other words, “How is this me too?”
Going back to our homeless scenario, “How am I homeless and cold and in need of a blanket?” Maybe at some point in your life you felt very lost, desperate, and needed a place to stay and felt like there was none. Or maybe you were literally cold because of lack of adequate shelter or clothing.
Many of us will not address these issues or this pain because we were taught it wasn’t a big enough problem. Or, we may have been afraid to ask for support. Often we feel shame for not having enough. And maybe we were not homeless on the street, but a small child that is cold in the middle of the night, night after night, with no resources and without the ability to get another blanket may feel as homeless and powerless as a person sleeping on the street.
The purpose of empathy is to uncover the pieces where we feel powerless and try to understand them. This is the exercise of humanity, equality and humility of true empathy.
Empathy teaches us how to see our own “stuff” through the lives of others. Yet empathy has its limitations. I call empathy the “I-am-rubbing-your-feet-hoping-my-feet-will-feel-better” thing.
Until we find the empathetic bridge and bring light and healing to what we discover about ourselves, we will, for the most part, stay pained and unconscious in some areas. Your empathy may or may not help the people you are trying to help, either.
In fact, to offer a person a blanket who did not ask for a blanket is a judgment, right? This is sympathy again. Empathy is learning what to do when we see people suffering and to learn what the highest posture is toward them. We can only learn this important piece when we answer our own questions about how we are like them.
As we discover the need for healing when we uncover our pain, only then will we understand the need for compassion. Compassion is the highest posture in relationships and is the only posture that can heal. I call compassion the most misunderstood idea and practice of mankind and we will dive into this next week!!
Have a great weekend!