I have been reading a book by Buddhist author Sharon Salzberg called REAL CHANGE and I found her exploration of the difference between empathy and compassion very helpful as I continue to engage with acceptance as a practice.
Empathy is the capacity and willingness to enter into the emotional world of another person and share with them in that.
Compassion, however, does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather it is characterised by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s wellbeing. Compassion is the quivering of the heart in response to seeing pain or suffering and this prompts a movement towards, to see if we can be of help.
Empathy is engaged in the first instance, at the level of the heart, but compassionate action in response needs to come from a place that recognises two distinct realities. My reality and the reality of the other. If I over-identify with the suffering other then I make my compassionate action about me – my sense of distress, my need to help, my fear and discomfort, my outrage, my wish to fix things.
Compassion implies recognition and respect for boundaries; it brings us balance as we learn to have compassion for ourselves and others; it offers us an expansive capacity for inclusion as we learn to have compassion on those we have considered villains or adversaries.
If we circle back now and consider empathy again, I notice that it is often associated with the capacity to connect with sadness and suffering, but isn’t it also about sharing delight and enthusiasm? Empathy can only be accessed if I allow myself the emotional breadth and awareness to engage with what I feel so I can then identify with how another is feeling – whatever that may be.
In order to feel empathy, there has to be a willingness to touch in to your own vulnerability – your sense of joy and pleasure; your fear of rejection or abandonment, of criticism or failure; your sadness, grief and loneliness; your full spectrum of feelings. This is definitely harder for some than others, and the enneagram podcast I was listening to this week highlighted that even if I as a Four get in touch with my feelings of fear/shame/sadness/joy, I cannot assume that you feel these the same way. My own experience of joy may be far less effervescent than yours, my sense of shame far deeper etc. Empathy, then, like compassion, still requires us to recognise the reality of the other. In order to understand how how you feel I need to connect with how I feel AND THEN from that place I can ask you how it feels for you.
Both compassion and empathy, if we engage them with authenticity can move us beyond the daily fabric that covers what is most real. Both compassion and empathy can bring us to the recognition of the sacred ground of being, the real, the fullness of this moment and the unique beauty of this person. Compassion and empathy both move us into a Christ-like way of seeing, the seeing beyond personality and reactive habit and into the deeper truth of Self and Other.
Often it takes a jolt of something much bigger and more startling to tear the fabric of our habitual perceptions, to challenge our usual ways of thinking and perceiving….great love and/or great suffering are the twin catalysts Richard Rohr points to for this and they can come to us in many different – surprising and predictable – forms.
If it is true that ‘we can only see what we have grown an eye to see’, as E F Schumacher says, then a practice of intentional empathy and compassion is a powerful tool for perceptive growth.
Dwell with scripture
In the story of the transfiguration, Jesus takes his three closest friends with him up a mountain and there he jolts them. He allows the fabric of habitual perception to be drawn aside, revealing the dazzling truth of his reality and all reality. It is too much for them. They have not grown the eye of the heart to see this depth dimension. There is a beautiful interplay of light and shadow in this story, both revealing God’s presence. As you slowly read the text below and contemplate the images, notice what draws your eye – and the eye of your heart.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead
Feeling the rainbow
In his book Permission to Feel, author Marc Brackett laments the poverty of our emotional language. It’s impossible to have authentic empathy with or compassion for another if your own emotional landscape is barren. How are you feeling today? is a question that is most often answered with words like: good; fine; busy; tired; not so good; meh etc. etc. It’s not that we don’t have more feelings and more nuance and intensity within those feelings, it’s that we (mostly) don’t take time to recognise and name our feelings. That means we can’t properly consider them or put them in perspective, nor can we communicate them or use them to connect and engage with others at the level of the heart. Marc also offers a mood meter. Here it is:
The practice here is essentially and simply about noticing your feelings and naming them. Notice too what your body is telling you about your feelings – the body does not and cannot lie, so if you think you are in the mellow green quadrant, but your hands or jaw are clenched, your shoulders are drooping, your foot is jiggling, your elbows are glued to your ribs…well, that’s the real truth.
You might find it helpful to set some self-check in times, or give yourself a five minute window after each meeting/activity block in your day to pause and ask yourself what am I feeling? At the end of the day, review your feeling journey. What’s it like for you to feel those feelings? Keep practicing acceptance and self-compassion as you observe the rise and fall of emotion and sensation.
This chant is taken from the words of a 4th century desert father. The story goes that Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said: “Abba, as far as I can, I keep a moderate rule, with a little fasting, and prayer, and meditation, and quiet: and as far as I can I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. What else should I do?” Then the old man rose, and spread out his hands to heaven, and his fingers shone like ten candles: and he said: “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Listen to the chant on repeat for five minutes or so each day – maybe more than once, and let the music sink into the depths – don’t think about this too much, just feel your way into it.
This is the buddist prayer practice of compassion explained here by teacher Pema Chodron. The basic premise is to connect with the breath and with a longing for peace, harmony, healing and wholeness. Breathing in, connecting with the longing; breathing out, sending peace, harmony, healing and wholeness. To begin with, the focus is on self, your own longing for peace and wholeness, then you may move your focus to someone you love, sending the love energy of your longing for their peace, wholeness and harmony. After this, you may move your focus to someone who you engage with but who is not in your inner circle of friends and family – a work colleague, the barista at your favourite cafe, a person in public office (one you feel supportive of). Finally, you may move your focus to one who you might consider an enemy, an adversary or one who has caused you pain. Nothing else about the practice changes, simply breathe in connecting with a longing for peace and breathe out sending peace. If you find yourself ‘faking it’ at any point, move your focus back to a place where there is authentic connection with the longing for peace and wholeness. There’s no need to force compassion before it is ready to emerge.