I’ve recently finished my book on
empathy ‘Empathy: the art of compassionate presence’ and I’m
currently negotiating with a US publisher. In the meantime, over
the summer I was keen to get on the road and share what I’d
learned in writing it. So I gave a talk in several locations
called ‘Empathy: what, why and how?’
Empathy: what, why and how'
"Empathy is a compassionate understanding of another's experience. It's
the basis of ethics and compassion. We develop it by expanding our
'natural' empathy through practise." A talk given at Buddhafield 2011 in
the Dharma Parlour on 15 July 2011
Empathy: what, why and how?
A talk given at the Buddhafield Festival, UK, July 2011
I’m a member
of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a Nonviolent Communication (NVC)
trainer. Empathy and honesty are the key components of both.
I’ve understood the ‘Bodhisattva ideal’ (Enlightenment for the benefit
of all beings) teachings of Buddhism more deeply.
Rosenberg, who developed NVC, said “Whatever humans do, they are
trying to fulfil their needs. Needs are the resources life requires to
This was how
I imagined a ‘Bodhisattva’ would relate to other human beings: as
continuously trying to enrich their lives.
Gave me a
glimpse of how I could serve myself and others.
An empathic vision
after his Enlightenment the Buddha faced a dilemma: he realized that
it was going to be difficult for him to communicate Enlightenment to
others. He decided not to teach.
A great god
called Brahma Sahampati begged the Buddha to teach: ‘There are some
who will understand. They won’t fulfil their potential if they don’t
hear you teach.’
looked out on beings in compassion, and saw them as lotuses at
different stages of development in a pond. He saw them in terms of
their spiritual potential – an empathic vision. He decided to teach
what he had learned.
traditional description of the Buddha says that he comes into the
world out of compassion ‘anukampa’ for the world. Anukampa
means ‘trembling with’, even ‘resonating with’. So the Buddha trembles
with, resonates with all beings.
So what is
the anukampa aspect of compassion.
It is the
reflective aspect of the Four Brahmaviharas: Loving Kindness,
Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity.
sentence: “Empathy is a compassionate understanding of other’s
not the same as agreeing
I can still
empathize with a ‘suicide bomber’, even if I don’t agree with their
methods or worldview.
one of a number of choices we have to embody our compassion
It’s not the
only choice we have: we could choose to embody our compassionate
intention by choosing to stay connected to ourselves, by choosing to
express ourselves, or by acting in some other way.
important because it helps create compassionate connection.
is empathy regarded as important?
connection, cooperation and social responsibility.
3. The basis
of a moral sense – the ‘Ethics of Empathy’.
5. Basis of
6. Basis of
conflict resolution and restorative justice.
the basis for ethics and compassion
Pasenadi and Queen Mallikaa, from the Buddhist scriptures (the Pali
Canon). King Pasenadi and Queen Mallikaa: “No-one is dearer to me than
myself.” The Buddha echoes this, ‘If you love yourself, and realise
that all of us hold ourselves dear, you will also love others and
avoid harming them.’
teacher, Urgyen Sangharakshita, argues that empathy is the basis of
ethics and compassion: ethics is really to do with feeling solidarity
with all life.
connection and imagination. We need to feel a connection with
those whom our actions may affect i.e. care about the impact of our
actions, and be able to imagine the impact of our actions on
Lama echoes this in his book Ancient Wisdom, Modern World: Ethics
for the new Millennium.
theory also places the imaginative ability to empathize at the heart
of moral motivation.
How did it
probably goes back as far as the first mammals.
modern neuroscience, our brains make use of special ‘Mirror neurons’
to create maps of the intentions of others, and to resonate
emotionally with them.
tips for developing empathy
empathy is a matter of expanding our ‘natural’ empathy
yourself in someone else’s shoes” – this will likely cause distress,
which blocks empathy. Rather than putting yourself in their shoes, can
you imagine/sense what it’s like for them to have them on?
may not be heard as empathy:
Explaining it away
5. Telling a
focus on your intention to connect compassionately.
empathy is about ‘being with’ that person, giving our attention, our
on what is alive in the other person right now: their vedana
(feelings) and their cetana (deeper motivations/ needs).
We might use words when we want to check if we really are present,
and/or if we imagine that the speaker would like some reassurance that
we are with them:
what’s important to the speaker, and voice your guess:
as if you wish...?”
feeling x, and is that because you need y?”
Sustaining: If I have space to connect
with myself, I have space to connect with others.
Visit to New
a need: mourning for lost dreams and lost lives. Moment of shared
with the prisoners.
an aspect of compassion. Compassion by its nature extends even to our
bombings. What are the needs on both sides?
connection with this incident. Self-empathy first.
needs of the ‘terrorist’: he deeply wants to be understood. He
seems to want understanding for the depth of his motivation.
I regain a
sense of connection with humanity. If we can do this with someone we
regard as ‘inhuman’, and label as ‘terrorist’ and ‘suicide bomber’,
could we do it with anyone, and indeed, all life?
“Empathy is a compassionate understanding of another’s experience.”
the basis of ethics and compassion. It creates compassionate
Expanding our ‘natural’ empathy through practise.