Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Shantigarbha Warren

 

     
  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?’

Website: Seedofpeace.org



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
Context

  • I’m a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) trainer. Empathy and honesty are the key components of both.

  • Through NVC I’ve understood the ‘Bodhisattva ideal’ (Enlightenment for the benefit of all beings) teachings of Buddhism more deeply.

  •  Marshall Rosenberg, who developed NVC, said “Whatever humans do, they are trying to fulfil their needs. Needs are the resources life requires to sustain itself.

  • 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.

 

What is empathy?

 

An empathic vision

  • Immediately 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.’

  • The Buddha 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.

Anukampa

  • A 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 empathy?

  • Empathy is the anukampa aspect of compassion.

  • It is external mindfulness.

  • It is the reflective aspect of the Four Brahmaviharas: Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity.

  • In a sentence: “Empathy is a compassionate understanding of other’s experience.”

 

Empathy is not the same as agreeing

  • I can still empathize with a ‘suicide bomber’, even if I don’t agree with their methods or worldview.

 

Empathy is 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.


Why is empathy important?

 

Compassionate connection

  • Empathy is important because it helps create compassionate connection.

 

Where else is empathy regarded as important?

1.  Supporting connection, cooperation and social responsibility.

2.  Emotional Intelligence.

3.  The basis of a moral sense – the ‘Ethics of Empathy’.

4.  External mindfulness.

5.  Basis of self-compassion.

6.  Basis of compassion.

7.  Therapeutically healing.

8.  Healthy.

9.  Mediation, conflict resolution and restorative justice.

 

Empathy as the basis for ethics and compassion

  • Story: King 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.’

 

The ethics of empathy

  • My Buddhist teacher, Urgyen Sangharakshita, argues that empathy is the basis of ethics and compassion: ethics is really to do with feeling solidarity with all life.

  • It involves 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 them.

  • The Dalai Lama echoes this in his book Ancient Wisdom, Modern World: Ethics for the new Millennium.

  • Modern moral theory also places the imaginative ability to empathize at the heart of moral motivation.

 

Empathy: how?

 

How did it develop?

  • Empathy probably goes back as far as the first mammals.

  • According to modern neuroscience, our brains make use of special ‘Mirror neurons’ to create maps of the intentions of others, and to resonate emotionally with them.

 

Practical tips for developing empathy

  • Developing empathy is a matter of expanding our ‘natural’ empathy

  • Not “Putting 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?         

 

What empathy isn’t

  • Story: an unempathic conversation.

Things that may not be heard as empathy:

1.   Giving advice/Fixing it

2.   Explaining it away

3.   Correcting it

4.   Consoling

5.   Telling a story

6.   “Don’t Feel…”

7.   Sympathizing

8.   Colluding

9.   Pitying

10. Investigating/interrogating

11. Evaluating

12. Educating

13. One-Up

 

Elements of empathy

  • Intention: focus on your intention to connect compassionately.

  • Presence: empathy is about ‘being with’ that person, giving our attention, our presence.

  • Focus: on what is alive in the other person right now: their vedana (feelings) and their cetana (deeper motivations/ needs).

  • Timing: 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:

    • Sense what’s important to the speaker, and voice your guess:

      • “Seems as if you wish...?”

      • “Were you wanting...?”

      • “Are you hoping...?”

      • “Are you 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.

 

Story: prison dialogue

  • Visit to New England prison.

  • Mourning as a need: mourning for lost dreams and lost lives. Moment of shared humanity.

  • Empathizing with the prisoners.

 

Empathizing with ‘terrorists’?

  • Empathy is an aspect of compassion. Compassion by its nature extends even to our enemies.

  • London 7/7 bombings. What are the needs on both sides?

  • Personal connection with this incident. Self-empathy first.

  • Guessing the 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?

 

Summary

  • What? “Empathy is a compassionate understanding of another’s experience.”

  • Why? It’s the basis of ethics and compassion. It creates compassionate connection.

  • How? Expanding our ‘natural’ empathy through practise.