Thursday, January 25, 2018

On empathy

The word “empathy” is used in a whole variety of ways denoting some sort of positive stance we might take toward another. In large part, it has become synonymous with “being nice.” But empathy is a bit more radical than that. It is not just listening and saying nice things, trying to be positive and sympathizing with another’s confusion. When engaged in a deep way, it takes quite a lot of (sustained) awareness to maintain an empathic stance.

In short, the way I use the term is to refer to the interest in and embodied attending to the immediate subjective experience of another, as it unfolds in a moment to moment interaction. To practice intimate attunement to what another is feeling, the beliefs underlying those feelings, and the meaning that those feelings have in their lives. It also includes how these beliefs, feelings, and meanings emerge in the body.

If a person is clearly articulating their experience, describing their feelings and in touch with the associated beliefs, memories, images, and sensations, that will make the empathic process easier. But this is often not the case. For each of us, there are aspects of our experience we’ve dissociated and disowned, which are as-yet-to-be-formulated, and we are not in conscious touch with. Nonetheless, empathy requires us to somehow attune to these as well, providing sanctuary and safe passage for them to come into the relational field as they are able.

So empathy is that willingness and capacity to stay with the other’s experience as it unfolds moment to moment, to attend to and privilege their subjectivity, to help them to articulate what it is that they are feeling, sensing, and thinking, and to explore together the ways they are making sense of all that.

Rather than interpreting things for them, sharing our powerful wisdom and guidance, giving advice, scrambling to fix them, or even trying to help them to feel better. And certainly not arguing with them, dumping our beliefs on them, or unloading the garbage can of our unconscious and unlived lives upon them. That doesn’t feel all that empathic.

Of course we can practice empathic attunement toward our own subjective experience, as it emerges in a given moment. What am I experiencing right now? Setting aside all interpretation and even all agendas to shift, transform, or heal, in this moment, what is my actual, lived experience?

What is happening in my body, right now? What emotional tone or mood is there? What is the overall felt sense of being me, right now? What beliefs about myself are alive now, or about others or the world?

It is more an art than a science… an art of love, really, that perhaps we humans need now more than ever. Self-empathy, other-empathy, self-attunement, other-attunement. It is up to all of us to bring these capacities into this world.

My new book – The Path Is Everywhere: Uncovering the Jewels Hidden Within You – is now available 

My next event is a five-day retreat, The Place the Light Enters, with Jeff Foster, April 4-9 at Sunrise Ranch in Loveland, CO.