Six Paths to Greater Empathy

Big Empathy is about expanding our empathy to embrace the suffering and well-being of more of life, more deeply, more competently, and more seamlessly than we normally do. Below are six potentially complementary paths – not methods, but general approaches – to developing greater empathy. Of course, in order to enhance empathy, they must be undertaken with a desire to truly connect with the Other.

1. LISTENING – I’m speaking here of deep listening, empathic listening, reflective listening – listening intended to deeply understand the Other so that they feel truly understood. We undertake such listening with curiosity (“Am I getting this right?”) rather than assurance (“You feel X.”) Such listening seeks to fathom and reflect not only what a person says but also why they said it and how they said it, and what they left unsaid… so that they feel truly joined in their experience of life, truly met and companioned, at least for this moment. This level of meet-ing moves both listener and speaker to a place beyond agreement and disagreement, to what some call “Rumi’s field” beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, beyond judgment. When empathizing with someone or something that does not speak with our words, this listening becomes a “sensing into”, a kind of keen, resonant attention and open, intuitive receptivity. We can thus “listen” to our own hearts and hunches, to groups of people, to situations, to animals and other life forms, to natural environments – even to silence itself – in order to achieve greater connection with the essence, condition, and life energy that is present. Big Empathy involves expanding to fully BE with that.

2. SELF AWARENESS – We are all universal beings. The seeds, blossoms and ashes of all human experience lie within our own experience. Even our differences link us, as every one of us experiences the personal uniqueness that makes us both special and existentially alone. We may identify with a particular tribe or belief, but so does everyone else, in their own way. All of us live the archetypal experiences of human existence – birth and death, joy and suffering, need and satisfaction – and all of us know struggles and shadows, shared and hidden. And all this is true not only of our kinship with all other humans, but also of our kinship with all of life and all of existence. We have within ourselves traces and echoes of our mammalian, animal, biological, terrestrial, and material and energetic ancestry which shape our nature, our perspectives and our responses. The more fully we can be aware of all this within ourselves, the more broadly and deeply we can feel empathy with what some native tribal people refer to as “all my relations” – and the less inclined we are to disregard, disrespect, and dismiss the Other.  Finally, the more self-aware we are, the less likely we are to project our experience into the experience of others, impeding our ability to listen to and know their true selves.

3. NARRATIVE ARTS – Stories can help us experience the inner and outer life of the Other. A “story” can be the factual account of an insightful journalist, documentarian, or diarist. It can be the fictional world of a novel, short story, movie, play, poem, comic, or TV series. It can be a deep psychological narrative of archetypes and myth. Some visual art and sculpture, games and music can also bring us into empathic experience of what it is like to exist within the life story of someone or something else. One of my favorite examples is multiple viewpoint drama. Perhaps the most uplifting criteria for artistic greatness is the extent to which a work connects us with both our deepest selves and our shared humanity with the Other.

4. IMMERSION – It is one thing to listen to, read or think about someone else’s life experience. It is quite another to actually live our life like theirs for a while. This is immersive empathy. It can happen by a twist of fate – a crisis in finances, health, or relationship – or by an intentional effort to learn and grow, for example:
* Oxfam’s Hunger Banquet 
* Zen Peacemaker’s Street Retreats
* and leaders who voluntarily enter solitary confinement, a poor people’s welfare program, or the trenches of their corporation to experience what life is like for people seemingly very unlike them, whom they may impact through their work or lifestyle. We must remain mindful, however, that a big part of privilege is being able to visit a realm of suffering and then leave. Nevertheless, immersion is a potent way to bring home the realities of Other lives in a visceral way. In another realm, shamanic practices, wilderness retreats, and certain psychedelic experiences may immerse us in the profound Presence of nature to stimulate a deeper connection to – and empathy for – the natural world.

5. SCIENCES – Understanding causal and functional dynamics can deepen our capacity to enter into experiences and realities otherwise alien to us. In the human realm this can include knowledge from psychology, sociology and anthropology. In the natural realm, it embraces biology, ecology, and evolutionary studies. Chaos and complexity theories and the various systems sciences can usefully complexify our thinking and humble us from assuming too much. Through deep and sensitive study, some scientists develop a holistic, empathic, and even spiritual appreciation for the entities and phenomena they study. However, the objective nature of most science can, if it is held in a reductionist or presumptive way, undermine our empathic relationships with the world around us. But scientific knowledge can productively inform all the above paths to empathy and help us minimize our unconscious psychological and cultural assumptions that can get in the way of truly understanding the Other.

6. RESPONSIVE CARING – In caring, our empathic sensibilities merge with our will. We feel compassion or concern – and then the need to act on that impulse. To be appropriate in our actions, however, we need develop our understanding of the life we are attempting to help. We develop that understanding through self-knowledge, narratives, and science – and most especially through listening, listening over and over. That’s why I use the word “responsive” in articulating this path to empathy. Whatever we think we know as we begin to act on our caring, we are called to pay close attention to our own motivations, gifts, and limitations, and to the real experience and needs of whomever or whatever we are trying to serve, as these show up and evolve over time. It is in this iterative learning process that empathic relationships become most authentic, valuable, and sustainable. This reaches beyond helping individuals: The resolution or transformation of every social and environmental issue we face will necessarily be rooted deeply in just such responsive caring and the collective wisdom that emerges from its practice.

Each of these paths can be expanded to cover more people, beings, and realities over greater distances, times, and situations – perhaps most notably the future grandchildren of all species everywhere. And if we choose to learn from them, each of these paths will alert us to dimensions of our cultures and social systems that can and should be transformed to make inclusive civilizations that last and thrive through the well-being and joy of all who exist within and around them.

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