What the World Needs Now: Empathy, Sweet Empathy
Have your ever felt the need to numb and suppress difficult feelings? Perhaps it was anxiety or anger, sadness or shame. Or maybe a friend or family member was going through a tough time and it was just too much to deal with so you tuned them out?
I was a master at tuning my own feelings out as well as others’, but overtime, I learned about empathy and the ability to connect deeply at the heart level, with myself first, and then with others. If you are not connected to your own heart and feelings it is going to be difficult to connect with others in a meaningful way.
By practicing empathy, you can feel more compassion and understanding for yourself, others, and Nature. You are then more capable of experiencing a deep connection to All That Is. Then, you are more prepared to take effective action on issues that inspire you.
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another by using the power of imagination to put yourself in another’s shoes. I would also suggest that, with practice and intention, empathy can be used to feel the subtle energies that course through Nature and our very own bodies, because there is no true separation between our human bodies and the body of the Earth. Mother Nature.
Empathy is different from sympathy, which is more often than not, feelings of pity and sorrow for another’s misfortune. Sympathy shows care, but it usually ends there. We send a card. Express platitudes. That’s it.
Empathy, however, allows us to understand on an emotionally experiential level what another being is feeling. We can feel in our bodies and hearts the fullness of both the suffering andthe love and joy that permeates our entire world if we allow it. That requires a measure of vulnerability and an open heart.
Now that may not seem like such a great idea to feel more deeply and be more emotionally vulnerable and open with so much harshness and brutality in the world. Who wants thatwith all of the horrible news we see every day on every possible device we have in our possession, and then on top of that, whatever personal pain we may be in? But, according to Roshi Joan Halifax, interestingly enough, the more we cultivate compassion, while we feel the suffering of others more deeply, we return to our own emotional equilibrium more quickly. We develop resiliency. As she says in her Ted Talk, “Strong back, soft front.”
I expressed very little empathy growing up. Childhood trauma has a way of separating the feeling sense from the body by way of disassociation, which is when the spirit or consciousness of the person leaves the body. It is a defense mechanism of the soul to protect itself from whatever horrors are going on. We blank out and get numb and many times don’t even remember the original trauma until much later in life, if at all, because it’s buried so deeply in the subconscious.
An example of this is when my ex-husband and I would go out to a bar or a party with people I was unfamiliar with I would disassociate. Check out. My body was there but my consciousness flew away. He would put his hand on my leg or arm and I had no response. I didn’t even realize he was touching me. I was literally numb and mostly unaware to what was going on around me. He would get angry with me sometimes because he thought I was being cold and distant. In a way he was right, but it wasn’t a conscious decision. It was an automatic, unconscious response to stress.
There are a million ways to numb ourselves and a million reason why and with good reason. Drugs, alcohol, tv, food, Facebook, our phones, etc..., (I think we’ve all seen the phone zombies. I am one from time to time) can serve as numbing agents for difficult emotions and experiences that get stuffed back down and numbed out habitually so we don’t have to deal with them consciously. But the problem with this method of dealing with difficulties is they don’t actually go away. They get buried and fester. These buried issues and emotions can permeate our entire lives and affect our relationships and our own health as we attempt to keep the poison of negative emotions suppressed within our body and soul. This will lower the immune system and make us more susceptible to disease processes. Numbing in any way prevents us from feeling and being present with suffering of any kind, but it equally prevents us from feeling joy and love as well. In order to be more fully human, we must feel, not just think.
The first step to feeling empathy is body awareness. Feeling our feelings. Learning to be present with what is in one’s own body. Not trying to escape any difficulties, but being open to whatever may arise and allowing the emotions-whatever they may be-to move through you in the most healthful way possible rather than stopping the flow and having them stagnate creating secondary and tertiary problems within. Sometimes that’s screaming into a pillow, or using a punching bag, crying as much as you need to, or writing, painting ferociously...There are any number of ways to do this. Contact a counselor for professional help if need be. Feeling empathy for ourselves and opening our hearts towards ourselves is the beginning of being able to feel empathy for others, and being present with what is.
I’ve done all of these things. When I was actively healing my soul from memories of childhood sexual abuse that came to the surface in my early 30’s I would scream bloody murder at the top of my lungs as I drove from place to place. I spit venom and cursed at God/dess and everybody else on the road. Not necessarily the best or safest option I would suggest, because it bit me in the back side a number of times. Once, I was coming home from school screaming and cursing, thinking my windows were up, but alas, my passenger side window was down a bit. I was driving through my neighborhood close to home, dropping F-bombs left and right, and passed a family with young children outside in their front yard. My first thought was, “Oops”. My second was, “Note to self…make sure both windows are rolled up”, then I decided I needed to be more conscious of how I released my rage and all of the other difficult emotions that arose within me as these old memories bubbled to the surface. I didn’t want to inflict my poison on others anymore.
One way I learned to become empathic was in massage school. We all gathered around one person who volunteered to be the Guinea pig. We got quiet and present in our own bodies and established an energetic heart connection to the other person. We took mental notes of any changes we felt in our bodies or emotions as cues to what that person was feeling. This is a way to begin tuning in to the subtle energies that flow between all things.
As I have developed this skill as a bodyworker, I will feel a pain arise in my body that I know is not mine and ask my client if they have pain there. More often than not that is the case and the pain leaves my body as quickly as it came. I also feel a magnetic pull to go to certain areas as I work around a person’s body. A lot of the time, I hear “How did you know to work there?” or, “I was hoping you would work there more”.
This is called empathetic resonance. It is feeling into another’s energy. It is tuning into the magnetic and energetic field of the unseen realms in humans and all of Nature. It permeates all Matter. We can learn to touch and sense this underlying web of life that infuses all things, but we have to be supremely present in our own bodies to feel it.
Mirror neurons are another fascinating way we feel empathy for others. It seems we are hard wired for it. The American Psychology Association states in an articlethat “Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action” and that “the[se] neurons could help explain how and why we "read" other people's minds and feel empathy for them.” There is a wonderful TED talk by neuroscientist, V.S. Ramachandran, that goes into detail on the subject of mirror neurons, if you’re interested.
Harsh criticism, judgements, and personal biases of another closes the door to experiencing true empathy because they close our hearts to others’ perspectives. Our perceptions become jaded. Clouded. Worse yet, they limit our ability to take effective action in the world based on the wisdom gained through employing empathy, compassion, and understanding.
Empathy allows us to open our hearts and to be present with the emotional reality of ourselves and another. This allows for the growth of compassion and understanding. It opens a connection, a pathway, to another's heart and the Heart of Nature. This can move us to act for the benefit of another based upon compassion and understanding.
Empathy opens the door to compassion. Compassion opens the door to understanding and understanding opens the door to effective action.