empathy

Can empathy be unhelpful?

Hand holding the stub of a burning candle in the upturned palm. Before long, the person's hand will burn.

One of the members of Wildmind’s community reminded me recently of an article, “The Surprising Downsides of Empathy,” that appeared on the BBC website two-and-a-half years ago.

The article says:

In recent years, researchers have found that misplaced empathy can be bad for you and others, leading to exhaustion and apathy, and preventing you from helping the very people you need to. Worse, people’s empathetic tendencies can even be harnessed to manipulate them into aggression and cruelty.

Empathy generally has a pretty good press. Most, people, although not all, would suggest that we need more empathy in the world. The hold-outs are often those who take a “tough love” approach and think that we are mollycoddling people (especially young people). I suspect, however, that many of those people are often just unkind individuals. I also think they misunderstand the nature of empathy, but since I want to write today about misunderstandings of empathy I’ll leave that there for now.

The BBC article quotes researcher Paul Bloom, who famously wrote a book called “Against Empathy” several years back. I previously commented in this blog on an article drawn from that book. One thing Bloom wrote in that article was:

It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.

Bloom is perfectly correct to point out the difference between empathy and compassion. The two are not the same. Empathy is a state of feeling something in response to another person’s feelings (you’re talking to someone whose child has drowned) or in response to their situation (you hear about someone whose child has drowned). Despite what the article I’m quoting states, empathy doesn’t necessarily require an act of imagination. If someone tells you their child has drowned, you will (as long as you’re not a psychopath) feel touched by their situation. You don’t, hearing that awful news, have to imagine in detail what it’s like to be in that situation.

Compassion is  the desire to help alleviate suffering. We can see the active nature of compassion in the root of the Pāli and Sansrit word karuna. This comes from the verb karoti, which means “to do.”

Empathy isn’t enough. We need compassion. But does that mean empathy is bad, or useless?

The BBC article seems to suggest that it is.

Bloom uses the example of an adult comforting a child who is terrified of a small, barking dog. The adult doesn’t need to feel the child’s fear to help. “There can be compassion for the child, a desire to make his or her distress go away, without any shared experience or empathic distress,” he writes.

So according to this, we don’t need empathy. We can just have compassion.

To Have Compassion, We Need to Have Empathy

But is that the case? Let just imagine an adult who completely lacks empathy. To them, the crying child is probably just an annoyance, and they shout at the child, terrifying it even more. This adult doesn’t understand what it’s like to be afraid. They don’t know what it’s like to be helpless and to need help. Nor do they understand that the child needs adult reassurance. They don’t recognize that a child can’t turn off its fear by force of will. To know these things requires empathy. To know those things is empathy.

This highlights that empathy actually is at work in Bloom’s example. The compassionate adult knows what the child is going through and what it needs, which is empathy. They know what it’s like to be helpless and to be in desperate need for support and reassurance. It’s because they’re empathetic that they offer compassion.

See also:

The idea that empathy requires us to re-experience the child’s terror is a red herring.

Often in talking about situations where a “good thing” (like empathy) leads to a bad outcome (like being paralyzed because of taking on someone else’s pain) you’ll hear that the problem is that the person is “too empathetic.” I believe this is a mistaken diagnosis.

No virtue on its own is complete. Take generosity, as an example. It’s a good thing to be generous. It helps us be happier; studies have shown that giving something to another person can be more satisfying than receiving the same thing ourselves. But what if you’re so generous that you give away the resources that your family need for basic survival? Does that mean you’re “too generous”?

There’s No Such Thing as Too Much of a Virtue

I don’t actually believe in the concept of having too much of a virtue. What I do believe is that you can lack other qualities (also virtues) that are necessary to stop a good quality such as generosity from being toxic. For example, prudence and wisdom are qualities that balance generosity, telling you what the consequences of continued giving are (“Wait, I have to pay the rent next week”) and so suggesting limits.

“Empathic distress” is another of the ideas that can grow out of the idea that you can have too much of a virtue. Clearly, if you take on board so much of a person’s suffering that you paralyze yourself and are unable to help them, that’s unhelpful. You’ve taken a situation where one person is in trouble and needs help, and turned it into a situation where two people are in trouble and need help.

In vividly imagining distress to the point where you paralyze yourself, you’re no longer practicing a virtue. You’re doing what the Buddha called indulging in “grief, sorrow, and lamentation,” which is a cause of suffering. An ancient Buddhist commentary in fact says that “sorrow is failed compassion.”

Missing Virtues

So what virtues are missing, so that empathy is turning into  something toxic?

As with generosity, we need to balance empathy with wisdom. As an example example, Bloom shows that people will want a girl who has been brought to their attention to skip the queue for life-saving surgery. They empathize with the girl and want to act compassionately. But they ignore the others ahead of her in the queue, who might be in even more urgent need of surgery. It’s easy to ignore them, because they’re anonymous.

Wisdom considers that the other people in the queue are deserving of care as well.

We also need to balance empathy with ethical awareness of what’s right and wrong. In another study, people were willing to inflict pain on someone who was competing in a mathematics competition with a financially strapped student. The researchers had encouraged them to empathize with the student, but not the student’s competitor. Ethics (the Buddhist variety, anyway) tells us that even if we feel motivated to punish another person by inflicting pain on them, we shouldn’t, because violence is wrong. Ethics also embodies wisdom, because it tells us that another person’s suffering is as real to them as ours is to us; why then would be inflict unwanted pain on an other when we would dislike having that pain inflicted upon us.

Most of all, though, empathy needs to be balanced by self-compassion. When we see that another is in distress, we can be moved by that. That “feeling moved” can contain an element of discomfort. Self-compassion teaches us how we support ourselves emotionally as we experience suffering. It also helps us recognize when we’re bringing too much suffering upon ourselves — suffering that’s more than we can cope with and that isn’t necessary in order for us to be helpful.

All of the “downsides” of empathy that the article describes are of this nature. They’re not actually the downsides of empathy at all. They’re the downsides of lacking virtues such as wisdom, ethics, and self-compassion or self-care.

Certainly, empathic distress isn’t helpful. It’s even harmful. But it’s not the sum total of what empathy is. To give money to help starving people on the other side of the world you most certainly don’t need to imagine what it’s like to starve. But you do have to care. And a person lacking in empathy doesn’t care, which the person who has real, balanced empathy does: they experience compassion and are moved to help.

It is wonderful that Bloom and others are showing the harmful side of unbalanced empathy, which leads to “empathic distress.” It’s just a shame that they’re not clearly pointing out what the problem is: the under-development of balancing virtues.

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The thing you may sometimes confuse with true kindness

Someone recently wrote to me sharing his reservations about the use of the word “love” to translate metta. Metta is a Buddhist word that is most often translated as “lovingkindness.”

I confess I used to translate metta as love, and did so a lot in the guide to the metta bhavana meditation practice that you’ll find on the Wildmind website. (This is something I’ll be addressing in an upcoming revision of the site.)

Nowadays I prefer to translate metta as kindness, which is much more accurate and less ambiguous. There are so many different forms of love, aren’t there?

What my correspondent had to say was as follows:

I don’t want to try to cultivate lovingkindness on top of habitual hostility. Sugary frosting to cover over the unpalatable.

It can seem like it is positive, but it leaves a trap underneath which can be triggered. If someone does something averse towards me, no matter how ‘lovingly friendly’ I have been, the trap will trigger into aversion, which sudden switch is very unpleasant and leads to attacking behaviors.

I appreciated this comment about the “sugary frosting” and the aversion that can so easily be triggered toward someone who does something we don’t like. It’s a common phenomenon. You hold open a door for someone and they don’t say thank you, and how do you feel? Many times annoyance arises. You offer someone advice and they dismiss it. Again, this can be annoying. One trigger I’ve noticed in my own life is that if I’m holding something out for a person to take, and they don’t reach out in response, I get pissed off, as if they’re rejecting or insulting me.

I think that a lot of the time when we think they’re being loving and compassionate, we’re actually “being nice.” The primary motivation for being nice is to be liked, which brings pleasant feelings. Being nice is transactional. We’re buying pleasant feelings by getting another person to appreciate us.

But when we get the opposite of pleasant feelings (for example it feels unpleasant when someone doesn’t say thank you or doesn’t accept what we’ve offered them) our instinct is to react with aversion. The person is no longer responding to our “being nice” in the way we want. They longer deserve our niceness. In fact they deserve our displeasure. We need to make them feel bad; they deserve it.

Our previous “niceness” was the “sugary frosting” my correspondent talked about. Our ill will is the “unpalatable, habitual hostility” underlying this.

I believe that this “being nice” is what the Buddha referred to, in Pali, as pema. The Pali-English dictionary translates pema as “love” or “affection.”

The important thing to note about pema is that it’s conditional. The Buddha gave an example of how this can work:

And how is love (pema) born of love (pema)? It’s when someone likes, loves, and cares for a person. Others treat that person with liking, love, and care. They think: ‘These others like the person I like.’ And so love for them [i.e. those others] springs up.

Here our love (pema) toward others is conditional upon them liking someone we like. If those others hated the person we love, the Buddha, said later in the same teaching, we’d generally end up hating them.

This is the “trap” my correspondent was aware of.

The Buddha talked about what happens when one “likes, loves, and cares for a person.” But that person can be us. We can think we’re a person that others should admire, like, and appreciate. And we might do what we can to show that we’re worth of that (including holding open doors, giving advice, and all manner of thing). And when others don’t seem to respond in a way that makes us feel good, we turn against them.

None of this has anything to do with kindness, or metta.

Actual kindness is based on an empathetic understanding that another person’s happiness and unhappiness are as real to them as ours are to us. When we relate to another in this way, we naturally don’t want to act in a way that causes them to suffer. We naturally want to act in ways that support their well-being. We’ll think about what would benefit them. We’ll talk to them in ways that show we care about their well-being and that make them feel affirmed. If we offer criticism, it’s not with a desire to hurt them but to help them feel happier in the long term.

And so if they act in a way that’s averse to us, and that doesn’t make us feel pleasure, and perhaps even makes us experience unpleasant feelings, we don’t seek to “punish” them. We still have their well-being at heart.

True kindness is unconditional. It only depends on our being aware that others are, just like us, feeling beings. It depends on our recognizing that they prefer, just like us, to be happy and not to suffer.

People say, “I’m very good at loving other people, but I hate myself.” And I think that a lot of the time the “love” they feel for other people is pema. They feel a lack of love for themselves, and so they try to be “nice” toward others in the hope that those others will show them appreciation.

Of course you can hate yourself in every waking hour of your day. But there’s only so much affirmation you can get from others. And even if others did show us affection all the time it wouldn’t make up for the lack of love you have for yourself. So you can never feel at ease with yourself by being nice to others, hoping to be appreciated in return.

When others aren’t sufficiently appreciative of you, you might be annoyed with them. But you’ll probably on some level hate yourself even more. Surely the lack of love you’re getting from others is a sign there must be something deficient about you?

My own experience was that it wasn’t until I started to empathize with myself — recognizing that I was a feeling being, and that my own happiness and unhappiness were important to me — that I found I could begin to empathize with others. The difference was quite noticeable: here was I, a feeling being; there was another person who was also a feeling being. My feelings were real and vivid to me; so were theirs to them. Here was I, preferring happiness to suffering; there was another person who also preferred happiness to suffering. Knowing these things, how could I act in a way that disregarded their well-being and happiness?

And it was then that I realized how much of my own “kindness” and “compassion” weren’t actually true kindness and compassion, based on empathy. Instead they were attempts to be nice, and to be liked, based on a lack of self-kindness.

I’m not saying it’s like this for everyone, but it might be the case for you too.

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Meditating with pets

I have a daily Zoom meditation group as part of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative, and there are often a few pets in evidence. In fact one day someone commented that it must be “Take Your Dog to Meditation Day.”

In some ways pets are natural meditators. I’ve had a few cats in my life, and currently have a couple of dogs, and their ability to “just sit” and to be in the moment puts mine to shame.

At the same time, sometimes when we’re trying to meditate they want to get involved in ways that are distracting, and so that’s the topic I’d like to address today.

I stress I’m talking about cats and dogs here. And since I currently have two dogs and haven’t had a cat in a long time it’s almost inevitable that I’ll be talking mostly about dogs. Hopefully you’ll be able to adapt what I say here to your particular circumstances.

Preparing for Meditation

Even before I meditate, I’ll separate my dogs from each other. When they play together it’s a very noisy affair. There’s lots of running around, wrestling, and growling. I don’t want that going on when I meditate. We have baby gates in the house, so I can have one dog in the room with me, and the other one in the next room. Because the one in the next room (that’s Suki) can see through the barrier, there’s no anxiety. I’m right there.

If the dogs seem to be restless as I’m preparing to meditate, I’ll often give them something by way of a distraction. Suki is still teething, and so I’ll make sure she has a teething toy; it’s kind of distracting to realize during a meditation that your dog is destroying the kitchen cabinets. And sometimes I’ll give them each a “Kong” (a thick rubber cone) filled with frozen peanut butter. That keeps them busy for a good few minutes while I settle in to meditation, and after they’ve done with their treats they usually settle down as well.

My dogs also tend to be very quiet when they’re in their crates, so I’ve sometimes taken that approach during meditation. But not everyone has crates for their pets, and I imagine not all pets are quiet when they’re crated.

Be Empathetic

Next, if their human sitting still with their eyes closed isn’t something they’ve been exposed to before, your pet may be confused by you meditating. My experience has been that they get used to it in time, although you may have to work with them until they do. And maybe they never will.

A cat of mine called Piglit used to be very curious when I meditated. Sometimes she’d just come and sit beside me with her eyes closed, looking for all the world like she was joining in with me. Other times she’d bat at me with a paw, trying to get my attention. One of my dogs, Luna, does this as well. In fact sometimes she’ll stare at me and bark. It’s hard to ignore.

When this happens I think it’s best to be empathetic. This can be a confusing situation for your animal. Ignoring them can make them even more confused. Often they need attention.

And they’re individuals, so forcing them to do something isn’t very kind. Don’t feel that your dog “should” quietly sit as you meditate. Why should they? You need to work with them on their own terms.

Make Contact

Today, during an online sit, I opened my eyes to see one of the participants sitting cross-legged between her two Labrador retrievers. She was holding one dog’s paw, and had a hand resting on the neck of the other. In order to get her attention they’d started barking during the meditation, and this was her way of calming them down. Given this small degree of contact, both dogs were perfectly happy and relaxed, and were just lying quietly beside her.

Most pets love touch, so simply reaching a hand out to them and making contact, or let them make contact with me, if sometimes enough to calm them.

If you have to stroke your pet in order to help them settle, that’s fine. A lot of people think this would be a distraction, but you can pet your animal mindfully and with kindness, so that it becomes part of the meditation.

If I’m stroking my pet I do it in time with the breathing. Find your own (and your pet’s) pace. Let the meditating and the petting be one single experience. Be mindful of the movements of the arm and of the sensations of contact, and of how these things synchronize with the movements of the breathing.

Luna, who stays in the room with me, is small, so if she’s really persistent in trying to get my attention I’ll often pick her up (if she’ll let me) and sit her on my lap. (Suki’s too large for that.) That makes it easier to pet her and show her reassurance. She rarely stays on my lap for more than 15 minutes, and then she’ll jump back onto the floor. I’m happy to let her go. That’s what she wants to do.

Practice Lovingkindness

Often I’ll include Luna in my lovingkindness (metta) meditation. My favored way of cultivating metta — which I just think of as “kindness” — is to remember what it’s like to look with loving eyes. I’ll remember times I’ve watched my kids sleeping, for example. As soon as I do this, I feel a sense of warmth, tenderness, and softness around my eyes. And then as I turn my attention toward my own body, and Luna sitting on my lap, those same qualities are brought into the way I’m regarding the two of us.

With my eyes soft, relaxed, and kind, I’m able to embrace myself and my dog in a single field of loving awareness. There’s no question of this being a distraction. When I’d doing this I’m very concretely cultivating metta (kindness) for myself and another living being. We are, experientially, one body, not two.

When Luna is on my lap, she’s usually very happy to have her back stroked or her tummy tickled. (Until she decides she’s had enough and goes away.) Sometimes though she wants to lick my face. So I’ll just accept that as part of my meditation practice. I’m accepting kindness, which is an important practice in its own right. Usually she doesn’t do it for long.

Practice Compassionate Reassurance

Sometimes my dogs bark while I’m meditating. A neighbor might be taking their dog out, or a delivery worker might be dropping something off. And the dogs see it as their responsibility to defend the house. When Luna (my first dog) started doing this, I was a bit annoyed at first. I wanted to yell at her to get her to shut up. Then I saw her hackles were up and realized that she was physiologically and emotionally aroused. She was experiencing anger, and possibly fear as well. Her territory was under threat, and she was trying to ward off this menace and to alert me to danger.

So it became obvious that what she needed was reassurance. So when she’s barking like this (and I’m not meditating) I’ll go through to her, pet her to calm her down, and emphasize that the person or dog outside is a “friend.” (I’m training her to recognize that as a reassurance word.)

In meditation I don’t get up and pet the dogs, but —without moving — I do talk to them reassuringly. I’ll say things like, “It’s just a friend, Luna (or Suki)! Thank you for protecting the house. Good girl. It’s just a friend, though. You’re OK. You’re OK.” (“You’re OK” is another phrase I’m training the dogs to recognize as reassuring. I reckon that if they associate “You’re OK” with the experience of calming down, those words will start to be effective even without physical contact.)

Again, you might think that this is a distraction from the meditation, but I see it as part of the meditation. If I was dealing with a knot of anxiety in meditation, I’d talk to it in a similar reassuring way: “It’s OK. I’m here for you. I know this is scary, but we’re safe right now. I love you and I want you to be happy.”

It’s the same principle here, except that the knot of anxiety is in my dog’s belly rather than mine. All suffering deserves to be met with compassion. My dogs’ barking is a sign of their suffering. Therefore I respond compassionately.

Of course you have the option simply to let your dogs bark. After all, it’s an impermanent phenomenon and will therefore come and go. But I live in an apartment building and I think it would be a bit obnoxious to let my dogs disturb other people. And unrestrained barking isn’t a habit I want to encourage.

Practice Patience and Insight

Although I’ve said that sometimes your dogs need reassurance and comfort, sometimes they don’t! Or at least sometimes it’s better just to let them quiet down on their own, and maybe give them just minimal attention or no attention.

This morning while I was sitting, Suki started whining in the kitchen. I decided just to let her work through her emotions on her own. It isn’t really in my or the dogs’ long-term best interests if I jump up and attend to them every time they whine. After all, they whine every single time I leave the house, and I don’t respond by staying permanently at home. That the dogs are sometimes unhappy is something I just have to learn to tolerate. So be patient. They’ll be OK.

And bear in mind the insight that things are impermanent. “Things” here include my dogs’ feelings. They may be unhappy for a minute, but they’ll calm down and be at peace. Your feelings are impermanent too. It may be unpleasant to hear your dog crying, but it won’t go on forever.

It’s a judgement call to decide whether to intervene or not. Everyone is different, and all animals are different. I bear in mind, “Is this for our [i.e. mine and the dogs’] long-term happiness and well-being.”

So these are the kinds of situations I sometimes encounter meditating with dogs in the house, and some of the ways I respond to them.

Now bear in mind that my dog is not your dog, and that my dog is definitely not your cat or your African Grey parrot! So what works for me might not work for you.

In fact I’m sure some of you have evolved your own ways of meditating with pets. Perhaps you could share them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

 

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Poison in the sugar-bowl

Many, many years ago, when I was in my twenties, I was at the apartment of a newly divorced woman I’d just started dating when her ex dropped by unexpectedly. Awkward! Especially since she had just popped out of the house and wouldn’t be back for a few minutes!

Trying to be a good host, I offered him a cup of coffee. He accepted. I imagine he was grateful that we could diffuse this tense situation through a little social ritual.

He asked for sugar with his coffee, and I wasn’t familiar with where it was kept. But after a little searching I found a sugar-bowl and, as requested, measured out two heaped spoonfuls into his mug. He took one sip and his face contorted into a look us disgust. It turned out that the “sugar” I’d given him was actually salt! Now, having apparently tried to poison my girlfriend’s ex, I felt really awkward! I was convinced he’d think I’d done this deliberately.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that it’s possible to confuse two things in a way that has unpleasant results. And this happens with spiritual practice even more than it does with unlabelled bowls of white granular substances.

The Buddha once talked about wrongly understanding the teachings as being like grabbing a snake by the wrong end. If you need to pick up a snake, you want to take a firm hold of it just behind the head. Grab it by the tail and it’s going to loop around and bite you.

So what kinds of snake do people grab by the wrong end? (Or to put it another way, what kinds of salt are people putting in their coffee thinking it’s sugar?) Here are just four.

1. Misapplied Non-Attachment

Non-attachment means being aware of your own clinging and desires (e.g. wanting to have things your own way) and letting go of them. In our daily lives we can practice non-attachment in many ways: for example letting go of your compulsion to speak about yourself and choosing instead to listen empathetically to another person.

Non-attachment doesn’t mean “not caring,” or emotional detachment, which is how some people think about it. Equating non-attachment with not caring is usually self-serving. The environment? Well, everything’s impermanent anyway, so what does it matter if species go extinct and people’s crops are ruined by drought?

True non-attachment helps us to see our emotional avoidance strategies, and to set them aside so that we can truly care. Genuine compassion, caring about others’ suffering just as we care about out own, is a form of non-attachment.

2. Fake Patience

Maybe you stay with a partner who’s unsupportive, or you have a friend who talks nonstop and won’t let you get a word in sideways. And you never challenge them, because you’re practicing “patience.” After all, haven’t we had it drummed into us that we can’t make the world into a perfect place, and that it’s up to us to change.

But the thing is that that partner’s unsupportiveness isn’t making them happy, and neither is the friend’s logorrhea. Quite possibly neither of them wants to be asked to change (generally we don’t like change), but both of them would be more fulfilled if they did.

Sometimes you’re doing both yourself and others a favor if you’re more demanding and less “accepting” and “patient.”

3. Spurious Kindness

Lots of people are caring and compassionate when it comes to others, but are harsh and critical when it comes to themselves. And yet Buddhist teachings say that we can’t really have kindness and compassion for others unless we relate to ourselves kindly and compassionately first. What’s going on?

At one time I assumed that the Buddhist tradition was wrong on this point, but as I learned more about practicing empathy I realized that the traditional teaching fits my experience. I realized that a lot of the time when I thought I was being compassionate toward others I was either being “nice” to them because I wanted them to like me, or I was being “good” so that I could feel good about myself. And both of those things arose out of me not liking myself and not being kind to myself.

As I learned to have more self-empathy, I found that this empathy, and the compassion that arose from it, naturally flowed toward others. What do you know? The tradition seems to be right, and a lot of what I had thought to be kindness wasn’t really kindness at all.

4. Misunderstood Karma

The teaching of karma (which, incidentally, is not as large a part of the Buddha’s overall teaching as most people seem to think) was really meant as something we applied to ourselves. You want to be happy? Look at what you’re doing, since it can either create ease or suffering, peace or turmoil.

Later Buddhists were less interested in Buddhist as a form of practical psychology and more interested in Buddhism as a theory that explained everything — something that the Buddha himself would have found utterly alien.

One of the consequences of this is that Buddhists often misuse the teaching of karma in order to validate their judgements of others: People are suffering? Well, they must have done something to deserve it. And so why should I feel compassion for them? If we really understood karma in this situation we’d be looking at our own reaction to others’ suffering, would realize that judging others is something that creates pain for us, and would find instead a more compassionate way to relate.

These are just a few of the ways that we misuse Buddhist teachings in ways that cause suffering for ourselves and others. It’s important to grab a snake at the right end. It’s important to make sure that what you’re putting in your mug is really sugar.

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Four steps to self-empathy and self-kindness

Karina Vorozheeva on Unsplash

One thing that’s changed my life more than any other is the practice of self-empathy. Simply hearing the term for the first time was a revelation for me, since I immediately recognized that I wasn’t in fact empathetic toward myself. It had never even occurred to me to have empathy for myself. And this was despite the fact that I’d been, at that point, practicing lovingkindness meditation for more than two decades.

My lack of self-empathy showed itself in the way I could be down on myself when I was struggling. I took being unhappy as a sign of failure, as if I was meant to be happy all the time. At one point my not-very-conscious habit of self-blame led to me being overwhelmed by depression, since I was responding to feeling unhappy by making myself feel even more unhappy.

See also:

Over the years, I got better at being understanding toward and supportive of myself. In fact I now see the cultivation of self-empathy as an indispensable prerequisite for cultivating self-metta—kindness toward oneself. And since kindness for oneself is the basis of kindness for others, self-empathy is therefore the foundation of the entire practice of lovingkindness.

Probably the best way to explain self-empathy is to say how you can cultivate it. It’s easier to understand when you see it in action.

1. Recognize Yourself as a Feeling Being

So first, recognize that you’re a feeling being. You are wired to feel. You feelings are important to you. You can override them for a while, maybe even for a long time, but there will be a cost in terms of a diminished capacity to enjoy life, a sense of emotional brittleness, and difficulty in connecting with others in meaningful ways. It’s quite common for us to suppress an awareness of ourselves as feeling beings in the service of pursuing goals like work. Having self-empathy involves accepting that it’s OK to feel.

2. Sense Your Deepest Needs

Next, recognize that, deep down, you want to be happy and want to avoid suffering. This is an instinct that all sentient beings have, and it’s among our most primal instincts. Feelings have evolved as a way of helping us to survive by moving toward potential benefits and away from potential threats. We’re wired to do this, although again we can suppress or ignore those drives, and can see feelings as a source of weakness. Having self-empathy involves having a sensitivity to our emotional needs.

3. Understand That Life Is Challenging

It’s difficult to have our desires for wellbeing and to be free from suffering in a world where wellbeing is frequently elusive, and where various forms of suffering visit us all too commonly. Empathy can involve recognizing that we’re doing a difficult thing in being human. You’re not failing when you’re having a hard time, you’re just being human. You’ve been set up by your evolutionary past.

4. Offer Yourself Kindness and Support

Putting this all together, we start to think of it as natural for us to give ourselves support and encouragement as we encounter life’s inevitable difficulties. As the Rev. John Watson said in the 19th century, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” And who, out of this “everyone,” do you encounter most often?

That person is, of course, yourself.

We’re already offering ourselves a considerable amount of support just by empathizing with ourselves in this way, but there are many ways we can show ourselves kindness. For example I make a practice of talking o myself (usually internally) when I’m having a hard time. The standard lovingkindness phrases—things like “May I be well, may I be happy”—can be useful, but using natural language is even more so. So I might say something like “I know you’re anxious right now, but I’m here for you. We’ve been through this before and we’ve always come out the other side.”

Another way of showing kindness is to have a kindly inner gaze. Think of how you might look at a beloved sleeping child, or a dear pet, or at a lover (not when you’re sexually aroused, but when you’re feeling particularly loving toward them). Sense the qualities that arise in your gaze as you do these things. And then turn that same quality of attention inwards as you observe your own body and feelings. To look at ourselves with this kind of fondness, tenderness, and appreciation communicates a sense of being supported. And when we feel supported we’re better able to weather difficult times.

A third way to show ourselves kindness is through touch. Your first instinct when a loved one is experiencing grief or some other form of suffering may well be to hug them or place a hand on their arm or shoulder. I’ll often just place a hand on my heart. I might do this at the same time as I talk to myself and regard myself with kindness. This is all very sustaining.

Some people assume that developing self-compassion will make you soft. The opposite is the case. Research shows that individuals who have the best developed self-compassion skills are the most emotionally resilient. And learning to turn toward and accept painful feelings is challenging, to say the least.

What I’ve found over the years is that the more I’m able to be empathetic and kind with myself, the stronger is my empathy and kindness for others. Just as I want to be happy, so do others. Just as I want to be free from suffering, so do they. Just as I often need support as I go through life’s challenges, so also do they. And so this sense of empathy for others communicates itself as kindness, which may be expressed simply in the way we look at them, or in words, or touch, or in helpful actions.

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The secret to self-discipline is having empathy for your future self

Photo by Garidy Sanders on Unsplash

In general, we human beings have trouble doing things that are good for our long-term wellbeing, but which may be challenging in the short-term.

Meditating or exercising regularly are good examples of habits where self-discipline is required. It can be stressful to fit a regular meditation practice or exercise routine into our already very busy lives. It can be difficult to sit when we’re feeling restless, and exercise tends to cause discomfort. Sure, in the long term, these things are highly beneficial to us and make us healthier and happier. But the long-term isn’t here, now. The short-term is. The future seems a long way off, and we can have difficulty in taking it seriously.

We can try and power through — forcing ourselves to do things that are hard now but bring long-term benefits, but it can be hard to sustain that kind of effort. In fact there’s often a backlash. We diet — but then we binge. We train hard — but then we veg out.

See also:

But I’ve found an incredibly simple — and self-compassionate — way to overcome short-term resistance and to commit to your long-term wellbeing. In other words I’ve found that self-discipline can arise from self-compassion. In fact, self-compassion makes self-discipline easier. I’d like to explain how that works.

Here’s the simple hack: have your present self treat your future self with compassion. Treat your future self as a friend, and be kind to them.

So here are some examples:

  • It’s late, and I’m about to head to bed when I realize that there are still dirty dishes on the kitchen counter. Normally I might just say “Screw it” and leave them until the morning. But then I think of how Morning Bodhi will feel about waking up to a dirty kitchen. He’s going to have an unpleasant sinking feeling. I think about how Morning Bodhi will feel about waking up to a clean kitchen. I realize he’ll be happy, and also grateful to Evening Bodhi. So I wash the dishes. I feel good knowing I’ve helped Morning Bodhi.
  • I want to go out for a run, but I’m kind of tired and it’s drizzling. Again, my first response is, “Ah, screw it.” But then I think once more about how Post-Run Bodhi will feel. From previous experience I guess he’ll be tired immediately afterward but will also have a post-run high and will feel a sense of accomplishment. Well, I want that for Post-Run Bodhi, so I put on my running gear and head out the door. And it turns out that Post-Run Bodhi does feel pretty happy. He even says thanks to Pre-Run Bodhi.
  • It’s one of those months where I’m trying to be careful with my money, but a friend has been raving about a new book and I’ve just looked for it online. I really want to read this book and I’ve been a bit stressed, so it would be a nice treat. I can get a reward just by clicking that “buy” button. But then I think about Future Bodhi. How will he feel as the end of the month approaches and his bank balance is running low? Will he be happy that Past Bodhi bought the book, or will he wish that past Bodhi had passed up on it? Probably the latter. He’ll almost certainly feel much happier having saved the money.

Letting yourself off the hook and giving up easily involve short-term thinking: this feels unpleasant now, so I’ll stop doing it. Self-compassion, on the other hard, is about what will benefit you in the long term: this feels unpleasant now, but how will I feel later?

This way of establishing an empathetic and compassionate relationship with your future self makes it easier to have self-discipline. It takes most of the pain out of persuading ourselves to do what’s for our long term benefit. Having empathy for our future selves stops self-discipline being self-punishment and turns it into self-care.

There’s less likely to be a backlash because you’re not forcing yourself to do anything; instead you’re persuading yourself in a rational and kind way. Thinking about the pleasant feelings you future self will have as a result of your present actions brings a sense of joy into the present moment. Having gratitude in the future for your past self’s actions is also a source of happiness. All this is much more pleasant than trying to “power through.” And a self-compassionate approach helps you to feel better about yourself, because you see yourself not as an enemy or as an obstacle to your own happiness but as a friend and as someone who helps yourself to live happily.

In short, when you have empathy for your future self it’s much easier to avoid impulsive and self-defeating behavior and to act in ways that promote your long-term wellbeing.

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Lovingkindness: Connection before cultivation

heart-shaped stone on a sandy beach, close to the foam of an incoming wave

One of the emphases in my teaching of lovingkindness is what might be called connection before cultivation. Basically this is the principle that cultivating kindness (or lovingkindness, if you prefer) is easier and more effective when we first connect empathetically with the person we’re wishing well (and that can include ourselves!).

This isn’t the way I was taught to cultivate metta. I was encouraged, more or less, just to connect with my experience and then to start wishing myself, and then others, well.

What I do now makes my practice much more effective and really brings it to life.

I start by empathizing with my deepest desire, which I believe is everyone’s deepest desire: to be happy, or to experience some kind of peace or state of wellbeing. I do this by simply reminding myself, “I want to be happy,” and connecting with the truth of that statement in my experience. Usually at that very moment it’s true that I want to be happy.

Now I empathize with the fact that it’s not easy to be happy. Suffering happens all the time. Happiness is elusive. I do this just by remembering how hard it can be to find happiness.

Put together, these two facts — that we desire happiness and yet happiness is elusive — mean that this human life we live isn’t easy. This is what we’re empathizing with.

This difficulty in navigating a world where we desire and need something that is elusive isn’t a personal failing. It’s an intrinsic part of being human. So I like to say that we’re doing a difficult thing in being human.

Having recognized all the above, I can now see that as I go through life I need support. I need encouragement. I need kindness. And while it’s lovely to receive these from other people, the one person I’m with 24 hours a day is myself! And so “cultivating metta” becomes the act of wishing myself well as I do this difficult thing of being human. This is how empathy and kindness work together.

Without this kind of empathy as a basis, it’s much harder to wish ourselves well.

Having empathized with myself, it becomes much easier to empathize with other people. Everyone else is in the same situation as myself. They all want happiness and find it elusive. They’re also all doing this difficult thing of being human. When I reflect on this my heart becomes tender. Seeing that we’re all in the same existential situation, I want to offer kindness, support, and encouragement to others. And that’s how metta arises.

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How to be the world’s best soulmate

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Nanci Besser, Fulfillment Daily

The Challenge: Everyone wants to find their soulmate, but how can we be that for someone else?The Science: Surprisingly, empathy and kindness toward yourself is the key to being a wonderful partner.
The Solution: Here are 3 steps to becoming AND finding the perfect soulmate.
Everyone wants a soulmate. Yet what does it take to be a perfect partner to that soulmate? A research study shows us the secret to being a wonderful soulmate, and it’s something most of us have never heard of: self-compassion.

Everything comes in 3’s

At this point in your existing or budding relationship you probably know the crucial basics about one another: Human? –Check; Approximate age/height? –Check, check; Occupation? –Check; Do you practice self-compassion in your life? ? -Uh, no…why on Earth would that matter?  Well, I’m glad you asked.

Practicing self-compassion might be a strong indicator of the presence or absence of empathy in an individual. (Block-Lerner et al., 2007; Morgan & Morgan, 2005) Empathy is the ability to see the world through the eyes of another person. Empathy is what we are all seeking from our relationship partner: the space to be who we are without judgment.

The good news: it is never too late to add more self-compassion into your life. If you want to have the ideal, empathic partner, be the ideal, empathic partner first by practicing self-compassion daily.

Here are three secret steps to add self-compassion practices into your everyday life:

Step 1: Look Within

Noted psychologist, Dr. Kristin Neff defines self-compassion as (Neff, 2003)

Looking without resistance at one’s own discomfort, experiencing kindness and caring toward      oneself, applying a gentle, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s shortcomings, and acknowledging      that one’s experience is part of the human experience (p. 224).

Beginning the journey to self-compassion within our mind shifts our perceptions of the outside world. A great way to start the journey is to journal. Journaling is not a novel concept, but journaling without judgment may be for you. Write about your day, listing your interactions with others as facts without interpretations.

Do not restrict yourself expressing your feelings, but resist criticizing or judging your choices. This is not a “bliss ninny” approach, but be patient with your observations. If we look at an issue or seeming problem with kindness and without denial, it is much easier to see the options for transcending the dilemma.

Step 2: Forgive

The next step is to make an honest inventory of the choices you wish you could do-over. Like the first step, the goal here is not to create an infinite well of guilt. Rather, illuminate any self-judgments, stopping them from festering and accumulating in your mind.

In your journal, list alternate actions for each situation. Then, choose one alternate action that speaks to your heart. Now, tell yourself you did the best you could and forgive yourself for the mistaken choice.

Next, close your eyes and envision the moment before you chose your past action that you wish to change.

Then, take a deep, cleansing breath and insert the alternate action you chose before into your vision, allowing yourself to experience a different outcome based upon your different choice.

Tell yourself that each exhale releases the guilt you felt and each inhale allows you to choose being present. Sit still and allow your mind to quiet and countdown from three to one, and then open your eyes.

Step 3: Extend

Projecting your anger and resentment upon others is an inability to forgive yourself. What we choose not to look upon within us, we often cast out upon others, usually to those closest to us.

After completing step two above, you are ready to share your kindness and forgiveness with others through extension of your time and service. Search your heart and soul for a philanthropic activity or cause that speaks to you.

Or, if time is limited, do your best to smile at everyone your eyes meet for one day. There is always time to be kind and to share the compassion you experience within with others at any moment and at anyplace.

Happily Ever After

Incorporating these three secret steps into your daily life changes your perceptions of the outside world. This is the ideal stage to meet your potential soulmate or to enrich your present relationship with the empathy developed through self-compassion. You will be what you are looking for from another. Combining two self-compassionate/empathic soulmates may be greater than the sum of your individual selves. Figuratively, 1+1 may equal 3. What more could you possibly want?

Resources:

  • Block-Lerner, J., Adair, C., Plumb, J. C., Rhatigan, D. L., & Orsillo, S. M. (2007). The case for mindfulness-based approaches in the cultivation of empathy: Does nonjudgmental, present-moment awareness increase capacity for perspective-taking and empathic concern? Journal of Marital & Family Therapy, 33 (4), 501– 516.
  • Morgan, W. D., & Morgan, S. T. (2005). Cultivating attention and empathy. In Germer, C. K., Siegel, R. D., & Fulton, P. R. (Eds.), Mindfulness and psychotherapy (pp. 73-90). New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Neff, K. D. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self- compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223-250.

Original article no longer available

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This difficult thing of being human

caution sign

It’s always good to remember that life isn’t easy.

I don’t mean to say that life is always hard in the sense of it always being painful. Clearly there are times when we’re happy, when things are going well, when we feel that our life is headed in the right direction and that even greater fulfillment is just ahead of us, etc.

What I mean is that even when we have times in our life that are good, that doesn’t last. In fact, often the things we’re so excited and happy about later turn out to be things that also cause us suffering.

For example, you start a brand new relationship and you’re in love and it’s exciting and fulfilling. And then you find yourself butting heads with your partner, and you hurt each others’ feelings. Maybe you even split up. Does that sound familiar?

For example, the new job that you’re thrilled about turns out to contain stresses you hadn’t imagined. Has that ever happened?

For example, the house you’re so pleased to have bought inevitably ends up requiring maintenance. Or perhaps the house value plummets. Or perhaps your circumstances change and you find it a struggle to meet the mortgage. Maybe you’ve been lucky, or maybe you’ve been there.

Happiness has a way of evaporating. Unhappiness has a way of sneaking up on us and sucker-punching us in the gut.

On a deep level, none of really understand happiness and unhappiness. If we truly understood the dynamics of these things, we’d be happy all the time and would never be miserable. We’d be enlightened. But pre-enlightenment, we’re all stumbling in the dark, and sometimes colliding painfully with life as we do so.

This being human is not easy. We’re doing a difficult thing in living a human life.

It’s good to accept all this, because life is so much harder when we think it should be easy. When we think life should be straightforward, and that we think we have it all sorted out, then unhappiness becomes a sign that we’ve “failed.” And that makes being in pain even more painful.

We haven’t failed when we’re unhappy; we’re just being human. We’re simply experiencing the tender truth of what it is to live a human life.

So when you’re unhappy, don’t beat yourself up about it. Don’t fight it. Accept that this is how things are right now. Often when you do that, you’ll very quickly—sometimes instantly—start to feel better. By accepting our suffering, we start to move through it.

And as you look around you, realize that everyone else is doing this difficult thing of being human too. They’re all struggling. We’re all struggling. We all want happiness and find happiness elusive. We all want to avoid suffering and yet keep stumbling into it, over and over.

Many of the things that bother you about other people are their attempts to deal with this difficult existential situation, in which we desire happiness, and don’t experience as much of it as we want, and desire to be free from suffering, and yet keep becoming trapped in it. Their moods, their clinging, their anger—all of these are the results of human beings struggling to find happiness, and having trouble doing so.

If we can recognize that this human life is not easy—if we can empathize with that very basic existential fact—then perhaps we can be just a little kinder to ourselves and others. And that would help make this human life just a little easier to navigate.

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How meditation can reshape our brains

Neuroscientist Sara Lazar’s amazing brain scans show meditation can actually change the size of key regions of our brain, improving our memory and making us more empathetic, compassionate, and resilient under stress.

Sara’s team at Harvard University uses neuroimaging techniques to study neurological, cognitive and emotional changes associated with the practice of meditation and yoga. They also incorporate measures of peripheral physiology (breathing, heart beat) in order to understand how meditation practice influences the brain-body interaction.

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