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Got Empathy?

In Nonviolent Communication, when we teach empathy we often begin with the following phrase “Are you feeling (insert feeling guess) because you’re needing (insert guess)? Students of NVC know that this phrase is a launching point for personalizing empathy in a way that feels natural and easy.

However, I’m concerned those I teach may get the impression the formulaic phrase is empathy, which it is not!

So, what is empathy? Wikipedia defines empathy as the capability to share and understand another's emotions and feelings. It is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes." Scientists have been attempting to measure empathy in humans and primates. In the early 1990s, Italian neuroscientists were able to identify cells located in the primate brain that seem to be the region of empathy. When the motor cortexes of rhesus monkeys were monitored, researchers discovered interesting phenomena. If someone repeated the same action as the monkey, the very same cells in the motor cortex of its brain would light up. In humans too, this experiment was replicated by pricking the finger of one individual. The same cell lights would light up on a second person in the room as if their own finger had been pricked.

Empathy is a natural response to someone in pain! We are biologically programmed to resonate at the same frequency as another, to feel what they are feeling.

The implications of these experiments are profound because at some level, the brain did not distinguish between self and other. Spiritual teachers and mystics throughout the ages have said that we are all interconnected, and modern science is now discovering this connection. As Thich Nhat Hanh says “we are interbeing”.

So, if empathy is our natural state, why aren’t we able to respond empathetically all the time? Perhaps we fear that the suffering of others will become our suffering and in order to protect ourselves we fall into habitual responses of fixing, denying, or avoiding. If I feel your pain, then I might have to feel my own and that’s a scary place for some people to go. Spiritual teachers might tell us the self-perpetuating ego gets involved and overrides our natural state.

And yet our bodies are hard-wired for connection and compassion. We can see this in the state of oneness a small child feels when they are not separate from others.

So how do we return to this state of natural connection? After many years of teaching and practicing the formulas of empathy, the only way empathy authentically works for me is to be completely present for the other person and myself, without wanting to fix, without agreement or disagreement, without needing to protect myself. Meditation has been a tremendous support on my path to returning to that natural state, focusing on the breath, letting go, being still. It’s comforting to know I don’t have to make empathy happen, I only need to get out of my own habitual patterns to allow the empathy to flow.

One day when I was sharing some emotional pain with a friend of mine, she looked me in the eye, put her hand over her heart, took a deep breath, and said “Ahhhhhhhh.” This was some of the best empathy I have ever received because it was so heartfelt and I felt such abiding presence from my friend.

I’m reminded of the Buddhist saying “Don’t just do something, be there!” I’ve come to understand that empathy is the ability to be present and connected to one’s own source, one’s natural flow of energy and luminosity. It doesn’t require words, merely witnessing presence.

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