Listening to a report on poverty on NPR this morning got me to thinking more deeply about the difference between compassion and empathy. The report included research on the impact of compassion and empathy in the presence of suffering. The neuroscience around this is both unexpected and quite informative. Apparently, when we empathize, we experience the pain of another so deeply that we may move into burnout or immobility and be unable to respond in ways that can actually help. With compassion, it seems we are more able to act on behalf of the need of others. Here’s a quotation from an article about this research:
“A recent study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, suggests that we can better cope with others’ negative emotions by strengthening our own compassion skills, which the researchers define as ‘feeling concern for another’s suffering and desiring to enhance that individual’s welfare.’”
When I first learned about treating trauma, many years ago, one of the skills I was asked to develop was a stance of “compassionate neutrality” when sitting with clients who had experienced tremendous suffering. The instruction was to develop the ability to be present to a person’s suffering without being drawn into a state of overwhelm myself. I now understand that, when we are in a state of overwhelm, action may become either impossible or disorganized, in the sense that we may become reactive or shut down rather than being able to clearly think through what might help.
What is so important about compassion, for me, is that it emerges from a deep sense of connection and care, as does empathy, and yet without losing oneself in the emotional experience of the suffering of another. In a sense, when we lose ourselves in the experience of empathy, it can begin to become about us, rather than the other person and their need. For this week’s experiment, I’d like to invite you to explore your relationship with compassion and notice how it is to support or deepen that capacity in yourself.
To touch into compassion, let’s go back to some of what last week’s experiment emphasized. Settle your awareness in your heart space and notice what it’s like to shift your thinking to your heart perception and intelligence. Notice how you respond when you think about individual or collective suffering with the following two elements in mind: “feeling concern for another’s suffering and desiring to enhance that individual’s welfare.” (This quote is also drawn from the Cerebral Cortex article.) In my experience, consistently shifting to heart intelligence and perception helps to support living with compassion.
Another element of compassion training, one that was used in the study reported in Cerebral Cortex, is the practice of lovingkindness meditation. I use this practice a lot and highly recommend it. There is a version of it here on the website under “Meditations”. I encourage you to explore it and notice what you experience when you work with it.
As part of this week’s experiment, also notice your experience of empathy. It’s an important element in understanding how other people feel and yet, from the Cerebral Cortex report, we find that “Empathy is really important for understanding others’ emotions very deeply, but there is a downside of empathy when it comes to the suffering of others…When we share the suffering of others too much, our negative emotions increase. It carries the danger of an emotional burnout.” If it feels okay to do so, spend some time exploring the fine line between understanding someone’s emotional experience versus going so far into their suffering that you begin to experience your own overwhelm.
Then, after you explore empathy for a while, come back to compassion—perhaps taking a few moments to do some lovingkindness practice—and notice whatever difference you may discover between these two ways of being present to suffering.
As with all these experiments, there is no right answer here. Instead, there’s an opportunity to enhance your awareness of how you move through your world and of the choices you can make, moment to moment, to support who and how you are.