Walking to an appointment the other day, I passed a man who carried a large manila envelope filled with what looked like x-rays. Whatever they may actually have been, I imagined that he was going to or from a doctor’s appointment. That got me to thinking about how everyone has a story, everyone has experiences and circumstances at some point in their lives that challenge them as I imagined this man might be being challenged in his life right now.
This also got me to thinking about how important it is to remember that everyone—every human and every other living being—has the capacity to suffer and wants to be free from suffering. I found myself thinking about the importance of cultivating and strengthening my capacity for empathy, to nurture a habit of remembering that even people with whom I fervently disagree also want to be free from suffering, just as I do. What I find, again and again, is that insisting on orienting to empathy—which has nothing to do with agreeing with someone—can be very hard at times.
For this week’s practice, I invite you to track even more closely your relationship with empathy—empathy for yourself and for others. I often write about kindness and compassion, and I’ve written about empathy before, and all of these qualities represent, for me, skillful attitudes to carry with us as we move through and engage the world.
An important companion along the way in a practice like this one is to also cultivate comfort with mixed feelings. As I mentioned above, to have empathy for another being doesn’t mean to agree with them or approve of how they live. Instead, it’s a way of remembering that we are all kin and that everyone has a story, has something in their lives that has caused them to suffer.
To be able to hold mixed feelings with some ease requires us to be in an attitude of “both/and”, where we are comfortable acknowledging another being’s suffering even as we also may feel anger, fear, distrust, disgust, or some other reaction. And, it’s important to remember that feeling empathy doesn’t mean not acting to change things that need to be changed or to express things that need to be said. Instead, it means that a recognition that the other person or being has a story of their own allows us to remember that we share that aspect of reality with them.
Please bring empathy, kindness, and compassion to yourself as well as to others. It helps to remember to bring curiosity along as your constant companion, because curiosity opens us up to the world, whereas fear constricts us. And, it’s always helpful to remember to pat gently on the head any judgments that arise as you do this practice. Judgments are pretty much inevitable. It’s our relationship to them that counts…