855th Week: Cultivating Empathy

As I thought about what to write for this week’s practice in conscious living, I found myself pondering the painful lack of empathy, kindness, and care that seem to characterize our human family’s interactions in my country. It has been quite disheartening to watch people focus so fervently on their own well-being and self-interest. For just one example, to know that countless people are currently losing their homes because they can’t afford rent due to the pandemic is heart-breaking. It’s as though we forget that we’re all in this together and that nothing happens in isolation or outside our collective social life.

This week’s practice may feel heavy if you choose to do it, but it also is a heart-opening and heart-expanding practice. Empathy requires our heart perception, even when it’s painful to go there, as it opens us to an awareness of the experience of others. Deepening empathy also deepens our sense of connection and belonging to a larger community of being. It expands our sense of identity beyond our personal self.

So, for this week, I invite all of us to deepen our experience of empathy. This means being able to imagine how something feels to someone else, to imagine how we would feel were we in their situation. For example, notice how you feel when you imagine that you don’t have enough food to eat today. Or that you are saying goodbye to your home and have nowhere else to go but out on the street.

Empathy can expand to include our other-than-human family, as well, and our earth environment as a whole system. For example, empathy might extend to polar bears who find that their environment is changing so drastically that starvation is a constant possibility, an ever-emerging reality.

Here’s a brief practice focused on empathy and it draws from the Buddhist practice of metta or lovingkindness.

  • Take a moment to settle in and find the place in you that is your internal center of gravity, your place of core presence, however you may experience that aspect of yourself.
  • Bring your awareness to your heartspace and focus on a quality that resonates with love, affection, care, or any other similar feeling.
  • Imagine your heart opening a bit more and bring to mind some aspect of the suffering of another being—human or other-than-human. Allow yourself to imagine how that being feels in their current situation and how it would be if that were you.
  • Next, send lovingkindness to that being, saying something like, “I wish you freedom from this suffering. I wish you ease and comfort. I wish you happiness.”
  • Sense into your heartspace and notice how it feels when you do this practice. Allow whatever mixed feelings may arise to move into your awareness, but don’t add anything to them. Simply allow them to arise and move through as you do this practice.
  • If you find yourself crying or having other feelings, allow them to move through you without your adding anything to them. The same with anger or outrage. Allow these responses to become awareness that supports your increasing empathy.
  • As you notice whatever experience of empathy or compassion arises in your awareness, return to your heartspace again and again.
  • As a final step in this practice, be sure to offer yourself the same lovingkindness that you offered above. Say to yourself, “I wish you freedom from suffering. I wish you ease and comfort. I wish you happiness.” Notice how it feels to open your heart to yourself in this way.
  • When you are ready, orient back into the space around you. Feel your body supported by the surface under you. Wiggle your fingers and toes and come all the way back, perhaps noticing that you continue to resonate with a sense of empathy a bit more than you did before.

As with all these practices, please bring along curiosity as a companion, as curiosity opens you to new or deepening experience. And, please be sure to pat gently on the head any judgments that may arise, allowing them to move on through without your having to do anything about them. All of us can benefit from increasingly our empathy, as well as allowing ourselves to become increasingly aware of what is unfolding in the lives of those beings around us, be they human or other-than-human. With increased empathy, perhaps we can collectively find our way to being kinder and gentler with each other.

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