We’re heading toward the traditional time of offering goodwill towards our fellows. It’s also a time of enormous expectations – that we put on ourselves and that others put on us. During this time, it’s so important that we not only have empathy for ourselves, but that we show it, as well, towards ourselves.
I was talking about this with a friend the other day, and was using the words “empathy” and “sympathy” interchangeably. My friend challenged me about discovering the difference between being sympathetic about a person’s circumstances and having empathy for them. When I did some soul searching and some research, I discovered there is a world of difference.
Turning first to my quick source of all things these days – google – I looked up their definitions. Sympathy is defined as feelings of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Empathy, on the other hand, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.
Sympathy separates us from the circumstances of another – it’s another’s misfortune we observe, not ours; there is no sense of a shared experience, or even of one person connecting with another. Empathy connects us in our shared experiences. Sympathy is about difference and isolation; empathy is about similarity and connection.
Empathy is about true, intimate, compassion, and includes compassion for ourselves as well as for the other. Who better than Pema Chödrön to enlighten us on this.
Ms. Chödrön writes and speaks tirelessly about empathy. She sees it as the root of all true intimacy. In her article in Lion’s Roar, The Natural Warmth of the Heart , she refers to empathy as a ‘natural warmth’. It’s something we can only learn about through personal loss. In her own words :
“We go along for years moving through our days, propelled by habit, taking life pretty much for granted. Then we or someone dear to us has an accident or gets seriously ill, and it’s as if blinders have been removed from our eyes. We see the meaninglessness of so much of what we do and the emptiness of so much we cling to.”
When we experience personal loss, it does something to our ability to open our hearts to others, and to truly connect. Then someone enters our lives who reminds us of a past time of personal sorrow, and we have a choice – either to open or close – to show empathy or sympathy.
Ms. Chödrön has a way of connecting to our own vulnerability when we face that choice. It’s called Tonglen meditation. This meditation is all about connecting with all others who have felt, or feel, the pain you feel ; it reminds us that we aren’t alone. Here’s how to practice Tonglen meditation.
Tonglen has three levels of connection.
First : when you feel a moment of pain or discomfort, think to yourself ‘Other people feel this’. Taking this step and meditating on it is enough, in itself, to connect and open your empathy toward others.
Second : if it feels genuine in the moment, think ‘May we all be free of this’, or even more deeply, think ‘May this become a path for awakening the hearts of all of us’. Think of all the people you know, all the people who may have felt what you feel, and include them in this thought.
Third, the deepest level of courage : Think ‘Since I’m feeling this anyway, may I feel it so that others could be free of it.’
This is the tru spirit of empathy, the tru spirit of tonglen
Brené Brown – Empathy and Sympathy
Quote of the Week
If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the peoplewho drive us crazy, can be our teacher.
― Pema Chödrön
At times we need more – we know the logic, know what to do. And yet something is still blocking us. As a registered psychotherapist and stress coach, I offer individual one-on-one consultations.
For more information, visit my website www.thejoyofliving.co/programs or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org