The Practice of Empathy

by Larry Kaplowitz  •  January 5, 2018

Watching the snow gently falling here in Eugene, the world seems timeless and blanketed in peace. It feels hard to believe that we are on the brink of the inauguration, and the onset of a strange and troubling new chapter in our culture. So much healing is needed. As I have reflected on the qualities we need to cultivate in order to begin healing our conflicted country, I would put empathy on the top of the list. Here are some definitions of empathy:

The ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual and to comprehend and share another individual’s emotional state.

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. ~Merriam Webster

If I had to choose one word to capture the essence of the practice of Solsara, it would be empathy. There are many ways to practice empathy. Here are some of the aspects of empathy we work with in Solsara:

Self-Empathy

To be open and available to other people requires that we first become present and aware of ourselves. We practice self-empathy by becoming still, focusing on our breath, bringing our awareness into the present, and opening to our own emotions, bodily sensations, and thoughts, observing these with curiosity and acceptance.

Giving Empathy

In the stillness of self-aware presence, we can open our awareness to the person we are with, simply receiving them. As we look into their eyes, releasing any effort to understand or analyze, our perception and intuition open, we become receptive, and we can feel them. Empathy is greatly aided by our awareness of the filters, biases, inclinations, judgments, attachments, assumptions, and beliefs that influence our perception and our ability to listen to and receive another person. Our practice as a giver of empathy is to empty ourselves of our filters, and to listen carefully with our hearts, minds, and bodies. We can extend our empathy by giving verbal or nonverbal cues that invite the other person to open and show themselves authentically, by asking questions to more fully elicit the other person’s experience, and by offering reflections that express our understanding of their experience.

Receiving Empathy

Empathy is reciprocal. We can be either its giver or its recipient. To receive empathy requires our willingness to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to release our protection and control and show and express our authentic experience and feelings. Vulnerability requires absolute honesty. To be vulnerable is to show our pain, our grief, our joy, our excitement, our passion, our love, our desires and our aversions. When we are protective or defensive it can hinder the ability of another person to feel empathy with us. The more authentically we show ourselves, the more opportunity there is for the other person to feel empathy with us. To be deeply seen requires that we let go of control.

Consent

To ask for consent is an active expression of empathy. It is going beyond our own perception of what the other person is experiencing to specifically ask them, so that there is no speculation or doubt. To ask for consent is to value the experience, feelings, and desires of the other person, and is the absolute expression of respect. To practice consent is to understand that we are never entitled to anything from another person, and that we only accept or take what is given or offered willingly and freely.

When we practice empathy, the natural outcomes are love, intimacy, and connection. Perhaps a good way to define connection is mutual empathy—that blissful feeling of oneness we feel when we are simultaneously receiving and being received.

Compassion and Service
As we open to empathy, it often leads us to compassion—a feeling of caring and concern for others who are suffering or oppressed—which is actively expressed through kindness, service, altruism, and activism. While anger or fear might motivate us into activism, it is through the cultivation of our compassion that our activism will become a vehicle for true healing.