Bringing Empathy Back to Life

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When someone is suffering, it can be agony to fully listen–we’re compelled to jump in with advice or stories of our own trials, filling any awkward space or moment of silent air with word upon word. The first rule of empathy, however, is to simply shut up. So says Miki Kashtan (if much more eloquently) on Tikkun Daily.

Kashtan writes that giving our full presence is the most important step in practicing true empathy, and it doesn’t require us to utter a thing:

There is a high correlation between one person’s listening presence and the other person’s sense of not being alone, and this is communicated without words. We can be present with someone whose language we don’t understand, who speaks about circumstances we have never experienced, or whose reactions are baffling to us. It’s a soul orientation and intentionality to simply be with another.

When we achieve full presence, empathic understanding follows, Kashtan continues:

Full empathic presence includes the breaking open of our heart to take in another’s humanity. . . . We listen to their words and their story, and allow ourselves to be affected by the experience of what it would be like.

Then we understand. Empathic understanding is different from empathic presence. We can have presence across any barrier, and it’s still a gift. If we also understand, even without saying anything, I believe the other person’s sense of being heard increases, and they are even less alone with the weight of their experience.

There are signs that empathy is on the decline, with narcissism working to elbow it out of our modern lives. As Utne Reader noted (May-June 2011), University of Michigan psychologist Sara Konrath found that empathy levels among college students who took the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) plummeted between 1979 and 2009. The greatest drops were in empathic concern and perspective taking–the ability to imagine another person’s point of view.

But don’t lament the inexpugnable death of human compassion yet. Empathy is in us–even science says so. This month, University of Southern California professor Lisa Aziz-Zadeh mapped how the brain generates empathy, painting it as a naturally occurring emotion, reports Times of India. “It appears that both the intuitive and rationalizing parts of the brain work in tandem to create the sensation of empathy,” Aziz-Zadeh told the Times. “People do it automatically.”

However we get to that utterly tuned-in, selfless state of empathy, providing a listening ear, giving our full presence, and being moved by another can be gifts not only to the sufferers, but to us–the empathizers–as well. Writes Kashtan:

Allowing into our heart the other person’s suffering doesn’t mean we suffer with them, because that means shifting the focus of our attention to our own experience. Rather, it means that we recognize the experience as fully human, and behold the beauty of it, in all its aspects, even when difficult.

Sources: Tikkun, Times of India

Image by Parvin, licensed under Creative Commons.

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