Buddhism is not only a religion, but a philosophy, a science and a psychology as well. The Buddha studied the nature of the mind very deeply, the way a biologist studies a cell on the nuclear level. Buddhist psychology is a complete science unto itself, of the nature of the mind and the ways in which the human mind creates suffering, joy and liberation within the mind. Buddhist psychology explicitly gives instructions on ways to support yourself and others to find liberation from suffering and to live in joy and complete bliss. The tricky part, especially for us westerners, is that it is a continual practice, not just a one time quick fix, like taking a pill.
Let us start with empathy: What is it? In his new book on compassion, “A Fearless Heart,” Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D. (former Tibetan monk and principal english translator of the the Dalai Lama) defines empathy: It’s our natural ability to understand other people’s feelings and share in their experiences. It thus consists of two key components: an emotional response to someone’s feelings, and cognitive understanding of his or her situation. So it is a perceived feeling and knowing what others feel or experience. This is very helpful for both parties involved: the one in pain feels understood and less alone in their suffering, and the one who is witnessing has a visceral experience of understanding and relating in their own way to the experience of suffering.
Now, for some people having empathy can be challenging. Many of us grow up not learning skills or knowing how to cope with our own suffering, let alone others suffering. I’ve heard it said that in today’s modern, technology driven society, there is a significant deficit in empathy. Many aspects of our culture have cultivated a sense of narcissism that makes it easy to disconnect from what others might be experiencing.
Then there are others who are overwhelmed by empathy. Some people are quite sensitive and attuned to other people’s experiences, but without proper self care this can be exhausting. Many people in helping professions, such as nurses and therapists, end up leaving their profession because of what’s called “compassion fatigue,” but I would argue that they are really experiencing “empathy fatigue.” These people may believe they have a responsibility to take on the suffering of others because they know how to digest it more easily than the original owner, but this is very taxing on the mind, body and spirit. Hence the fatigue and burn-out occurs, and we have talented helpers and healers who are very much needed, leaving their professions. So, what is the solution?
This brings us to compassion and kindness. Compassion is really quite simple, yet our experiences of empathy can sometimes impede compassion. Compassion is a deep and sincere wish or desire that another’s suffering come to an end. It’s as easy as a wish. Kindness is then the action we take toward the one suffering as a result of our compassionate wish. Jinpa says: Compassion is a more empowered state and more than an empathic response to the situation. Kindness is the expression of that compassion through helping, a basic form of altruism. Compassion is what makes it possible for our empathic reaction to manifest in kindness.
This action of kindness is another place we can get stuck, however. For those of us who are helpers and healers we get stuck in feeling helpless and not knowing what to do to help another person. Sometimes there is nothing to do but just be. Often times simply holding compassion for the sufferer in their presence is enough kindness. It doesn’t sound like much but it can be quite powerful. It can take fierce compassion to stay present with anothers suffering knowing there is nothing you can do about it because only they know the best way through and out of their experience. Expressing loving kindness toward them means they don’t have to feel so alone as they walk that path.
As a therapist, I often think of myself as an old-fashioned, cast iron oven, sitting in the middle of the room and emanating a heat and warmth of compassion and loving kindness. Those who are on their journeys of healing and self discovery can stop by to warm and center themselves before they carry on again. Yes, I have other tools and practices to offer them as well out of kindness. But, as Jinpa said, “compassion is a more empowered state” for all involved, than simply feeling empathy for the sufferer.
– Nick Venegoni, MFT