When I face a challenge in life, one of the things that helps most is to practice stepping back from the issue and looking at it from different perspectives. This enables me to gain necessary insight on what I may need to learn or how to solve the difficulty. By looking at where I am, where I have been and where I want to go, from even a slightly different perspective, I can also see my challenge of the moment with greater compassion.
(This is also known as Gaining the '50,000-Foot View' Perspective.)
By practicing a similar type of perspective-taking for viewing life through the lens of others instead of just our own, we can cultivate understanding about why they are acting the way they may be acting. As a result, we can develop empathy for their struggles. When we ask ourselves, "What would this be like for me?" with an open heart and open mind, taking our fears, beliefs and desires out of the equation, then we move into "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another," which is the Oxford Dictionary's definition of empathy. But why is this important to our well-being?
The ability to take perspective is unique to human beings. Unlike animals, empathy is at the heart of healthy human experience. To feel safe, we need to understand our environments and relationships, and we need to feel understood. By cultivating the ability to metaphorically stand in another’s shoes and feel what it is like there, we develop connection, which is essential to our survival.
If we cut ourselves off from feeling empathy for our fellow human, we become cold, hardened and disconnected. The failure to empathize is, in fact, a key part of most social problems, including crime, violence, racism and abuse. It causes communications, relationships and organizations to break down; whereas empathy promotes health, intelligence and cooperative productivity. It is required for almost everything that makes society function.
Unfortunately, in recent decades, we have emphasized self-serving motives and neglected the development of empathy. Studies show a decline in empathy due to factors that have reduced human interaction, such as the instability of families, high mobility and the rise in technology in comparison to face-to-face social interaction.
(More on this theory of disconnection in Bhakti Yoga: How the Path of Devotion Connects Us in a Disconnected Modern World.)
“By understanding and increasing just this one capacity of the human brain, an enormous amount of social change can be fostered. Failure to understand and cultivate empathy, however, could lead to a society in which no one would want to live -- a cold, violent, chaotic and terrifying war of all against all,” writes Szalavitz and Perry in their book, "Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential and Endangered."
The Stress-Empathy Connection
There is a direct correlation between stress and our ability to empathize. Extreme stress makes it difficult for us to think clearly and respond kindly because brain regions that regulate the stress response also allow for empathy and connection. Fear and stress shut down the higher regions of the brain and persistent stress actually alters our biology and becomes a precursor to many physical illnesses. So, the more stressed we become, the less empathy, creativity and physical, mental and relational health we experience both individually and societally.
Some of the most agonizing pain in life is often due to a loss, abuse or disconnect in relationship. We are profoundly social creatures that rely on nurturance. As seen with infants who have experienced disrupted attachment in early life, repeated loss of connection is devastating to human development. There is a reason we are wired with mirror neurons to see ourselves in each other. Beginning at birth with the mirroring response in a natural mother-baby relationship, this empathetic reaction to stress sets the rest of our relational machinery into motion for life. To develop properly, we all require the help of others.
Yet these days, despite having long lists of social "friends and followers," studies show that people actually have fewer close relationships and spend less time face-to-face building relationships. They have less social time in general, give less to charities and participate less in religious activities.
What Goes Around Comes Around
There is good reason why empathy is a cornerstone of all great religions and philosophical systems. Different from pity or sympathy which holds the other as separate and apart, empathy reminds us that we are one big human family. We need the benefits of interpersonal body language and voice tone. We need to endure the consequences of our words and actions as another responds to us face-to-face.
If we lose compassion for others, we simultaneously lose our ability to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves. Perspective taking is what leads to empathy, and empathy leads to love. We are born for love and we will really only survive in any meaningful way as a result of our ability to extend love to one another.
(Invite more love into your life and try Breathing Love: Meditation in Action (Excerpt + Guided Meditation of Love).)
Even the smallest kindness can go a long way. Empathy is a call to action to show kindness toward others, by helping to relieve one another’s stress. It has been shown that having healthy social relationships strengthens the immune system, and reduces risk of depression and anxiety.
If we can extend compassion and kindness, we help put the brakes on the damaging neurochemistry of fear and threat. And through the recognition of our interconnection and interdependency, we assure a better experience of life for all beings. Altruistic and relational behavior is a proven and dependable route to happiness. Therefore, practicing love is one of the healthiest things we can do.
Ways to Develop Empathy
Practice perspective taking. Ask yourself, "What would it be like to go through or feel, what this other person is going through or feeling right now?"
Turn off technology, especially at mealtime. Sit and talk. Create a real connection with one another.
Be honest with yourself and others. Honesty is required to develop trust and form genuine relationships.
Be willing to introspect. Being willing to see our own imperfections develops humility. In turn we develop compassion for others’ imperfections and empathy for their struggles.
(This means learning How to See the Ego for What it Is.)
Participate in service and community projects, which put you outside your normal social groups. The more you get to know people who are different, the more you begin to see the similarities we all share.
Practice a compassion meditation. Extend goodwill, peace and blessings to ever-wider circles of people.
I, for one, pray that we can turn back toward valuing empathy as an essential human quality that we are all responsible for developing to greater and greater degrees. It sure feels a lot better to live in a kind world where we try to understand one another, rather than in one where self-interest leads the day. And it certainly brings us closer to overall peace and well-being.