Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.
- (Sufi Poet Rumi)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Wired for Empathy

The recent tragedy in Haiti confirms at least one thing in my mind. Humans are wired for non-empathetic responses to others. We go out of way to not witness the suffering, we deny, disbelieve, or rationalizethe stories, and send others in to address the human condition that we think must surely be someone’s fault.

In acute and massive events our empathetic channels open up, but over chronic situations that might even entail more individuals, our empathetic channels narrow. In times like this I wonder how we can keep empathy alive long enough so that the dire pre-earthquake circumstances in Haiti and similar countries and communities never happen.

Compassionate Communication gives us some tools to open our hearts and offer empathy so that we may strive for societal transformation in response to chronic oppression and not just respond with charity in catastrophic events.

Here’s one method that I use in my journaling and also my “time out” periods when I find myself responding to stimuli with expensive emotions that I’d rather not experience so I can instead use my energy on strategies to open myself and others to the full possibility of life.

I define empathy as recognizing my feelings and searching for what universal needs give rise to these feelings. Then I ask others, or guess, what they might be feeling based on needs met or unmet. Then I slow down, breathe, and take time to celebrate that I am connecting and open to life without judgment and open to whatever feelings come my way, and take time to mourn about the tragic consequences of disconnecting relational patterns in friends, families, and societies.

In the case of Haiti, I found my schedule rushed on those first initial days so I sat down for 30 minutes one morning and did the process described in the previous paragraph and then journaled about it. I discovered the possibility of doing this for a few minutes every day for those with whom I wish to connect (self, family members, friends, co-workers, people I know, people I’d like to know, people I regret knowing, and strangers near and far). My hope that is that I might I tap into enough empathy to endure the suffering of the world, and to grow in courage and strength to transform the suffering to global flourishing. This is my hope, this is my prayer, and may this be my practice.

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