Compassion is that willingness to make personal sacrifices to truly be there for another person during crisis and beyond–and to extend that gift of truly asking and wanting to know, “How are YOU today?” It’s a simple thing that can empower greater connectivity between people and flows from our ability to develop empathy–the ability to connect with another person’s feelings and states.
When you have high levels of empathy, you take that time to ask how others are, listen to the answer, and most importantly, act on the answer. Compassion is the action that flows from empathy–it is the act that shows rather than states that you care or that you love others. It is the hallmark of balanced relationships but also it tends not to exist in one-sided relationships (read my article on “One Sided Relationships on Self Growth.com)
In 1979, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index was developed to assess a person’s level of empathy through self assessment. Sara H. Konrath at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, found that 75% of students who participated in her study to assess empathy, reported themselves as less empathic compared to similar populations over ten years ago. Yet, researchers have purported that empathy, as a human feeling that influences behaviors, is hardwired and instinctive. So what causes human feeling that is hardwired to become diminished over time?
Lack of Mindfulness
Researchers discovered that the act of living alone or being in relationships that lack true intimacy, seems to play a role in creating atrophy of the “empathy” muscle because living more isolated does not allow us to practice being mindful of other people’s feelings. Instead, isolation causes us to focus only on ourselves.
When we allow ourselves to create a shared intimate life, we naturally become mindful of others and see others as an extension of our core energies–so we make the commitment to actively connect with and nourish not only the energy of ourselves but also of others. We stop seeing the world through the lens of only our individual needs and become curious about what other people need and desire, and how they perceive experience.
We start to listen to others in new ways and appreciate each opportunity to learn something new about what others need and how we can play a role in fulfilling those needs. We become excited to become a part of of the experience of others and strive to share deeply and allow others to become a part of our worlds. Thus, our minds are ever connecting to others in a non-egoic and non selfish way.
In contrast, isolation and limiting meaningful contact, keep our minds focused on our individual concerns, needs and wants. Thus, this self focus creates patterns within our brains that magnify thoughts that are more egocentric and lack empathy.
Often times, people are unaware that they are moving through life selfishly, yet the language that they use often reveals less empathic states. For instance, a person, who has the empathy muscle well developed, tends to express in a way that is more inclusive of others and uses more “we” statements or “you” statements than “I” statements. Here are a few examples.
“You really have a wonderful way of making people feel good around you–I like to be around you” versus “I feel good around you.”
The first statement acknowledges the gifts of another person (it takes empathy to acknowledge the wonder of others) and the impact of those gifts on the speaker. The second statement only focuses on how the individual feels–it is ego centered.
“I look forward to getting to know you and sharing more with you too” versus “I can’t wait to receive all you have to give.”
The first statement reflects a desire for reciprocity, which flows from an empathic understanding that others also need to receive. The second statement focuses on what the person wants to receive from the other person and doesn’t indicate a desire for reciprocity.
“How are you feeling today?” versus “I trust you are fine today.”
The first statement reflects curiosity and desire to know where another person is, while the second statement makes a presumption that the other person is fine and reflects little curiosity to to know whether or not that is true.
Thus, the subtlety of language can reveal whether we are mindfully focusing on the needs of others as well as our own needs, or whether we are predominantly just focusing on ourselves.
What can we do to increase empathy? We need to wake up our awareness of others. There is a strong relationship between mindfulness and the ability to flex our empathy muscles.When we cultivate mindfulness, it empowers us to risk being vulnerable by giving us the confidence to reach outward to become curious about the needs and feelings of others, and act on what we discover.
Yet, we live in a world that is constantly challenging our ability to be fully aware of other people. We live in a society where people are consistently reaching for their cell phones, tablets or other forms of communication even when they are sitting in restaurants for meals with family, friends or loved ones. We are becoming a society that literally tunes out being in the moment and fully present to others. In doing so, we cause the empathy muscle to wither for we cannot develop empathy when we are not present to others.
This is why I encourage clients, especially couples, to unplug from their electronic devices and make the commitment to be mindfully present with each other, and actively discover what the other person needs, wants, or feels. For without this process of discovery and understanding, empathy does not blossom into compassionate acts.
Also, I suggest that clients integrate qi gong movements into their day as a tool for not only being more aware of others, but also as a tool to return to their higher selves and the natural instinct to be mindful of how they are impacting others. After all, you cannot change how you impact others if you do not take the time to notice what that impact is.
This act of mindfully cultivating empathy is a very important part of classical martial arts and qi gong training versus the way these arts are typically taught in the western world as mere sport of fitness activities. For instance, in the Asian culture, one has to earn, through the development of deep levels of empathy and respect, the privilege to be invited into lineage-based trainings, which have at their essence, the goal of developing the human spirit not to be “fighters” but to weld the light of compassion and empathy in all areas of life. Thus, the relationships between students and master teachers are natural opportunities to develop deeper levels of empathy and respect, and the etiquette around how these relationships flow foster that development.
This week, start a process of building your empathy muscles by becoming aware of these areas of self:
How often are you allowing yourself to be fully present to other people or to tune out?
Are you surrounded mostly by people who are insensitive or disconnected from the wonder of you? If you surround yourself with people who are apathetic and unappreciative of you, you will tend to treat others that same way.
Are you actively curious about the needs and feelings of people in your life, and willing to act on what you discover?
How aware are you of how your own internal states are impacting others?
How comfortable are you with going inward and being present to your internal self? It’s hard to be sensitive to others when you are not sensitive to yourself.
List three ways you could demonstrate more empathy to the people in your life.
List three ways you can attract more empathic people into your life.