Empathy part 2 - Putting yourself in someone else's shoes


The museum of empathy

Do you know about The Empathy Museum? It's a moving phenomenon of pop up arts projects happening around the world. Here's how they introduce themselves - 

Launched in 2015, the Empathy Museum is dedicated to helping us look at the world through other people’s eyes. Through a series of participatory arts projects with a focus on storytelling and dialogue, it explores how empathy can not only transform our personal relationships, but also help tackle global challenges such as prejudice, conflict and inequality.

There's a great little video below showing two of their projects:
A mile in my shoes
This one is where you go to a library of other people's shoes and choose a pair, then you walk a mile in their shoes while listening to their story through your headphones. Pure, beautiful, genius of an idea! 

A thousand and one books
It's a library of people’s favourite books. You don’t choose which book you will read from the cover, which is blank (never judge a book by it's cover), or from the title, but by someone's personal review, of what the book meant to them. 

What does it mean to be empathic?  

Hopefully we have all had the experience of someone empathising with us (later I'll say something about how we can heal those times we've needed empathy and we didn't get it, ouch!) When we do receive that empathy we can have a deep sense of being seen, or understood. That our whole being exists for that other person. 

If we practice being empathic then all our relationships benefit. Simply put, it is a mindfulness practice, we are being mindful of another person. Being mindful in this way gives us loads of information that we would probably otherwise miss, information about what is happening for the other person. 

You could say there is two lots of information available to us, firstly the information that we get from observing the other person. Secondly, maybe more creatively, the hints we might get from imaginatively putting ourselves in their shoes. 

Empathy through observing

Do you ever feel, during a conversation, that you are so much more interested in what you are going to say next, rather than what the other person is saying right now? Or is that only me?!

If we really want to be empathic we are going to have to put ourselves to one side and pay attention to the other person. When we do that we find lots happening - body language, gestures, facial expressions and micro expressions (buzzword). 

It's easy to have empathy with Lucille Ball drinking her Vitameatavegamin below. 

Empathy through imagining
Some people are 'like an open book', easy to read, but what if you have no idea what is going on with someone? It is possible to use your imagination, what might they be feeling, given the circumstances? You are just taking a guess, but it is a start.

Always make your guess into an open question -
You - Are you upset with me for not calling you yesterday?
Your pal - No I'm angry about you cancelling the weekend! 

Some things to remember when practicing empathy

  • Things aren't always what they appear to be. I once knew someone who appeared terrifyingly angry when what they were actually feeling was fear, it really helped to know that (though it was hard to believe!). 
  • When you are listening to someone try being really present while maintaining a sense of boundaries. His thoughts and feelings are over there, whilst you are here, present but seperate. 
  • By empathising you are not agreeing with that person's position, you are simply understanding it, or being able to put yourself in their shoes. 
Empathy is virtue in action, the restraint of reactive patterns in order to stay present with another person.  It is an inherent generosity.
— Rick Hanson in 'The Buddha's Brain'

Moving from empathy to compassion 

Some thoughts on moving from empathy to compassion, inspired by Anayalo's brilliant book Compassion and  Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation

Compassion is essentially helpful -
An essential component in compassion is a concern for others to be relieved of their suffering. It is not the act of seeing suffering. It is the vision of the person being cared for, or even the act of caring for the sick person.

If we were just to dwell on the suffering of others that wouldn't lead to compassion, it would just be a reflection on dukkha, suffering.

Compassion is a positive emotion because the object of the meditation is not suffering, but 'freedom from suffering'. 

The many faces of compassion

If compassion is about being helpful, what does helpfulness feel like? Okay it might feel 'nice', warm and friendly. But at other times it might feel like a blast of cold air, a shock to the system. Someone might show their compassion by telling us a hard truth about ourselves, or restraining us from doing something harmful which we want to do. 

Analayo says of the Buddha's speech - 

 The Buddha will not engage in speech that is not in accord with the truth or is not beneficial. But sometimes the Buddha will say things that are not pleasing to others - this is an expression of his compassion.
 So to express compassion does not mean only to say what others find pleasing. The compassionate vision does not just value harmony in the present moment but also considers the long term repercussions.
One is motivated by the wish to help others emerge from the conditions that cause their unhappiness.

What is the relationship between these two, empathy and compassion? 

If compassion is about being truly helpful, about relieving suffering, maybe we can say that empathy is an essential support to compassion, because it gives us the information we need to be of help, it gives us an insight into the other person. 

For a while we put ourselves into their shoes.