In this month’s Butterfly Journal prompt I stated: Our empathic understanding of others’ suffering opens our hearts to compassion. Let’s explore deeper into what that actually means: what is empathy, and what is compassion?
The word “empathy” comes from the Ancient Greek ἐμπάθεια (empatheia), meaning: in or at (en>em) feeling, suffering, or passion (patheia). Having empathy is feeling or sensing another person’s emotions in some way. Most often this manifests emotionally to the empath, but it can also come through as thoughts, as visual impressions, and even as physical signs or symptoms. For an example of physical empathy: if I am regularly around or must engage with someone who is very insecure, anxious, and sneaky and thus keeps secrets and tells many lies (someone who lacks integrity), I tend to get skin rashes (the integrity of my skin breaks down). In such cases, my body “feels” another’s emotional state. Most of the time though I feel other people’s emotions and the strong emotional imprints they may leave behind non-physically.
We all are capable of empathy. Some of you may be very empathic and not know it. You may just think you are “sensitive,” which your are. You are sensitive, that is highly empathic, to picking up others’ emotional states, but you may not be aware that they are not yours. If you feel this is you, pause each time you feel flooded with emotions and ask yourself if you have a reason for feeling this way. If so, address that issue. If not, then you are likely picking up someone else’s feelings, and knowing this you can help them if you can or at least let those feelings go.
When we are able to differentiate between our own emotions and others’, when we have empathic understanding of what others are feeling, we can then find compassion for others’ suffering. Compassion comes from the Latin verb compatior, compati, compassus sum, meaning to suffer or feel (pati-, pass-) with (cum>com). Empathy is the sensing, the intuitive “picking up” of emotions and suffering of others, and compassion is when we ourselves feel the desire to help others in understanding or dealing with their suffering.
Understanding my own empathic abilities and learning the difference between my own and others’ emotions was a big challenge and lesson for me as a child. It took me until my early twenties to fully understand that throughout my childhood I had been absorbing my mother’s emotions like a sponge and feeling all her emotional suffering and challenges. I would observe myself do things, say things, and feel things and wonder where those things came from or why I did, said, or felt that. They were things my mother would do. Those things were not me, I would think to myself, and yet they kept coming.
It was not until I left home for college that things started to become clear to me. Once away from my mother and home, those actions, thoughts, and emotions that would surprise me occurred less and less often. The most profound realizations would come, however, when I would return home for a weekend or holiday, and it all would come flooding back. I think I was nineteen when I saw that I was empathically and psychically picking up on my mother’s suffering.
With this self-awareness, over the next few years into my early twenties I was able to free myself from many mental and emotional challenges that were not really mine. It was hard work, but by working through this healing and growth process and by understanding my own empathic abilities, I was able to get to my own emotions and address the hidden hurt, anger, and shame of my mother’s abuse and neglect. I was also able to have compassion for my mother’s struggles and suffering, for I knew very well what she was experiencing. My empathic understanding of her struggles and pains has allowed my heart to have compassion for her instead of letting the mind take over with any resentment or bitterness. Clinging to any hurt or anger would have only harmed me and closed my heart, so instead I chose to have an open heart. May we all have open hearts and find compassion for all who are suffering.
Examine thus yourself from every side. Take not of your defilements and your pointless efforts. For thus the heroes on the Bodhisattva path seize firmly on such faults with proper remedies.
With perfect and unyielding faith, with steadfastness, respect, and courtesy, with conscientiousness and awe, work calmly for the happiness of others.
– Shantideva, Bodhicharyavatara
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