Empathy is........

"We are all just walking each other  home." ~Ram Dass

My mornings typically begin nurturing a quiet space within me either through meditation and readings inspired by what is alive in me. Elizabeth Lesser in her book Broken OpenHow Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, is where words on paper often call me home to myself. Recently, I read her experience about a son in all the misunderstood efforts toward blending a divorced family; an experience where I too have found resonance. Her words and experience add meaning in my life as I assess the value of being heard by myself and by others. 

Over simplified, the path toward empathy takes a lot of inner work! Recently, I’ve encountered those questioning the value of empathy. One passionate inquirer asked why I want to be in empathetic presence with someone when clearly the someone was wrong. Another, skilled in living NVC, is questioning whether empathy even works. My curiosity about these moments have deepened my continued exploration on the topic too. Enter Elizabeth Lesser, Carl Rogers, Ram Dass, and Mark Nepo, all guides in my early morning hours of reading and contemplation.

In our practice of living Nonviolent Communication, empathy is the bedrock whereby through learned and practiced skills of presence and listening, we experience truly being heard. It happened many years ago for me in my first 5 day experiential retreat with a certified trainer from the Center of Nonviolent Communication. In a moment of vulnerability, I chose to share a situation in which I had continued to experience suffering. Today, I know it was the first experience of being fully valued for who I was in the present moment. As I spoke about the issue, she paused and while keeping eye contact with one another, I sensed she not only cared deeply about me but also held what had laid buried within me for many years as if it mattered! I remember thinking to myself, “What is this?” and with wide eyes of fear, nonverbally pleaded my longing for her eyes to not leave me. I’m reminded of a quote from Carl Rogers that addresses how that and empathic experiences since, have put me in touch with “the unknown in me.” He’s quoted: “When someone really hears you without passing judgement on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good!” As Ms Lesser recites from an early experience with a step son, being heard and understood by him, she writes: “It was then that I realized families are defined not by blood but by love.” Empathy can shift our suffering into oneness and love.

Of course, the practice of self empathy also touches what wants to be known in me. The willingness to accompany myself into the unknown living in me, inquiring about my feelings and needs, expressing the deep mourning that sometimes comes through quivered lips, I find a release of a soul yearning for communion. From this well, I’ve learned to drink deeply and poetically experience the words of Wendell Berry in his poem, The Peace of Wild Things:

“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel about me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

Empathy has not removed conflict in my life. It has not produced an outcome of harmony and peace with others many times. Empathy has not healed the inner wounds I carry. Yet, this is what empathy has given me. It has brought me home to myself. Over and over and over again, the mystery of what lives deeply is revealed through an empathetic presence. Here, I sense the truth of my existence. Human beings need one another. The more I’m in touch with what lies in me, the more I have understanding for another. Living empathetically, opens my heart to yours. I believe it’s this work that creates actions where all are free, even for a moment.