By Megha Bajaj
Empathy is a precious gift we can offer our fellow beings. When we learn to see through another’s eye, or feel through another’s mind, conflicts dissolve and love unfolds
Sometimes, a beautiful moment is all it requires to set a thought in motion, an article in progress. I was sitting in a garden one evening when a little boy walked hand-in-hand with his pregnant mother. Instead of running along with other children to swing and slide, he sat close to his mother, placed a hand on her stomach, and said, “I know it must be all dark inside, and you must want to come out. But it will take some time. It took me nine months. I just wanted to tell you, I am waiting for you, and that I understand what you are feeling.” The two magic words “I understand,” rang in my ears, and the questions began to flow. What is empathy? What does it take to put your hand upon someone else’s, and say the words, “I understand”? Are there tools that can help me become a more empathetic person? Answers came from various quarters.
What is Empathy?
The origin of the word ‘empathy’ dates back to the 1880s, when German psychologist Theodore Lipps coined the term einfuhlung, which literally meant in-feeling. Dada Vaswani, head of the Sadhu Vaswani Mission, articulates, “Empathy is forgetting oneself in the joys and sorrows of another, so much so that you actually feel that the joy or sorrow experienced by another is your own joy and sorrow. Empathy involves complete identification with another.” Deepa Kodikal, spiritual adept, says, “Empathy is putting yourself in another’s shoes to find out what exactly that person is feeling or going through at the given time. It basically refers to being at a common wavelength with someone.” Her husband Raja Kodikal agrees with her, and adds that it’s a feeling of being in-tune with another, through which you are empowered to help that person resolve his problem. Gandhi, the national icon of empathy, said something similar. He used to pray every day uttering the words, “If I have to be reborn, I should wish to be born an untouchable so that I may share their sorrows, sufferings, and the affronts levelled at them, in order that I may endeavour to free myself and them from that miserable condition.”
What is Empathy not?
Dictionary definitions have a hard time distinguishing between empathy, pity, sympathy and compassion, but a difference does exist. Chandrika, author of Atma Siddhi, explains, “When an individual feels for another’s pain, as a superior towards an inferior, or feels sorry for a condition one cannot even imagine oneself in – that is the feeling of pity. We pity a blind person, for we don’t know what blindness is. However, when we rise higher, look at the other as an equal, can probably imagine ourselves in his condition, and feel a strong bond with him, then that pity converts itself into sympathy. When, however, we identify so totally with another that he suffers, and we feel the pain; he laughs, and joy suffuses our being; he is excited, and our heart leaps in exhilaration; then we are close to the condition that is called empathy.”
Compassion involves feeling the pain of another, and acting in order to alleviate it. It may or may not be born out of empathy – for instance, I feel for the poor, and want to help them, but I have never experienced poverty myself. I started teaching slum kids at my house, and when I invested time with a little girl who saves her birthday Cadbury bar for a month, and nibbles only a bit each day; when I met the little boy who dreams of buying the house in which his mother works as a housemaid, I could understand poverty much better. Empathy then is a more ‘involved’ emotion, which includes steps of seeing, connecting, feeling and thereby, acting.
Since empathy is aptly described as getting into another’s shoes, let’s try to understand the steps that it involves using the same metaphor.
Step 1: Don’t wear your own shoes too tightly
Almost every spiritual master will agree that the very first step towards realisation is to let go of one’s ego. Ego is defined as the false sense of self. Where ego is, empathy cannot exist. One is so obsessed with oneself, with one’s feelings, one’s judgments that there is no time to understand what another is going through. The very first step towards connecting with another is indeed that you be flexible in your own thoughts, and do not hold on too tightly to your own shoes.
When we identify so totally with another that he suffers, and we feel the pain, he laughs and joy suffuses our being – we experience empathy.
Aditi Jalan, a teacher from Kolkata, shares, “One day, my husband came home early from work, and said, ‘I have had it, I won’t work with dad anymore, he is always trying to pull me down. I will take the money I deserve from the business, and start something new.’ My husband is a calm, compassionate man, who has always placed the family before himself. My father-in-law must indeed have hurt him badly. Suffused with anger and self-righteousness, I decided that we would indeed create a new world for ourselves. I went out to get him a glass of water, when I saw my father-in-law sitting in the living room with huge tears rolling from his eyes. Suddenly, everything changed. I asked myself, ‘Can a father ever knowingly hurt his son? Could it ever be my intention to hurt my own little son, Aarav?’ The answer was a loud resounding No. I spoke to my husband, as a parent and not as a wife, and the matter was settled. The father and son spoke openly for the first time about their expectations, and today, they share a wonderful bond. If I had allowed ego to take over, empathy wouldn’t have been possible, and I would not see Aarav riding on his grandfather’s back today.”
Step 2: Get the complete feel of being in another’s shoes
True empathy is born out of shared experience, or at least a clear understanding of another’s experience. It is not enough to step into another’s shoes, and immediately step out. No matter how difficult it may seem, get the feel of the shoes, learn their shape, understand the feeling, in your mind become the other person, and then you have a chance to know what the individual is going through, and truly empathise.
Jaggi Vasudev, founder of the Coimbatore-based Isha Foundation, addressed volunteers doing relief work during the tsunami. He said, “Do not enter these villages as a bystander or a spectator. Even the loss of a single person in our family could mean a disaster. Similarly, the loss of life in others’ families is equally grave. We must understand this. When you go into the village, go as if it is your closest friend or relative who is dead. Go with the feeling that all the 150,000 who died are your closest relatives. Show that you have come with love and compassion, as their kith and kin.”
Dada Vaswani too shares a beautiful experience. He reminisces, “Early one morning, Gurudev Sadhu Vaswani taught us that in reality, there is no death. Death is only an illusion. We must learn to transcend it. In the course of the day, he was called to the side of an old mother who had lost an only son in an air-crash. She wept bitter tears. Sadhu Vaswani’s eyes were touched with tears. When later, I said to him: “Only this morning you taught us that death is an illusion. What, then, was the reason for your tears?” He answered, “When I sat by the side of the old mother, I felt I was the old mother!”
Mother Teresa, the very epitome of the word ‘empathy’, spoke of a defining moment when she was homeless. She says, “While looking for a home, I walked and walked till my arms and legs ached. I thought how much poor people must ache in body and soul, looking for a home, food and health.” The realisation born out of the experience, the shared pain, created a revolution within her, and made an ordinary nun into the extraordinary Mother Teresa.
Raja Kodikal shares a humorous episode from his life. A proud father of four girls, he once went to Juhu beach, Mumbai, with his wife, the four girls and several of their friends. Ten girls and he stood sipping coconut water, when suddenly the man opening the coconuts, flashed him an understanding smile, and said, “Ho jayega, ho jayega, ladka bhi ho jayega”. Raja chuckles as he remembers the moment, and says he didn’t bother correcting the man’s mistake because he was touched and amused by his empathy!
I have a young cousin, 17 years of age, who had developed an eye problem when he was 13, and has been losing a bit of vision consistently ever since. Today, he is 95 per cent blind. The condition is irreversible, and at least for now, doctors have no answers. A determined young fellow, he would say to everyone, “The way I look at it is, only a part of my body is not working – what about the hundreds of other systems that are functioning perfectly?” He has never allowed his parents to feel they have a disabled son. However, since I am his confidante, I get to hear of the difficulties – friends thinking he is vying for attention through his plight; the girl he likes pitying him, but never looking at him as boyfriend material; and of course, the very feeling of becoming blind to life’s beauty, after having enjoyed it for 13 years.
You need to feel another’s misery, understand its cause, and help them out while retaining your equanimity.
His plight touched me, but not very deeply, and often I would get so pre-occupied with life, that I would forget to keep in touch. One evening changed everything. Out of a whim, I decided to close my eyes, and experience blindness. Darkness engulfed me. A simple act like walking seemed terrifying. Every thought, every breath, seemed magnified. Known faces, known sights, melted into a bland darkness. In only 10 minutes, I opened my eyes, and drank in the sights as avidly as a desert traveller chancing upon a well would drink water. I called him up, and as we spoke, he told me, “Hey didi, someday I will surely get a great girl. After all, love is blind!” I had tears in my eyes.
Step 3: Remember to get your feet back in your own shoes
The last step is invariably forgotten by many. The most empathetic of us will get into another’s shoes, and not get out of them at all. It’s important to understand what another’s shoes feel like, but ultimately you have to walk the roads of life with your shoes. You need to feel another’s misery, understand its cause, and help them out, while retaining your equanimity. Else, empathy will lead to two depressed people, instead of only one. The idea of empathy is to understand, so you can uplift them, and not get pulled under the mire yourself.
Shraddha Mittal is a 23-year-old girl whose mother was diagnosed with cancer of the uterus. Although her treatment got over a couple of years back, and she is well now, Shraddha was deeply impacted by the disease and determined to volunteer with a cancer NGO called Helping Hands at Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai, and offer hope to cancer patients. The entire first month, she came home and cried. Seeing the other patients, she was reminded of her own mother. Each time someone didn’t survive their battle against cancer, she would be filled with fear about her own mother’s recovery. Often, she was tempted to discontinue. And yet she went on. She says, “Today it’s been a year since I joined the organisation, and I know I have made some difference – to patients and to myself. I realised that I needed to be attached-detached, connected-disconnected. When I spoke to a patient, I spoke like I knew exactly how it felt, and yet as I stepped out of their room, I created a distance between her and me by saying, ‘Just because she had a recurrence does not mean my mother will. My mom is doing great.’ A simple sentence, but in time; it actually made a big difference.”
• Listen: Psychologists worldwide agree that most people do not require solutions or advice. Once they are given a chance to talk, and be understood, half the problem is solved. Ruchita Mehra, counsellor at Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai, says, “The two most important things that patients need are ears! Yes, ears! Once you allow them to speak, and show that you understand what they are feeling, and that it’s natural, half the disease just disappears.” Indeed, to feel for someone else, one needs to develop active listening skills to comprehend all that the other person is saying, and yes, also what he is not saying!
• Grow in self-awareness: “The aim of any spiritual sadhana, be it meditation or yoga,” says Ms Kodikal, “is to create awareness in you, and thereby eliminate all that is negative, and enhance all that is good within.” When we live out of awareness, we intuitively feel another’s pain, and know how we can act as a balm for it. Empathy becomes a part of you.
• Love unconditionally: Dada Vaswani says, “Grow in the spirit of giving. Give and give and give and never be tired of giving. Give and keep no account, no memory, of what you give. Give and forget all about it. Give in love: give in reverence. Not once must you fail in answering the call of human suffering. That is how you will grow in empathy.”
• All is one: Empathy is a progression. Raja Kodikal says that only after we are empathetic towards ourselves, when we accept and love ourselves, both the good and bad, can we be empathetic towards someone else. Chandrika adds that once one becomes aware of one’s integral empathetic nature, a stage comes when the realisation dawns that there are really no individual differences, like ‘you’ and ‘me’. At that evolved state, the individual understands that it is the soul that matters, and all souls are reflections of that One Consciousness, no more, no less. She adds that empathy is the fundamental principle of the philosophy of advaita propounded by Adi Sankara. He says, “God and you are not two, God and you are one.” That is why a Sufi mystic said that when God wanted to hide where no man’s eyes would see Him, He hid within the human heart so that He could see through man’s eyes, think through his mind, and feel with his heart. That is why, when Radha was found singing and dancing in Vrindavan after Krishna had departed for Mathura, she is supposed to have said, “Why should I feel sad? Because Krishna has left me? But that’s not true! Krishna can never leave me. For don’t you see, between Krishna and me, and me and Krishna, there is no difference?
Let the poet John Donne have the last word:
“No man is an island,
entire of himself,
every man is a part of the continent, a piece of the maine,….
every man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
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