Empathy and Compassion

by Joseph Naft -

Standing in our shared sameness and accepting people as they are carries us to the threshold of empathy and compassion, wherein we allow others' joys and sufferings as well as the basic fact of their being to touch us directly. We willingly enter the experience of other people, celebrating their successes and suffering their setbacks.

This is the place of heartfelt prayer and charitable acts for others' welfare. The walls of separation grow thin and ready to evaporate.

The path toward being able to love is a process of diminishing our self-centeredness to make room in our soul. As long as our inner world remains totally preoccupied by personal concerns, no one and nothing else can enter.

Loosening the shackles of egoism creates space within our heart. Into that space we allow other people, we allow our concern for them and we allow their joys and sufferings to touch us as our own.

And what then? Is it enough to feel someone's pain? 

Our conscience informs us that it is not enough. In response to suffering we can act. If we can take some outward action to alleviate the suffering, for example through charitable or other acts of kindness and responsibility, then perhaps our conscience will prompt us to do so.

Sometimes, especially with those close to us, the tone and quality of our interaction can show our concern, enabling the sufferer to feel less alone, allowing us to bear part of their pain, to share its burden with them. Sometimes, simply listening with full attention and open heart can diminish the other person's suffering.

Sometimes our presence can silently present the vast field of presence to the other person and reduce their suffering thereby. This depends on the quality and depth of our presence and on their openness. But suffering itself can and does open people. So we can offer an effective gift of presence.

Sometimes our prayers can help. These depend on the quality of our being, the purity of our will and our beliefs and style. We may engage in petitionary prayer. We may chant a prayer of healing.

In all of this, we approach the other's suffering with the same concern as if it were our own. In our shared sameness, it is our own.

Can it be too much to feel others' pain? It can be.

A typical day's news brings so many tales of sadness and suffering. To take it all in would overwhelm us, were it not for the inner strength born of regular spiritual practice, of presence, meditation and prayer. The stronger and more refined our soul, the greater our capacity to bear suffering, both our own and others'.

Deeper into Love

Empathy and compassion are not restricted to cases of suffering. We can empathize with anyone, regardless of their state. 

This goes a step beyond opening to our shared sameness. Here we open to what it is to be that person, to the experience that person has of him - or herself.

We enter the unique beingness of the other and stand in their shoes. This brings us to a truer understanding of and compassion for that individual. It brings us another step deeper into love.

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