A Meditation Exercise on Empathy

From Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life:

“Turn your attention to three individuals known to you. It is important to be specific or this exercise will degenerate into meaningless generalities. Call to mind a person for whom you have no strong feelings one way or another; also somebody you like, such as a friend or a family member; and finally someone you dislike…

“In turn…think of their good points, their contribution to your own life; their generosity, courage and sense of humor. Look deeply in their hearts, insofar as you can, and see their pain: the sufferings you are aware of and all the private sorrows that you will never know about. You will then desire them to be free of their pain and resolve to help them in any way you can. Pray for each of your three people the joy that you desire for yourself, and finally admit that you all have faults– yourself, the person you feel neutral toward, the one you like, as well as the one you find objectionable. You are striving for… the equanimity that enables you to relate to people impartially.

“The meditation obviously becomes more difficult when you try to direct these thoughts of friendship, compassion, joy and even-mindedness to the person you dislike. Stay with this difficulty and become fully aware of it, because it shows how limited your compassion is. We may think that we are compassionate people, but so much of our goodwill is dependent upon subjective likes and dislikes.

“Notice the angry thoughts that arise in your mind when you think of this individual and see how unattractive they are. Other people like her, so it is probable that your dislike stems entirely from her attitude towardyou. Does she threaten your interests, get in your way, or behave in a manner that makes you think less well of yourself? If so, your dislike is probably based on ego delusion…. There is nothing immutable or objective about friendship or enmity: nobody is born a friend or an enemy; last year’s friend can become next years enemy. She has good and bad qualities, just as you do. Like everybody else in the world, she longs for happiness and wished to be free of pain. She suffers in ways that you will never know. How, therefore, can you single her out for your dislike and refuse to direct your feelings of friendship, compassion, joy and even-mindedness to her?

“Be patient with yourself during this meditation. Do not become irritated if you are distracted or discouraged if you seem to make no progress. Do not feel guilty if you are unable to overcome your feelings of aversion. Practiced over time, this meditation can make a compassionate groove in your mind. It should become part of your daily practice…. It should be a relaxed, ruminative process. It need not– indeed, should not– take hours of your time. But if practiced faithfully, it will help you develop two new tools: a capacity for inwardness and the ability to think of others in the same way you think of yourself. Only practice makes perfect, just as it takes years for a dancer to turn a perfect pirouette.

“As you conclude this meditation, make a resolution that today you will translate these good thoughts into a small, concrete practical act of friendship or compassion to one of your three people, if you have the chance. If you do not see them, reach out to someone else who needs a helping hand or a friendly word.”

While not specifically doing this meditation (as I have just read it), I have practiced this exercise of empathy on many people– those whom I liked and those whom I disliked and those whom I liked from a distance but disliked many things close up. I was encouraged to think empathetically by my wife, Diane, who has made a life practice of thinking this way. In fact, for those who know me, if you have met my wife you may find that she is much more pleasant to be around. That’s because her practice of empathetic thinking is so much more natural. Frankly, she’s a naturally better person.

I believe that this meditation on empathy, practiced on people I knew, is one of the most powerful transformational agent in my life. When I do this, I can see a person in a different light. All of a sudden, they are no longer ignorant, stupid or evil; neither are they exceedingly noble or super-powerful. People are people, both like and unlike me; both unique and yet having the same drives as I. I may want to spend time with them or not, but that does not change their value. And when I understand their value in comparison with myself, I am closer to understanding them with God’s eyes.

God loves us all– we evangelicals say that, but we have a hard time actually believing that or practicing that because we don’t take the time to see people through God’s eyes. When God looks at an individual, he sees that person as the same as every other person– an object of loving value. We may nod our heads at this concept, but we do not act this way. Does every person we meet know that we believe that they are loved and valued? No, because some people we meet we are treating as less than ourselves. Some people are automatically seen as The Other, the Outsider, the one whom we have a right to despise or at least ignore. It is in our makeup. We are made as people who both accept and reject. We are judges and we do so every time we shake a hand or give (or choose to not give) a greeting.

If we practice this meditation on a regular basis, we find that we see people as no longer the “Part-of-Us” or The Other. Rather, we see them all as people of value. Some we can benefit, and some we cannot. Some we can appreciate fully, and most we cannot. But we can see the value in everyone we do this exercise toward; and we can give a measure of love to each of them. The more we understand others: their positive qualities, their pains, their limitations, their good and bad choices– the greater the opportunity we give ourselves to love others.

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