October 16, 2015

∴ Finding Empathy

There exists the notion of fostering empathy for dealing with intolerable people. Whom you find intolerable and why is subjective, so finding common ground can be a first step at ending enmity. It helps if you realize that you are also part of the problem, because you still have buttons that can be pushed.

While I talk a good game about disliking people in general, in truth I tend to like, or at least have no trouble maneuvering around, others. But there’s this one person …

Empathy is not just “putting yourself in someone’s shoes,” (that’s sympathy) it’s bringing to mind those circumstances in their life that you’ve experienced for yourself, and forming a more accepting attitude as a result. It’s “been there, done that, I know how they feel” rather than an intellectual exercise in imagining someone’s pain.

The trouble, and it pretty much precludes adopting an empathetic attitude here, is that I share so little in common with this person, and I’m effectively shut out from enjoying what few things we do have in common. I’ve never experienced the life events that have brought this person so much suffering. It’s not a visible suffering. You’d never guess what this person is going through, or has gone through.

So on the surface it appears empathy is out for me, which is a shame.

This person displays an over-exercised sense of self-promotion, an utter unwillingness toward long term planning, appearing devoid of contemplative behavior, lacking of self-awareness, and possesses an insatiable need to be in control. Combined with past personal history this person’s life is a figurative train wreck. Failure to think through decisions and their effect on other people is one of this person’s most infuriating traits. Yet all of these directly or indirectly increase this person’s suffering, and make this person more annoying to others at the same time.

Fostering sympathy hasn’t been effective, either. I can know a thing to be true, but not having lived it or seen it first hand makes it difficult to translate that knowledge to a more neutral attitude. There’s just too much ongoing chaos, disregard and self aggrandizement for me to make that leap. Call it a failing, or a lack of understanding, but the sympathy thing just isn’t happening. So I minimize my time and interaction with this person and hope change intervenes.

Therein lies the solution. The notion of impermanence, that nothing remains the same for even a few moments, or that karma happens within one lifetime and often within a small portion of one will likely resolve the near constant state of unease I have with this person.

I’m reminded of this by a series of Buddhist retreats I attended 15 years ago, where the subject was “lovingkindness,” or exchanging self for others. It was an exercise in finding empathy from within.

The moment of awakening came, for me, after several months of guided meditations. In each session we were to first bring to mind one’s self, seated for meditation, and note what feelings arose. After a few minutes we were guided to shift focus to those for whom we had positive feelings, again noting what feelings arose. Shifting focus again, we noted feelings that arose for those with whom we had no particular relationship, the “neutrals.” Finally, we shifted focus to those with whom we had difficult relations, and noted the response arising within our minds. The point was to recognize the commonalities between these groups, and focus more intently upon that.

Over the course of ten months some of the individuals in each list had “moved.” Some who had begun on my shit list had become neutral, even positive, while others had moved the other way. Those who had begun neutral, such as others in the retreat group, had in some cases moved to the positive group as I got to casually know them. Not that any of these people had done anything to cause movement; it was happening in my mind. My apprehension of reality and of the impermanence of that reality were the key realizations I came away with, as well as a means of finding empathy. The people I focused on were all sharing the same changing thinking-and-feeling about their experiences, even if they were unaware.

It’s a work in progress with this person. I keep that awakening moment fifteen years ago in mind, and minimize my exposure when I can’t take it anymore. I’ll get there, or some circumstance will intercede, and this period of my life will end. That’ll be a good thing. Swallowing bile is a pain in the throat, as well as the ass.

(Please forgive my repetitive use of the phrase “this person” and lack of personal pronouns. For very good reason this person remains nameless. If you’re reading this I can almost guarantee this person is not you. And if you see yourself in this writing, it’s still not you, you just have something to think about.)

It’s helpful to write about a problem when it towers like a wall to beat my head against. It reminds me that the wall is my self.