Empathy is one of the most underrated characteristics in all of human psychology. Not only is it a key parts to being a decent human, but it is also crucial to discovering our true self in the present. Sometimes people act like empathy is an alien concept, or may even treat it with misguided contempt and identify it as a weakness. One of the easier ways to conceptualize this universally human characteristic would be our conscious. It may be overly simplistic, but the idea of a second perspective influencing our actions cuts to the very core of what defines empathy. However, the real empathetic process is not simply a “voice” that reminds us of universally acceptable rules. It is far more complex.
Empathy Vs Ethics
A person’s sense of empathy isn’t the product of ethical aptitude. We gain our ethics through experience, while empathy is innate. According to the literature, the process appears to be closely tied to the way we learn to mimic others (see source). Learning happens when neurons in the brain build connections, which are then automatically strengthened whenever a learned item is recalled. A specific type of brain cell known as the mirror neuron is a popular candidate for supporting empathy because they are known to activate when we observe a person doing something new, and again when they think about performing that same action (or actually perform it) later. It is suspected that we experience empathy because these specialized cells also allow us to mimic states of mind. We can then understand empathy as being the process of learning how to think like others, instead of how to act like them. If empathy is a form of learning, it can almost surely be strengthened with practice.
The Conscience Analogy
An unfortunate percentage of people seem to be less than adept at utilizing this ability, but the vast majority of us are capable of empathizing with another person by “imagining ourselves in their shoes”. Engaging in the empathetic process gives rise to a second frame of reference through which we can contemplate our usual point of view. The voice of our conscience doesn’t get its information exclusively from an internalized encyclopedia. It is primarily informed by the emphatic process actively working to interpret the world as it is experienced by others. We know that empathy can be experienced with different levels of intensity between people and over time, but few take advantage of this flexibility to practice it as a skill. There are many reasons to want an improved sense of empathy. Better understanding others has several benefits, like ease of communication and a far greater ability to reduce suffering.
Get to Know Your Self
How can we practice empathy? A great first step is to become familiar with the concept of self. Everybody has an identity that they relate to as being their own self. Some fields of study have terms that add to the notion in different, but often complimentary ways. A sociologist might refer to an individual’s worldview. A religious person could identify with the soul or a psychologist the ego. The concepts are not identical and do conflict in some areas, but each can help us to understand the ways in which we come to form a sense of self. There are many factors that influence the development of identity, like genetics, the physical environment, family interactions, social structure, trauma, culture, etc. Ideally, we should consider every possible contributing variable when trying to empathize with a person’s sense of self, but the complexity of the human mind prevents this from being a reality. Still, to fully benefit from empathy strengthening as a mindful practice, you should strive to be as comprehensive as possible.
Mindful Empathy in Practice
This is where things get really interesting. Once we have a grasp on some of the processes that influence identity formation, we can really begin to contemplate how it feels to interpret the world through the perspectives of other people. Initiating the empathetic process may feel unnatural at first because it is normally engaged automatically. A good way to begin is to use acquired information to imagine an existence where your own experiences were replaced by those of your empathetic target. We can start small. Let’s say we know that a person went through an embarrassing incident recently, talks with a lisp and that they have a pet spider. To empathize with the person’s current mindset, we need to imagine how we would experience the world differently if those facts applied to ourselves instead. This is the core practice method through which we can strengthen our ability to empathize. As our capacity expands, we will be capable of considering a huge number of factors while trying to identify with the perspective of another.
At its most impressive levels, the empathetic process can help us to closely approximate the self as it is experienced with others. A less obvious but potentially huge application of the empathetic process is as an aid to mindfully anchor ourselves in the present. The experience of empathy temporarily reduces the influence of our own memories and expectations by forcing attention on the present moment and utilizing information other than that associated with our personal identities. We can turn empathetic practice into an even more powerfully mindful experience by coming to understand how so many factors have contributed to our own concept of self. Then, we can learn to slowly strip away those influences and reveal the true being at our core, outside of time and place.