The Empathy Foundation Network

Growing empathy for a peaceful world

Practising Empathy in the Real World

One of my practices is allowing any emotion that arises to be as strong as it is, to grow and subside like a wave, without any judgment of it as good or bad. I have been experimenting with the idea that it is possible, when we allow an emotional wave to just "be" like this, to draw on the energy of the emotion, whatever its type and simply allow that energy to fuel 'right action'.

Recently I had an interesting experience of this practice when my buttons were severely pushed at a meeting . A bloke (who has triggered extreme outrage in me more than once in the past), implied, with a not very subtle sneer, that I was wasting everyone's time, completely off the point and just didn't get it, while of course he did. I felt a wave of anger arise and I stayed with it! Then I heard myself say to him calmly: "I have a purpose in my questions and and I don't expect to have my questions censored. If there's a time limit for the discussion please let me know and I'll stick to it." It felt strong and powerful. Though I had been calm at the time, afterwards I noticed that my mind tended to mentally replay the event and to stir up waves of self-righteousness and justification. I practiced allowing those energy waves to pass through me with as little attachment or aversion as I could manage. I just said inside: Could I welcome this feeling? Could I let it go? over and over. This releasing helped me repeatedly to be aware of and to drop my aggressive and rejecting body language that I had been unconsciously holding.

Next I remembered to see as "blameless" this man who pushes my buttons so readily (which does not mean I was condoning his actions as "right"). I brought to mind the understanding that his patterns for putting people(women?) down and acting so patronizingly are from his childhood conditioning and that he is more than likely completely unaware of them. I remembered that this kind of behaviour is not actually directed against me but for protecting himself. I realised how much he wanted to be approved of, to show how much he knows, to be right and I felt my empathy growing. I guessed that he had been severely put down as a child. I actually started to see the eager boy in him, who so wanted to grow and flourish and contribute, and had his eagerness deflated by insensitive adults (who themselves had been similarly put down in childhood). It was a stretch. I could feel the resistance in me to seeing this man in this new way, the resistance to letting go of my narrow view of him as a difficult, unpleasant person who I could never like. It was the image of the eager boy that most opened my heart to letting go of blame and finding empathy. Glimmers of compassion did arise!

Driving home that night and reflecting on this experience I realized that even if I contributed nothing else in this group, continuing to go to this meeting was worth it for this reason alone: simply to meet this person who pushes my buttons so well - and practice letting go of my reactions and growing empathy!

At the next meeting my button-pusher wasn't there - and I was disappointed! The next month I got my opportunity. He started to make arrogant statements and I felt my hackles rising. l focused hard on letting my reactions go and holding the awareness of him as a child who had been shamed and overridden by adults. And it worked! The turning point was when he got into one of his long, wordy, erudite-sounding-but-meaningless "explanations" - as Ijust allowed myself to listen and let my reactions go, I became tuned in to his emotional state. I felt the stress of the anxious child, trying so hard to impress, who never succeeded in doing so and I felt a wave of empathy for him. Then a fascinating thing occurred - I found myself able to listen to what he was trying to say and finding it made some sense! Spontaneously I asked a question of clarification, with a real interest to hear his answer. And he responded with a really helpful, clear answer! It was the first time I had heard him sounding knowledgeable and thoughtful and not just as if trying to impress. I felt genuine respect and appreciation for his contribution, was able to thank him warmly and he accepted my words without patronizing me! This was an absolute first and I felt warmth in my heart from our genuine connection. It was a really satisfying moment.

Does this story resonate with you? Does it remind you of an experience of yours? I would love to hear of your experiences of practicing empathy, so please comment and help us all to create a more peaceful world.

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