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Monday, April 15, 2019

Empathy vs Altruistic Love & Compassion


Do you feel the suffering of others? Do you suffer when others experience emotional pain? Are you able to put yourself in their shoes as they go through an agonizing process of deep anguish? Can you sometimes pick up on what others are feeling as you come into their presence (or simply as you hear their voice on the phone) and then really live – in some figurative fashion – what they are going through?

Would it surprise you – or perhaps even affront you – if I told you that having such deep empathic feelings for another is of little real use to them and mainly serves to deplete you? (Although perhaps it simultaneously makes you feel good about yourself, even though it has drained you, because you are actively empathizing with someone going through a distressful situation). Would you protest and tell me that this is how a good and loving and kind person behaves? Would you perhaps accuse me of being cold and unfeeling for even posing such questions?

This topic has been close to my heart for many years. Long before I became a psychotherapist I knew that almost all health professionals – from doctors to massage therapists, nurses and social workers, technicians, home-based caretakers (both those who do this as a job, as well as those who are the caretaker of a family member or friend), crisis workers, acupuncturists, and psychiatrists, not to mention the ‘talk therapy’ people, such as myself, and so many others, in such a wide scope of different fields, all too frequently suffer from burn out.

Matthieu Ricard, a world-renowned Buddhist monk, and author of Altruism, speaks of stand-alone empathy, as well as empathy that is not stand-alone and that forms part of a greater model within compassion and love:

Affective, emotional, or cognitive empathy is to resonate with someone else’s mental state: if someone is happy or joyful, you also feel joyful, and if someone is sad, you also feel sad, and if someone suffers, you also really suffer. You literally try to put yourself in their shoes, imagining what they are thinking and feeling. That is a state of mind. And it is a “stand-alone” empathy, as Ricard puts it. It leads to burn-out. In the United Sates 60% of all medical personnel have or will suffer from burn-out. I highly doubt that the statistics for other countries are better.

This stand-alone empathy needs to be part of something much more global, broader, and wider. It must be part of altruistic love and compassion. All of us, and very particularly those who care for others, whether in the healing professions, or as caretakers, and in so many other arenas where people help others - need to be able to cultivate love and compassion (for the other) within which empathy has a place, in order to be able to deal with the burn-out effects of stand-alone empathy.
Looking at several recent situations that hit the world media, we can show how empathy can affect you quite differently than loving compassion, and at the same time, show how important compassion is:
  • In the Orlando shooting at a gay bar, many of us could easily say that prior to the shooting, we empathized with the LGBT community due to the continual prejudice, homophobia, and ostracizing it has faced historically. This kind of empathy is very important, because without it, we are unable to place ourselves in another’s shoes. During and immediately after the shooting, if we remained on the purely empathic level, we would have suffered a great deal, simply because we continued on that stand-alone level Ricard mentions. But, if you add loving compassion into the equation, it is not that you don’t care, but that you care in another way. You wish for their suffering to stop, and you will do what you can to alleviate it, but you realize that your desire for their suffering to stop does not require you to suffer as well – more importantly – you recognize that if you suffer as well, you will be much less able to give a helping hand and to support those in need, because you may soon reach a point where you¸ too, will need help (due to your own burn out).
  • In the murder of Jo Cox, the British MP who was stabbed and shot in front of her offices a few days before the UK voted to leave the EU or stay, prior to the shooting, if we knew of her, we may have empathized with her role as MP, wife, and mother, as well as admired what she was doing. This kind of empathy would not cause us to suffer – it’s simply something that allows us to imagine ourselves in another’s shoes. Immediately after the shooting, when the news hit the airwaves, if we remained on the purely empathic level, we would have suffered (thinking of her life cut short, her young children, etc.), simply because we continued on that stand-alone level Ricard mentions. But, if you add loving compassion into the equation, it is not that you don’t care, but that you care in another way. You wish for their suffering to stop, and you will do what you can to alleviate it, but you realize that your desire for their suffering to stop does not require you to suffer as well – more importantly – you recognize that if you suffer as well, you will be much less able to give a helping hand and to support those in need, because you may soon reach a point where you¸ too, will need help (due to your own burn out).
In Ricard’s words: “Altruistic love turns into compassion when confronted with the suffering of others. Compassion is the wish that others may be free from suffering and its causes. For this to happen, we must be concerned about the fate of the other, be aware of their sufferings, wish that these be healed, and be ready to do whatever is possible to do so.”

In light of the above examples, let’s examine research spear-headed by western neuroscientists collaborating with Buddhist monks (including the afore-mentioned Ricard). One such study, under the direction of Tania Singer, Ph.D. - world-renowned expert on empathy – at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, undertook to investigate the functional neural plasticity of empathy and compassion. The study wanted to examine how empathy and compassion affect the brain and the state of being – the well-being - of participants. Seasoned meditators were observed in real-time MRI’s and it became very clear that they suffered when they focused on feeling empathic alone. Ricard himself relates that when he was meditating as instructed, Singer stopped him after 10 minutes, asking him what he was doing, as the results were not those she was accustomed to. He replied that he had been meditating on loving kindness and compassion. She asked him to meditate only on empathy. Somewhat reluctantly he agreed and focused on a heart-wrenching documentary he had seen the day before about Romanian orphans. He states that after one hour he was totally burned out, resonating with their distress, feeling powerless. As time came to break for lunch Singer asked Ricard if he wanted to eat or move to his compassion meditation, and he chose the latter with alacrity, saying he simply couldn’t stand it anymore. He says that as he did so it was like the breaking of a dam, with an outpouring of love and affection – “every atom of suffering was filled with an atom of love” – and that he felt much stronger, simply not to be compared with the earlier feelings of empathic distress.

The two kinds of relating: empathy and compassion – gave two completely different neural results and resulted in two completely different feeling states. Ricard describes the difference like night and day. The study was replicated with other subjects and Singer’s resulting paper demonstrates that completely different neural networks come into play for empathic distress compared to loving kindness and compassion meditation. The latter is a much more positive network of affiliation, love, wholesomeness and reward, and positive affect, applied to suffering in a constructive way.

Steps to Learning Loving-Kindness Compassion Mindfulness Meditation

This can rewire your brain.
  • Take 10-15 minutes every day to sit quietly.
  • Send compassionate and loving thoughts to family and friends
  • Then to an individual with whom you have disagreement, conflict, or tension
  • Then the same to strangers all over the world who are suffering
  • Finally, send compassionate, forgiving, and self-loving thoughts to yourself


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