Training Your Mind: Cultivating Deeper Empathy

Empathy, such a meaningful and beautiful notion. It is something we all have access to inside us. Whether we are thinking about it consciously or drawing upon it unconsciously when listening to a friend or colleague going through a difficult time. Our response to a situation may be dependent on our life experiences but there is always some level of understanding of what the other person might be going through. Because of our response, some of us believe we are not empathetic or we don’t have the emotional intelligence everyone is talking about. That is far from the truth.

Before, we dig deeper into recognizing the true depth of our own empathy and embark on the journey of training our minds to cultivate even deeper empathy, let’s review the definition of the word. 

What is Empathy?

According to Cambridge Dictionary, Empathy is, “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.”

According to contemporary psychological research, there are two types of empathy; Affective or Emotional Empathy and Cognitive Empathy.

Affective / Emotional Empathy: 

Affective empathy or emotional empathy is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental states. 

According to the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, there are three components to Affective or Emotional empathy. The first component is feeling the same emotion as another person, for example, unconsciously “catching” someone else’s tears and feeling sad oneself. The second component, personal distress. This refers to more self-centered feelings of one’s own feelings of distress in response to perceiving another’s plight. The third emotional component, feeling compassion for another person, is the one most frequently associated with the study of empathy in psychology and it is often called empathic concern.

Cognitive Empathy: 

Cognitive empathy is the capacity to understand another’s perspective or mental state. It is sometimes also referred to as perspective-taking. For example, if a friend is going through a difficult experience at work, even though we can see the bigger picture as an outsider, we also understand the amount of time the friend has put in for the work and personal sacrifices. This helps us understand the anguish the friend is feeling and respond with empathy.

Why Cultivating Deeper Empathy is Important?

Empathy can help build deeper relationships with people that matter to us. We tend to fear what we don’t know or understand. It can help create a deeper understanding of people that are different from us. Understanding someone’s perspective doesn’t mean that we have to agree with it. 

Cultivating empathy opens up more space little by little inside us to accept that there are others with different types of life experiences and have different belief systems. 

Just being able to start seeing other’s beliefs are based on their own life experiences can help create space to accept that everyone has a right to their own beliefs. Do we have to agree with those beliefs? We don’t have to if we don’t want to. It is our choice.

This little space eventually can expand to radical acceptance of one’s self and everyone around us as they are. Without the constant need to change things to what we believe to be correct. It can expand to freedom and peace of immeasurable magnitude. 

Does this mean we accept things that we don’t agree with. No, it only means that we have complete freedom to choose what we want to change in ourselves and maybe in the world. Most importantly, it can provide clarity on why we believe it needs to change; the root cause, not the knee jerk reaction to any situation.

This space and understanding has the power to change all of our relationships, personal and professional and make our lives more meaningful. It helps us develop the Right View or our Long Term View.

All of us are born with some empathy. If you are a parent, you might remember how your infant or toddler child knew when you were upset. If you are not a parent, you might remember incidents from your childhood when your friend got into trouble and how you tried to cover for her/him. Deeper empathy can be cultivated by everyone and is a part of the journey of training our minds.

How to cultivate deeper empathy?

First and foremost, it is a journey so let us remember to be patient with ourselves. Depending on our life experiences we may experience resistance from our own minds. It is important to accept the resistance and keep working on our goals.

I have been working on developing deeper empathy for many years. There is a book How to Train a Wild Elephant by Jan Chozen Bays. This book has many short exercises that if resonate you can weave those into your daily lives. One exercise that helped me a lot was using your non-dominant hand to do everything you would do with your dominant hand. 

When I started the exercise, within the first few minutes the story my mind started building was, “this is so difficult. It’s impossible.” As I have a competitive mind, the initial resistance made me dig my heels in. “I am going to figure this out!” I brought out my management training and broke it down into small parts. I decided that I will only use my non-dominant hand for getting ready in the morning. How difficult that can be, right? Boy I was wrong. It was difficult. The first hurdle was remembering each morning that I needed to use my non-dominant hand. I realized quickly that I will need to wake up early because each task required more time. 

The difficulty started compounding. The simple task of brushing my long hair and putting them in a simple ponytail was difficult. I was not able to do it automatically because my mind and my hand had no prior experience to rely on. I had to make myself watch how my dominant hand brushed my hair and put it into a ponytail multiple times so I could try to mimic it with the non-dominant hand. I had arranged my bathroom counter to suit my dominant hand, now I have to either rearrange my counter or rearrange myself in front of the counter to be able to use the non-dominant for everything. A simple thing like which way the cream bottle nozzle is facing had to change. Everything felt wrong and uneasy. I even started experiencing “wrist pain” in my non-dominant hand because the muscles were not used to all the exercise they were getting!

After I got over the initial frustration and hurdles, the thought process started expanding. If such a small task as brushing my hair is difficult how can I expect decades of training in myself or others to change overnight? This applies to every situation in our daily lives and everyone around us. Starting with our young kids learning to read or write or doing math problems to all the bigger issues we see in the world and want to change, like racism, gender inequality, terrorism, climate change and so on. Even though I had always known intellectually that these are major issues and will take time to see real change, this exercise gave me a better appreciation of how monumental these challenges are. This simple exercise helped me open more space around everything in my daily life and my world views. 

If you decide to try this, don’t think about my experience, focus on what arises inside you. Don’t worry about drawing any conclusions, just let whatever arises in you, sit and simmer. I have found that the more we let thoughts sit and simmer the better insights we get over time. This is a journey where the longer you are on the journey the more powerful are the insights.

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