Empathy and compassion

Empathy is understanding what another person is feeling. It is an important element of compassion. Compassion is an active process that relieves suffering, both for yourself and others. When you are compassionate with yourself, you feel better. When you are compassionate with others, they feel better and you feel better.

Both empathy and compassion are skills. Our brains are wired to reflect and feel each other’s emotions. We read obvious and subtle clues from others and we constantly broadcast our emotional states for all to see. We read and broadcast emotional states through our facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, scents, and texts. We use our emotional states to attract and repel people and we are repelled by and attracted to others based on the emotions that they project.

We do much of this attracting and repelling, reading and broadcasting, subconsciously. If somebody is screaming in our face, we can reasonably interpret that they are angry. They feel anger, they broadcast anger, we read anger, and we understand that they are angry.  We do that so easily and so regularly that we don’t think about it. What we tend to think about is what that person is screaming about. Empathy happens behind the scenes, but we can easily bring it to our attention, which creates an opening for compassion.

If somebody is screaming in our face, we may have a hard time noticing our empathy and remembering to use compassion.  We naturally become defensive to protect ourselves from the potential and actual violence of the anger. We would likely feel the anger so strongly that we would get angry ourselves. We could respond with any emotion, depending on who we are and who is yelling at us. What emotion we feel and project in response to the anger, will have an affect on the original anger. If we remember to use compassion, we can find a suitable response that will make the situation better.

When we practice compassion, we find ourselves caring about our own emotional states and the emotional states of others. We recognize how much we, and those around us suffer, and we acquire techniques that help us engage with and relieve the suffering.

To practice compassion, we begin by noticing suffering. If we are suffering, we practice compassion toward ourselves. We look into our suffering to see what may be causing it. We imagine what would alleviate the suffering. We think about what we can do to help ease the suffering. If there is something we can do, we do it. If we notice suffering in another person, we do the same thing for them. Like any skill, the more we practice compassion, the better we get at it.

When we practice empathy we notice suffering. When we practice compassion we ease suffering. We won’t always know what we need to do to ease another person’s or our own suffering, but with practice, we get better, and as we practice, we suffer less.

Other people’s anger

Even if you do all you can do to manage your own anger, you still have to deal with other people’s anger. When you take a Zen approach to anger, you don’t get angry. Things happen. They hurt. They make you sad, scared, or frustrated, but as you focus on feeling those emotions as they happen, they don’t pile up and turn into anger. When you regularly practice observing and recognizing thoughts, moods, and emotions, anger comes around less frequently. When it does happen, you recognize it, observe it and let it pass before it does too much damage to you or those around you. Other people though, don’t practice this. They get mad, maybe even at you.

When somebody around you is mad, you can practice dealing with other people’s anger. When people get angry, they are sad, hurt, scared, and/or frustrated. They don’t know what to do with those emotions, so they get angry. They may say or do things that are hurtful to you even if they love you. They are wrong to hurt you. When you feel hurt, you get defensive and since anger is in the air, you may get angry too. If that happens, you’re back to practicing with your own anger. If you don’t get angry, then you can continue your practice with the other person’s anger.

To practice with the other person’s anger you connect with the difficult emotions that they are dealing with. You don’t have to look for the hurt or fear, anger is enough. Anger is painful. When you connect with the pain of the other person’s anger you can feel compassion. When you feel compassion, you want to help them. At that point, you are not feeling small, guilty and afraid. You are helping a person in distress.

Dealing with other people’s anger is similar do dealing with your own. You try to see the anger as anger and not get sucked into it. When you see anger as a painful imbalance, rather than a reasonable response to the circumstance, then you won’t fall for accepting blame for the other person’s emotions. If you can remain calm and respond with compassion, you are in a good position to ease their suffering. That creates harmony.

What’s right with you?

We spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what is wrong with us.  That kind of inquiry should be balanced with asking ourselves what’s right with us.  If you think that nothing is right with you, then you especially need to practice looking. We all do an incredible number of things exceptionally well. We adeptly handle complex electronics, negotiate social relationships, sustain our basic needs and help each other in the process. We love and are loved.

Each one of us has particular areas of interest. We are naturally skilled at exploring those interests. When we align with what is right with us, we find satisfaction in what we do. If we are not finding satisfaction, we may think that there is something wrong with us. What maybe wrong is not knowing what is right.

To look into what is right with you, notice your posture, take in a deep breath and center yourself in the present moment. Ask yourself what is right in your immediate surroundings. Look for beauty. Think of people that you love. Think of kind things you have done. Think of kind things that have been done for you. When you take time to remember and experience what is right with you, you will discover a refreshing sense of peace. That peace is right with you, wherever you are.

How to live a better life

To live a better life, start with the life you have. Right now, that is the best possible life you can have. That life includes a certain amount of suffering, which makes it seem like it could be better. How you habitually respond to suffering influences the quality of your life. If you run away from suffering you develop avoidance habits. As you acknowledge and approach suffering, you develop compassionate habits.

Compassion is an awareness and an action. It is noticing suffering, looking to the causes of suffering, thinking of cures for suffering, and doing what you can to bring about those solutions. Sometimes you can do a lot, sometimes less. Learning what needs to be done and what you can do is part of the skill of compassion.

You can practice compassion for yourself. You are the best place to start because you directly experience your own suffering and you have some good ideas about where it comes from and what might help.  As you learn to recognize how you suffer, you will also notice how other people suffer. When you see others suffer, practice compassion for them.

The more you practice compassion the better you get at it and the better your life gets.

The way to engage your compassionate mind is to breathe consciously. Deep breathing is your go to tool for a better life. Our bodies understand that. That’s why they knock us out every night so we can breathe in peace.


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