An Empowering Empathy

Who are you feeling angry with right now? Learn to break the cycle of disconnection and division that tears at our personal and worldly relationships by bypassing ‘otherness’ and tapping into an empowering empathy.

Plenty of options for who you might be feeling angry with right now as we continue making our way through this intense year..!

Maybe it’s not a person at all, maybe it’s a system, or a group of systems, or a group of people, or a pandemic, or a whole way of being.

We are definitely facing big complicated issues right now, and the accompanying emotions can be confusing.

Last week we took things down to a super tangible level by looking at the dynamics of a one-to-one relationship. I shared about the challenges that my husband and I face living in our very different experiences of the world as a police officer and a personal growth coach (You can check it out HERE if you missed it.)

In this way we can look at the smaller microcosm as a way to help us understand the larger macrocosm.

Meaning…we can look at a singular one-to-one relationship that exists in our personal life as a way to better understand the similar dynamics of the polarized ‘us vs. them’ large-group issues we’ve come to be so familiar with in our world today.

Or simply put, we must master the small stuff before we can master the big stuff.

✨ This Living Being is Exactly Like Me ✨

So let’s return to that idea of who we’re angry with right now.

But…let’s start to drop our awareness down from the big hairy complicated situations of the larger world, down to the smaller itty-bitty dynamics of your immediate life.

Who is one singular person in your personal world you are feeling angry with? Frustrated with? Irritated with?

Maybe it’s your spouse? They’re never irritating, though, right? 😉

Or maybe it’s a boss or a coworker or a friend or a sibling or a significant other.

Take a moment to identify this singular individual and hold them in your mind’s eye.

Now, with this person in mind, repeat this to yourself while you breathe deeply in and out:

This living being is exactly like me.
The most important thing for him or her is happiness
and avoiding suffering.
Recognizing this, I understand something very important, very intimate about others.
We are indeed interconnected.

This is a meditation from Buddhist Nun Thubten Chodron who implores us as human beings to train our hearts and minds to view other beings – even (or perhaps especially!) those we don’t like – in this way.

How does the person in your mind’s eye transform when you apply this belief to them?

Go back and do it again. And again.

And maybe just one more time. Don’t forget to breeeeathe deeply!

Ok now that you’re back…

Can you allow yourself to believe Chodron’s idea that this living being is exactly like me? That we are all trying to seek happiness and avoid suffering. That we are indeed interconnected.

This is not easy work. But this is the beginning of opening our heart just enough that the idea of holding space for empathy can even become a possibility.

The working definition of empathy that Brene Brown references in her book ‘I Thought it Was Just Me’ is this: “the ability to perceive a situation from the other person’s perspective.’

We can get so wrapped up in our own perspectives, our own stories, our own feelings that we forget that the other person has also has a unique perspective, a story, and feelings.

When we get totally wrapped up in our side of the story, we cut ourselves off from our ability to use empathy.

We cut ourselves off from our ability to see the other perspective, and “to see, hear and feel the unique world of the other.”

✨ Breaking the Cycle ✨

It’s much easier to blame the one who has angered or irritated us, to shame them for the (perhaps quite unskillful) way they acted. We assume this will bring on new and improved behaviors the next time around.

We assume that our anger is justified in, how do you say…ripping someone a new one.

Oh I so, so have. I once wrote a SCATHING review to a volunteer organization I was involved with because I didn’t feel like we were actually doing enough to change the world. How dare they?!

But interestingly enough, (human emotion researcher) Brene Brown also tells us that shame is actually not a good motivator for change:

Along with many other shame researchers, I’ve come to the conclusion that shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive behaviors than it is to be the solution.

It is human nature to want to feel affirmed and valued. When we experience shame we feel disconnected and desperate for belonging and recognition.

It’s when we feel shame or the fear of shame that we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors, to attack or humiliate others or to stay quiet when we see someone who needs our help.

In a culture of shame, we are constantly overwhelmed with feelings of fear, blame and disconnection.

This creates an ‘us and them’ world. There are people like us, and then there are ‘those people.’ And we normally work very hard to insulate ourselves from ‘those people.’

Ooof. So it can be a dangerous game to use shame.

Shame used in a singular one-to-one relationship multiplied exponentially by the number of people in the world…yep, you get yourself a pretty divided us vs. them world.

Instead of allowing our anger to lead to the shaming behaviors that lead to disconnection, destruction and division – we need to create a new cycle!

We need to break that cycle by inserting the practice of empathy.

Anger –> empathy –> healing, togetherness and wholeness.

✨ Fighting Otherness ✨

When a personal relationship is locked into that feeling of us vs. them, or a me vs. you battle, what that relationship needs is not to fight against each other, but to fight against a sense of otherness.

We can think of ‘otherness’ as: the feeling that any being is separate from me and therefore undeserving of my empathy or understanding.

What that relationship needs (needs being more sophisticated than wants) isn’t a sense of otherness and separation, but healing, togetherness, and wholeness.

Exactly what our collective society desperately needs right now too. Healing, togetherness, wholeness.

But we can’t make room for healing and wholeness in an us vs. them mentality.

So using Robert Augustus Masters’ words from his book ‘Bringing Your Shadow Out of the Dark’  as our inspiration, try this second exercise for fighting against the feeling of ‘otherness:’

“Think of those you’ve felt especially disgusted by, and imagine taking this disgust so far that these reviled others no longer feel like people to you but only humanoid objects, polluting you and your kin, your culture, your nation.

Stay with this feeling for a while, witnessing it up close. Then breath by breath, start opening your heart to any aspects of yourself you feel disgusted by, bringing these into the depths of your being, one at a time.”

As we stay with this practice and learn to apply empathy towards the aspects of ourselves we perhaps don’t like, perhaps have relegated to a dark corner of our consciousness, perhaps were once shamed for ourselves – we make space for being able to offer empathy to the aspects of others that we don’t like.

In this way we “humanize them, and keep humanizing them; practice developing empathy for them, until their otherness shifts into an expanded, more diverse sense of us-ness. Then how you and they differ won’t make enough of a difference to exclude them from the circle of your being.” (Robert Augustus Masters)

Empathy, or our ability to perceive a situation from another’s perspective and see/hear/feel their unique world, is our antidote to otherness, the feeling that any being is separate from me and undeserving of my understanding.

Empathy is our healing remedy to the cycle of disconnection, destruction and division that tears at our personal and worldly relationships.

As Brown says, empathy is really just “about fully engaging with someone and wanting to understand.”

And luckily, empathy isn’t something we must be born with, it’s a skill we can all learn.

✨ Changing the World ✨

There are two ways to change the world. The top-down approach that involves big systemic change – these are the more sweeping and dramatic changes often at the level of legislation.

And the bottom-up approach that begins with the individual – this may take longer but is the only truly sustainable and guaranteed change because it is change at the level of our hearts and minds.

When you choose to begin relating to people in this new and expanded way, infusing your thoughts and actions with empathy, you too are leading a revolution!

This is what we need right now: brave individuals who can reach out across the uncomfortable divides and extend understanding.

We need those who can shift a closed fist into an open palm, and turn a pained heart into a compassionate one.

For real change and healing we need lots of real people having real conversations with real open hearts and real open minds.

Remember that change comes in many packages. A divisive stance that supports an us vs. them storyline is just the unfortunate example we’ve seen over and over in our world.

But it’s played out.

Division: you’re over. That was so last year. And the last 700 years.

2020 is definitely a year of changes, and it can be about starting over in a fresh new way. This can be an exciting time that feels good with the promise of a new world on the horizon.

So let’s decide to do better than those before us.

Let’s start engaging that empathy muscle and put that healing, togetherness and wholeness into action.

Let’s bravely work for cohesion – the act of forming a united whole.

✨ We Are Indeed Interconnected ✨

Sometimes we just forget that we are spiritual beings having a human experience.

Sometimes we forget that everyone is exactly where they are meant to be on their path of growth and healing.

Sometimes we forget that everyone is doing the best they can with the information and tools they have at the time.

But imagine a world where every individual feels uplifted, encouraged, and valued.

Where instead of shaming and disconnecting we speak words of empathy, understanding, love and compassion.

Where every single person feels like a valued and contributing member of society, connected to their sense of belonging.

Where we no longer ache to right our wrongs by the maxim of an eye for an eye, but instead choose to live by the truth ‘I see you.’

Here’s to throwing out the stale templates of division.

Here’s to reaching out across the divides with open hearts and open minds.

Here’s to cohesion, the act of forming a united whole, and to the once in a lifetime opportunity to build a new world – together. ✨

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