Empathy and Spirituality

“The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” -Thomas Berry

In my search to understand spirituality, empathy keeps showing up, but always on the periphery. It’s never center stage, not the way compassion is. Compassion is like empathy’s big famous brother. But I’m beginning to think that empathy is the quiet, unspoken genuis.

Okay, that’s an unfair set-up. As though compassion was a brazen profiteer, an Edison to the Telsa- empathy. But I do wonder why empathy is overlooked, maybe it is more difficult than the simple kindness that we easily label as compassion.

Heinz Kohut, a psychologist from the early 20th c., transformed my understanding of empathy.  Indeed, his understanding of empathy seemed to transform as he sought to understand why therapy is effective.

It’s not interpretation: I think we can all agree on this. Knowing why we feel anxious doesn’t make the anxiety go away. Kindness is nice. It soothes anxiety. But, it too doesn’t really heal. Hypnosis would be a convenient cure and a bit magical. But, it isn’t generally effective. All of these are helpful, but none seem to be the essence of what cures.

So, what cures? Kohut’s answer was empathy. This insight transformed the field of psychoanalysis, and continues to guide practice today.

We think of empathy as walking a mile in another’s shoes. It’s a great idea for resolving conflicts.  Less poetically, but more deeply, it is our attempt to appreciate another’s subjective experience.  This is hard to do, impossible to do perfectly.  But, my imagination really starts to buzz when Kohut moves beyond this normal understanding to describe empathy as a psychological nutriment. Like oxygen, empathy is vital.

Before Kohut I never really thought about psyche food.  I knew what my brain liked: sleep, it really likes sleep, and vegetables.  Whiskey seemed to make it hurt.  But the mind, that was different.  My mind seemed to like interesting ideas, new experiences, laughter and good stories.  But these all just seemed like nice things.  I never thought about them as vital, as though my mind’s well-being depended on them.*

I believe this view of empathy challenges all of our typical assumptions about who we are and how the world functions. My imagination wants to take off into the stratosphere of speculation, dreaming of interconnectedness. The post-modern world is a lonely place, with everyone lost in their own personal worlds. I like to dream of empathy bridging these gaps.

As much as I love meta-physical speculation, we don’t have to escape into imagination to find wonder. Wonder is on the ground.

For example, recent research shows that animals have empathy too! That’s more wonderful than anything I could dream up. Connor Wood wrote a great article reviewing this research. The best part is that they weren’t studying primates or even dogs. Those would be an easy sell. But rats? I loved Fievel and Ratatouille, but rats aren’t exactly endearing creatures. Yet, this research suggests that they also have empathy.

So, empathy is like oxygen for the psyche. And, even “low” mammals show empathy.  These two insights leads me to believe that empathy has something to do with spirituality.  I resist a specific definition, but spirituality has to do with the health of our minds, with how we relate to each other and the world, and who we are and what this world is.  Empathy and its vital role in our well-being (and perhaps rats well-being too!) speaks to all of these questions.  What it says is still open for interpretation.  But, I’d bet that empathy may end up just as important as it’s big buddy compassion.

*I’m not trying to draw a sharp distinction between mind and brain.  But, I do think that empathy is primarily experienced as a mental phenomenon.

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