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The Difference between Compassion and Empathy Barry Magid May 5th 2018

Buddhist compassion is typically thought of as a feeling. A warm sense of positive regard. Sometimes it's extended to be an appropriate response - appropriate in the sense of helping someone to awaken. Some traditions have metta practices that involve wishing ourselves and others well. Empathy however is something much different. It's sometimes misunderstood as "feeling what the other person is feeling." The problem is that this starts with an assumption of sameness - I can feel what you're feeling. Psychoanalytic empathy starts with an assumption of difference - prompting one to ask - what does the world look like to this other person. It's an attempt to see and feel things from a different vantage point than your own that's equally valid.

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In today's discussion group we’ll come to the end of our reading of Philip Bromberg’s paper, “Standing in the Spaces,” and his discussion of multiple self-states. In the next few weeks we will follow that up with some koans related to multiple self states, such as Ch’ien and Her Soul Are Separated and Kuei-shan’s Buffalo and maybe a couple of others. But today I want to tie in the Bromberg article to the idea of compassion as it’s usually understood in Buddhism and compare it to the psychoanalytic idea of empathy, which is not a word that Bromberg explicitly uses because it comes from the self-psychology tradition, but it’s more or less what he’s talking about when we speak of coming to some understanding of multiple self-states.

Now when we hear compassion, particularly in Buddhist contexts, we think of it almost automatically as a feeling, a positive, warm regard that we would have toward others, a feeling we might relate to acceptance or unconditional love. Sometimes it’s extended to mean an appropriate response, a response that’s dictated by compassion in a sense of helping the other to awaken. When it’s used in that sense, it’s like Rinzai’s hitting a student upside the head is considered to be compassionate because it’s an appropriate response to the student’s condition that helps him awaken.

But generally when we think of compassion, we think of it in terms of a feeling or an attitude we’re trying to cultivate, and in some Buddhist traditions, they’re called metta practices, in which we recite verses or mantras that wish others and ourselves well. It’s a sense in which we feel as if we can cultivate a certain attitude, a certain state of mind, a particular feeling toward other people by these practices. I think these are deep and valuable practices in their own right, though they are not ones that I’ve practiced myself and they’re not ones that typically were in line with what Joko taught over the years.

When we speak of empathy, I think we need to understand it as something very different from compassion as I’ve just described it. Often they get blurred and empathy is treated as if it means something like sympathy, feeling the same thing as the other person. When we use it that way, to be empathic is to feel what the other person is feeling in that moment. We think we’re being empathic when we feel their pain. Now, that phenomenon obviously exists but in a way it’s a simple version of empathy. It is not what we mean when we talk about it in a more technical psychoanalytic sense.

The simple common version of empathy starts with an assumption of sameness: I’ll feel the same thing you're feeling. The psychoanalytic version starts with an assumption of difference. In that case, what we do when we’re empathic is much closer to something like what an anthropologist does when he goes and studies a tribe in a foreign country. It means starting off with an awareness that these people operate on very different assumptions than you do. It’s seen as they have a very different form of life. They react differently, they’re not like you in many basic ways. And so you take that as a challenge to say, How can I try to see the world through their eyes? What does the world look like to them, that they behave and react the way they do? That means empathy is a kind of suspension of your own perspective and as much as possible an attempt to imagine what it’s like to feel and see things from a different vantage point that’s equally valid to your own. That’s really what’s crucial about it: the attempt to see the validity, the subjective validity of another perspective or form of life. It means not seeing the other as a kind of deluded or primitive version of yourself, which is always a great temptation. They’re not people who think the way they do because they haven’t had the benefit of what we know. They really have a different and valid comprehensive view of the world with these different kinds of reactions and feelings.

One way to think about this in a version closer to home might be thinking about your neighbors in an apartment building. Let’s imagine that you live a quiet and orderly life and the neighbors play loud music, the neighbors have lots of kids who run up and down the hall, play ball in the hall, the neighbors cook all sorts of exotic foods and the smells permeate the hall and sometimes come in your apartment. Now, it would be easy to adopt an attitude that these people just don’t have any manners, right? They’re simply failed versions of yourself. They’re not obeying all the rules of good behavior that you’ve learned and you know are right.

To speak of compassion would be to try to override that reaction and say that somehow I’m going to learn to love them anyway, try to cultivate a feeling of acceptance for them even though in your heart or hearts you wish they would shut up and clean up their act. But empathy means something different. It means really trying to get to know them, and to see from the inside what it’s like to live that way, and why that way of life to them is rich and lively and vibrant, and you are a rather staid and stuck-up stick-in-the-mud.

Now Bromberg, basically, is asking us to consider the idea that we treat parts of ourselves like those unpleasant noisy neighbors that we think are ruining the neighborhood, that there are aspects of ourselves, parts that we wish to identify with as the good, the moral, the rational, the sane, the stable, and there are other parts of ourselves that are like unruly neighbors who cause us great distress, like shame, fear and anger, and basically our deepest wish is that they would move out. We don’t even really think we’re going to convert them to our way. We just think we’re going to get rid of them and have the whole floor occupied with people just like us.

And basically Bromberg says this is how our minds work. One part of our mind, usually out of shame, out of fear of exposure or vulnerability or criticism, wants certain parts of ourselves just to go away, and since we can’t actually perform a lobotomy and make that physically happen, we sort of do the next best thing psychologically, which is we perform acts of dissociation, where we create these psychological internal splits where one part of ourself, basically, as long as we can get away with it, pretty much denies and becomes unaware of another part, and that means that as best we can, we disown parts of ourselves that are vulnerable or shameful or otherwise troubling. And Bromberg basically presents the work of therapy as coming to terms with those split-off parts of ourselves, creating the situation in which one way or another room is made at the table for all the psychic participants, and we find ways to overcome our unconscious attempts at exclusion.

For me, one way of talking about that is that we develop empathy for these other self-states, that we understand how we came by them. We try to understand their backstory, their history. How did it happen that we became so ashamed of our vulnerability? What happened in childhood to make us feel those degrees of embarrassment that we sort of end up saying, Nobody’s ever going to do that to me again, and therefore I will make sure I never do xxx, trust someone, become dependent on someone, let them know how I’m feeling. You know, there are lots of versions of it.

Now I think that in our sitting practice, when we sit for a long time, when we sit day in and day out, and when we do sesshin and sit for many hours at a time, one way or another all those unruly neighbors of ours are going to show up, and that’s the real point of this practice. Inevitably we all come to practice wishing that we were going to cultivate our better selves, that sitting was going to allow us to be more and more calm, contained, autonomous, and not have to face and deal with the parts of ourselves that are embarrassing or angry or sexual or ashamed.

And yet when we sit a long time, all these parts of ourselves will make an appearance and we’ll have to look into the mirror of our sitting and say, “This is me. This is me. This is me.” I think the work of therapy is not the cultivation of any one good state. It’s not the cultivation of calmness or internal quiet or even compassion. In a way, it is the work of empathy, of creating an acceptance and understanding of all those split-off parts of ourselves that show up, like it or not, when we sit.

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