Saturday, 5 November 2011

Empathy: by breath, by blood, by body, by spirit we are all one

During my recent trip to Transylvania I enjoyed many moments of genuine connection; when my heart and mind connected with the people I met; people who offered me genuine love and hospitality. Perhaps the greatest gift of the whole trip occurred in a cold, dark, broken down building in the village of Icland. Here I was invited to participate in a religious education class, with half a dozen adults and two teenage girls. Now of course it was difficult to understand what was being said and to participate as the class was taken in Hungarian. That said the minister Anna Maria translated the conversation from Hungarian into English and vice versa. We talked about keeping faith in difficult times, learning to let go of what is out of our control and do what we can in areas that we can. Something I am sure all human beings can relate to. During the conversation the “Serenity Prayer” came to mind “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference”

The whole world is going through a difficult time at the moment. Things are hard enough here in England, but they are even harder in less developed and more economically disadvantaged countries such as Romania. The trip has shown to me, just how fortunate I am to have been born and brought up in England, at least with regard to material wealth.

I connected deeply with the people I met, in that religious education class; I will probably never meet them again. I empathised; I felt what they were feeling. Life is an uncertain experience for all of us and we all worry about those we love and care for. One woman, Elizabeth has been haunting me ever since, her face is etched deep into my soul. I can picture her now as she spoke of her struggles to accept the uncertainty of the current situation, but also as she spoke of her faith and of course her struggles with that too. I am sure we can all relate to this, especially when life is not seemingly going the way we would like it to.

I, like most people I suspect, find it difficult to be with people who seem utterly absorbed by their pain. This is especially true the closer I am to a person. I recently spent time with someone I profess to love dearly, someone I have known all my life, who has been struggling. I found it difficult being in their company as there really was not much that I could do to help. Well actually there was an awful lot I could do; I just needed to sit with them and listen. To feel their pain and to know their pain, without getting swallowed up in it. The problem was that I kept being asked what they needed to do to get out the situation they had found themselves, what tips I had to offer. The truth is of course that there is no magic wand, or at least I’ve not found one as of yet. For me the solution is always to surrender to what is and to slowly build from there. The road to wholeness and fulfilment is a slow steady walk. a trudge; there is no short cut or magic carpet, not in my experience. Yes there are moments of sudden revelation and even grace, but they usually come after the hardest of times.

It is never easy to see others in pain, I believe it is even harder if it is someone close to you. Karen Armstrong in “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” “Step 4 “Empathy” says that “The Tibetans call this quality shen dug ngal wa la mi so pa, which means ‘the inability to bear the sight of another’s sorrow.”

To live more compassionately we need to learn to bear the sight of another’s sorrow. She says that “The suffering we have experienced in our own life can help us to appreciate the depths of other people’s unhappiness.” She gives several examples where the great sages of human history were able to look into their own experiences of suffering in order to help the people of their time and place.

She states “The dynamic of the Golden Rule is beautifully expressed in an early Surah of the Qur’an in which God (referring to himself in the third person) asks Muhammad to remember the sorrows of his childhood – he had been orphaned as a small child, parcelled out to relatives , and for years  was a marginalised  member of his family and tribe – and to make sure that nobody else  in his community  would endure this deprivation.”

She highlights the example of Gandhi, who much like the Buddha before him was born into privilege; he only became aware of the plight of Indians in South Africa after being thrown off a train, for sitting in carriage reserved only for white people. Within a week he had summoned all the Indians to a meeting in Pretoria and began a lifetime’s campaign of non-violent opposition to oppression.

Our own pain can indeed become an education in empathy. 12 step fellowships such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) talk about the former sufferer’s past being their greatest asset. Those who have recovered can help the sufferer who is seeking a way out. They can truly empathise with their plight; they understand the illness of addiction in a way that none sufferers cannot and can therefore offer true hope to the seemingly hopeless one. One of the promises of the AA program is “We do not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it”. Their painful pasts can be brought to good use in carrying a message of hope to those who still suffer.

Empathy is at the centre of Albert Schweitzer’s concept of “Reverence for Life”, which he extended beyond the confines of humanity to incorporate all living things. He stated:

 "Reverence for Life” gives us something more profound and mightier than the idea of humanism. It includes all living beings. We reject the idea that man is 'Master' of other creatures, 'Lord' above all others. We must realize that all life is valuable and that we are united to all life. By ethical conduct toward all creatures, we enter into a spiritual relationship with the Universe."
Schweitzer's "spiritual relationship with the Universe" grew from his understanding that religion balanced the spiritual with the practical. For him “Faith without works” was indeed dead. True religion demanded the kind of ethical activity that Jesus called for in the Sermon on the Mount. He was critical of the church for failing to follow Christ’s "great commandment of love and mercy”. He believed that whatever path we choose compassion and concern for all living things must be incorporated into that service; that “Reverence for Life” leaves no breeding ground for cruelty; that it is a "boundless ethic" which includes all beings regardless of race, religion, or species.

Karen Armstrong highlights the importance of art and creativity in helping us to enter into the lives of others, to know their pain. In the 21st century cinema seems to have the ability to help us empathise with the plight of people we normally would never consider. It opens our hearts in a way that a news item could perhaps never do. This is because we begin to empathise with the characters involved we feel with our emotions what they are experiencing. This is because we share a common humanity, a common life, we are made from the same stuff. She says “The big screen can bring us close to the characters; we can find ourselves moved to tears, our mirror neurons firing as we witness their pain, even though our rational minds tell us that their suffering is entirely fictional.” The Ancient Greeks understood this and portrayed it in their epic plays; Shakespeare understood this too as have most creative’s, throughout human history, who have brought a deeper understanding to us all. They have helped us walk in one another’s shoes. The point is to see another’s pain as also being our own. After all we are all made of the same stuff.

Of course this begs the question, how do we bring this about?

Well Armstrong offers a meditative practise as a starting point. It begins by imagining Confucius’ “Concentric Circles of Compassion”, beginning within ourselves and then moving out in ever widening circles until it touches the whole world.

The meditation suggests that we turn our attention to three individuals that we know. The three being an acquaintance we are not too closely connected to, someone we hold dear to our hearts and finally someone to whom we bear a grudge or hold resentment against. She suggests that we bring each one to our mind, to picture them and to name them. To bring to mind their good points; to look into their hearts and see their pain and to desire for each of them to be free of their pain and finally to resolve to help them in any way that we can; to wish for them whatever it is we desire for ourselves; to live by the Golden Rule. The purpose of the meditation is to develop upeksha ‘equanimity, which will allow us to relate to people with equanimity. Of course this is difficult to practice, but if stuck with, over a period of time, results are sure to follow.

Through developing empathy we will truly be able to practise compassion in our daily lives. Practise does indeed make perfect. Opera singers have to train for years, as do dancers and even ministers for that matter, doctors are not made overnight and neither are decent spin bowlers. All these crafts take time, dedication and consistent effort. It is worth it though.

Through the practise of empathy and compassion we can live truly connected lives and we will no longer feel that sense of separation and aloneness that so many people in the materially rich west seem to suffer from. Through practise we can grow into what Schweitzer described as a "spiritual relationship with the Universe" and we will develop reverence for all life, including our own.

I will never forget that conversation we shared in the village of Icland, in that run down house in the Transylvanian countryside. I will never forget Elizabeth’s face. She is permanently etched onto my soul...I felt with her and she helped bring down some barriers that were around me...and helped me to glimpse that something in the corner of all our lives, that we cannot quite see.

Karen Armstrong being interviewed about "12 Steps to a Compassionate Life"

1 comment:

  1. Dear Danny:
    A beautiful statement.
    My nine or ten pilgrimages to Transylvania started in 1962.
    Would you consider being nominated for the British IARF Committee?
    We only meet four or five times a year, usually a weekday afternoon at Essex Hall in London.

    Please join our conference and AGM at Croydon Unitarian on Saturday, 19 May. Email me if you would like more details . I will have small posters to hand out at the Unitarian AGM starting tomorrow at Keele U.
    In trust, hope, & Compassion, Richard