Lazyyogi, could you speak on the difference between empathy and compassion? Why compassion over empathy? Thank you.
Empathy is a more evolved version of sympathy and compassion is the pinnacle of all emotion.
When we are sympathetic, we are merely one step away from being apathetic. Sympathy means feeling bad for someone or something. Suppose the lover of your dear friend dies. Sympathy would mean feeling bad for that person and sending condolences but not stepping outside your worldview.
In sympathy, you relate primarily through the form of judgment and from your own little mental world.
In empathy, you draw from your own experiences to appreciate and attempt to understand the experience of others. In the same example of a friend’s lover dying, perhaps you have never known the death of a loved one. Then you can’t possibly understand that person’s grief and pain. But having experienced grief and pain in other ways, no matter how small, you can use those feelings to comprehend what that person may be feeling.
Through empathy, you are challenging yourself to step outside of the limits of your mental world. Yet since you can only understand other emotions through your own, you still don’t step outside your emotional world.
Compassion, on the other hand, is a mix of sending and receiving. Compassion recognizes that love and kindness are the means to harmony among all living things and therefore generates the wish for all beings to be free from suffering. Compassion witnesses and takes in the suffering of the people around it while giving out love, spaciousness, and healing.
Tonglen meditation is a most excellent way to cultivate compassion. Suppose you’re dealing with a nasty breakup with a lover.
In tonglen meditation, you begin by connecting with the fathomless, shoreless, ocean-like nature of your existence, and the unassailable peace and love inherent therein.
Then you return to your suffering. You open yourself to all the negative feelings of the breakup: resentment, pain, insecurity, jealousy, attachment, neediness, and so on. You inhale all of those bad things like a thick black smoke. The proceeding exhale is then a radiant and clear light of embracing love, acceptance, gratitude, forgiveness, and freedom.
In and out, you keep breathing in your suffering and exhaling compassion.
But you don’t stop there. You then imagine any friend you have had that has also gone through a breakup. You inhale their suffering and exhale compassion to them.
From there, you broaden this to anyone who has ever experienced a breakup, inhaling their collective suffering and exhaling compassion to them.
Finally, you imagine the lover with whom you have broken up. You inhale their negativity and suffering while exhaling compassion.
If at any point you begin to feel overwhelmed by the suffering, you can return to touch the empty expansive nature of your limitless existence and then resume the meditation.
In this way, compassion is not about simply understanding or sharing experiences. It’s about creating the space for something new and different to emerge by digesting all the shit around and within you while also getting in touch with your divine nature. As such, you become a doorway for communion, harmony, and transformative love to enter the world.
A book that I hold in high esteem, which teaches quite a bit about tonglen and the perspectives of dharma in the context of compassion and suffering, is The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron.