A Meditation on Empathy

I knew that if I didn’t heed the call, winter would be arriving soon and I’d miss my yearly visit. Quiet time in a cozy cabin sitting at the edge of the lake at Rocky Point is one of my most favorite weekend retreats. I simply adore reading, writing and being still by water and also reflecting on all the precious times  in the last 25 years I’ve shared here with loved ones. If you asked people that know me, most would say I am an extrovert but those closer in would answer differently. They’d say I have extroverted energy because I’ve had introverted time.  Periods of solitude create consistent inspiration and genuine generosity. That’s how it’s worked in my life.


One of the four partially read books on my bed stand was “Intimacy: Trusting Oneself and the Other” by Osho. I’d picked it up in the lobby of the Yoga Barn in Bali this summer, read the first couple of chapters on the plane coming home and hadn’t touched it since. Packing for an ‘intimate’ weekend with my canine companion, the book sounded like a good match. It was. A meditation technique for empathy at the end of chapter 4 surprisingly mapped the whole weekend. Respect for differences has been a deep theme running through my life, relating to  compassion and empathy,  all  subjects of conversation with close friends.


Empathy is like sitting in a down chair and feeling every part of the body held in a soft embrace. It has allowed me deeper insights I might not have reached without being witnessed. I sense when it’s present and when it isn’t, when I am feeling it myself, genuinely, and when I’m trying or not there. It’s a very different felt sense. When I am empathic, there’s no separation between giving and receiving. I am as moved by the experience whether I am entering or being entered into by another. Both feel holy. I am often humbled by an unfolding capacity when it occurs in me and when I feel it extended towards me. Empathy is directly related to intimacy. Martin Buber wrote about empathy in his famous book, “I and Thou”. As a young woman I read Buber’s book many times, feeling something in it even beyond my years, something symbolic, something that, in retrospect, identified a missing link in my upbringing. I sense I’m not alone in this experience that many of us grew up without an adequate early modeling of empathy because as a culture, we have tended to celebrate independence more than reciprocity. We still love the rugged heroes and sheroes that succeed on their own. But they’re fairy tales. Nobody accomplishes anything alone. We are always affecting and being affected by each other. Without this understanding, that we are interdependent, we miss the full workings of the other, our own awareness suffers and we miss the ecosystem of which we are a part. Buber speaks of seeing others this way as the “I-It” relationship where people and nature and animals become things to be used, manipulated and exploited. Often unaware and unintentional, it may be as subtle as experiencing our own consciousness and what we want but not the others. We forget the reciprocity that exists in every interaction.  The other is not experienced as having the same value.  As a dear friend of mine said recently about a decision she and her husband had made while remodeling their house together, “It was a win for the house but a loss for our marriage”.


The art of listening is an important element in developing empathy. As George Washington Carver said, “If you listen deep enough anything will talk to you”.  Without the capacity to listen the “I-Thou” relationship, which honors and supports the full personhood of both individuals, will go unknown and unlived.


Most of us want this kind of support, want to feel held, and want to know someone has our back. The only way I know to create this in our lives is to become the one that can support, hold and have another’s back which requires that we first know how and feel worthy of doing this for ourselves. In other words, to be empathic means the willingness to be vulnerable. To enter into or be entered into, to be moved, to soften where there’s fear, it takes courage, humility and letting go of the illusion of being in control and acting alone. We don’t.


So this past weekend, as Osho’s book suggested, I spent an hour a day practicing the meditation of empathy. The instruction was to choose one part of my environment, and enter into it with the intention of coming to know and appreciate its essence. My first subjects, as suggested, were to be non-human, an insight as fascinating as the process itself. Perhaps this elementary beginning was reflective of Osho’s lack of faith in the human capacity to go beyond preconceived identities. I have no idea if that’s true but the recent political atmosphere tells me he might have a point here!


The next day I locked eyes with my dog Tenzing, deciding he would be my first practice subject. We sat together quietly at the end of the dock as I entered into canine consciousness. For an hour I was a dog (God backwards, which I’ve always found fascinating!), in a relationship with his human. We switched bodies. Sounds “woo woo” I know but the longer we sat there with my focus on being dog, the easier it became to dissolve into a totally different way of perceiving, smelling, seeing, breathing.


The second day I chose a seagull that had taken my breath away with an exalted lift over the lake. For a full hour I transcended the limitations of my earth bound body and became the consciousness of flight, soaring, diving, the perspective from above broader, more aware of the whole system below. On the last day of my retreat I chose the lake itself. Having had coffee by her every morning, being supported by her in the kayak and having my whole being transformed by her beauty for the past days, I’d already begun the process of appreciation. One thing  true about empathy, love and intimacy, where it is real, there is an ocean of gratitude.


What came out of the weekend’s practice? Well, it was subtle like most spiritual practices. Somehow, every moment felt more “entered into “and therefore precious. And it seemed to continue into interactions at the grocery store on my way home and into the activities of the week.


For skeptics who say, of course Zan, it’s easy to be empathic,  curious and spontaneous when the busyness and focus of daily responsibilities is far away. I would have said that myself but in the last year I’ve become less skeptical. I’ve found that one weekend’s practice, a single interaction, a moment of beauty that takes  my breath away, a ritual in the belly of a cave, an unexpected kindness, a shocking revelation, an insight blown into my being from the unfamiliar, a surprise kiss, can, and have, shifted my whole consciousness, not in grand ways but in meaningful, perhaps, unnoticed to the outside, ways. I no longer judge events by duration, speed and appearance but by depth, integration and significance. And I am like a child that will follow anything that connects me to the real Playmate.


So if you are as curious as I was, go ahead, play with it! For a minute or an hour, enter into something or someone and let go of your own consciousness. See what you find.