Empathy plays an important role in our ability to live a happy, meaningful life. For most of us, empathy is a quality that comes naturally, in part because we are social creatures who survive by helping each other.
Our self-interest is, more often than not, better served when others’ interests are also well served. In his Social Conquest of the Earth, the scientist E.O. Wilson discusses how eusocial species, such as humans, thrive and dominate because highly cooperative groups beat poorly cooperative groups. In other words it makes good survival sense to get along and cooperate. Erich Fromm, in his book Art of Loving, sums it up by saying that “all men are in need of help and depend on one another. Human solidarity is the necessary condition for the unfolding of any one individual.” Empathy is a necessary ingredient for making human solidarity possible.
Originally translated from the German word Einfühlung, which means to “feel into”, empathy is the quality of being able to imagine what others might be feeling. In a deeper sense it suggests an ability to imagine ourselves as the other person, to contemplate their human condition as though it was our own. Empathy is a stepping stone to compassion. I think of compassion as empathy in action, when the affinity one feels for another’s suffering demands that something is done about it.
Deep empathy is the ability to transcend the external appearances of separateness and difference, to achieve a deep connection, a sense of unity, or what some mystics call a quality of oneness. Deep empathy evokes a solidarity of cosmic proportion – an awareness of the interconnectedness, not just of people, but of everything that exists. That sense of connectedness has inspired the teaching of masters and teachers in all of the world’s wisdom traditions.
Those traditions teach that empathy should be practiced to be deepened. That means taking care and making the effort, especially when we don’t feel like it. It can be challenging to step aside and put someone else in the centre. But when we do, we find it can be rewarding in unexpected ways. Compassion generates reciprocal love – to quote John Lennon, “the love you get is equal to the love you give”. The Golden Rule then is key to human solidarity, which is why it’s found in every tradition.
My coaching has taught me the importance of empathy and its potential for transforming and empowering my clients as well as myself. My client’s Vedic astrology chart give me a map of their life experience, their strengths and their challenges. This helps me to understand them, to empathise with them, and to support them to realise their best potential.