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Empathy to Compassion


"I am empathetic. I feel everything. I get swept up in other people's feelings. When my child is upset, I get upset. I am easily overwhelmed when a friend tells me her troubles. I feel her pain. It is exhausting." Sound familiar? You are in good company.


Empathy allows us to understand others. In the blink of an eye, when mirror neurons fire, you catch and mimic the feelings of another. At this moment there are no boundaries or filters to grasp the distinction between you and another person. You feel the other person's pain or suffering. Neuroscientist report that empathy is the beginning of compassion based on mirror neurons firing in your brain.


Compassion may be the intent of empathy, but what if you get stuck in the vortex of your own unresolved feelings generated from a similar experience. Sympathy, comparing your own experience with that of another, is one step short of compassion. While empathy is wired in the brain, sympathy is the mind's attempt to make meaning. One is instinctual. The other is a thought that guides your emotions and behaviors. Both are felt in the body.


Next time you are swept up in a feeling or consumed by a thought, awaken to the sensation in your body: breathing. Break the pattern: elongate your breathing. Inhale to the count of one, exhale to the count of two. Inhale to the count of two, exhale to the count of three. Continue to count your inhales and exhales until you count seven on the exhale. Be sure your exhales are longer than your inhales. Connect with your body: describe the difference elongated breathing makes. One person said, "This is like a miracle."


Let your mirror neurons work for you. Create space for yourself. Hold space for the other person. Be an observer: describe, describe, describe. Specify one posture you see: I notice your right leg is crossed over your left leg. Or, specify a sound you hear: I experience the sound of your voice getting louder. These descriptions can be said either silently to yourself or aloud to the other person.


Let empathy be your road to compassion. Respond with no interpretation or judgment, send out unconditional love, and offer hope by being a compassionate listener.

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