Monday, June 11, 2012

How empathy?

Why does meditation enhance empathy? A few reasons:

  • You notice that much of your "bad behavior" (e.g., snapping at people when you're hungry and irritable) happens when you're subject to anxieties / insecurities / a generally turmoiled mind. Settling the mind reduces the occurrence and potency of those states (your hunger is less likely to manifest as irritability, and you're more able to de-identify with the irritable part of your mind).
    • You also note that this turmoil and bad behavior (both being irritable and snapping) doesn't feel good for you.
  • You suspect that everyone else is going through the same thing, i.e.
    • Their turbulent minds are the most immediate cause of their "bad behavior", and
    • Their "bad behavior" is typically causing them as much pain as they're inflicting (this also softens the black-and-white victim-perpetrator divide; see below for more).
  • One of the common effects of meditation is to help you respond instead of react, by giving you space to observe your emotions before acting.
    • In immediate situations (e.g., being cut off while driving), you can give people the benefit of the doubt (which prevents the startle from evolving into road rage).
    • In larger contexts (e.g., considering how to solve the problems of the world), it helps you broaden your focus beyond the immediate and obvious causes. When we're told that person A harmed person B, a common instinct is to blame person A, and direct malice his way (and sometimes mock everyone else as "tree-hugging liberal hippies" or similar), and forget to consider a whole host of causes and conditions that were involved.
      • When you're told that Andrea Yates drowned her 5 little kids, your first instinct may be to feel some rather nasty things about her, and forget to ask yourself if there's more to the story (there is).
In short, a calm and introspective mind is naturally imbued with more empathic qualities (and of course meditation assists with generating a calm, introspective mind).

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