To most people, empathy is seen as the height of human insight and a necessary first step toward altruism. Empathetic people are viewed as being particularly attuned to the human condition, selflessly able to put aside their own emotions to vicariously experience the internal state of another.
In actuality, though, the process of adopting another’s position as your own, especially in the context of severe pain or trauma, is self-destructive and utterly unhelpful. Common sense and scientific analysis, however, have revealed a healthy and sustainable alternative to empathy: compassion.
Recently, biochemist-turned-Tibetan Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard participated in a study examining brain activity during two kinds of meditation: one focused on empathy and the other on compassion. The results of the study confirmed a millennium of Buddhist wisdom. During a meditation session focused on compassion, Ricard’s brain scans showed little activity in regions associated with empathy or pain.
However, while solely trying to focus on the suffering of others, Ricard could not take it anymore and had to stop meditating. In a follow-up brain scan, the meditation activated regions of his brain associated with pain. He experienced empathic burnout, a condition often experienced by health care professionals who deal directly with trauma victims.
It is notable that devoting a few minutes to the suffering of others was enough to deeply disturb Ricard, who has many years of experience meditating on compassion. Empathic burnout can take the form of depression, insomnia, anxiety and other disorders. This pain is not something to glorify since directly experiencing the toxic pain of another person inhibits our ability to help them. Empathy is not always something to strive after; it doubles pain, thus wholly missing the initial altruistic objective to minimize suffering.
Compassion, on the other hand, seems to be an inexhaustible wellspring of goodness. A compassionate friend sees your suffering and listens to your needs without pity, complaint or distress. A compassionate citizen sees the horror of war without being hollowed out but by establishing peace. Compassion is countercultural. It flies in the face of the notion that doing good or being a good person is a burden to be carried only by the strongest among us. We see that the weight of compassion is no weight at all; it is a relief from our own self-concern and endowment of peace.
So how can we train and tap into an inexhaustible source of well-being? We have to first wish for our own happiness and well-being. We must create a balance between accepting our limitations and continually pushing the boundaries of our ability to love. Cultivating compassion, whether through meditation, prayer or acts of love, produces fruits that can transform our consciousness from one of worry and pain to one of ease and happiness.
The word used by many spiritual traditions to describe the experience of compassion is detachment. It refers to a certain distance from the pain another is experiencing so that one is able to assist without falling into an empathic burnout. Many people interpret this as a form of indifference to the pain of those closest to us, but what is really needed is a balance between apathy and empathic burnout.
The difficulty of turning to compassion lies in drudging through an inclination toward empathy and adopting something much more constructive. Ultimately, it is not empathy that we seek during tough times but compassion from those who are able to support us in a more pragmatic manner.
Nicholas Scrimenti is a junior in the College. Spiritual Search appears every other Friday.