I am an empath. Sometimes I wish I weren’t, but most of the time it is one of my greatest gifts.
Empathy is, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” – dictionary.com
Unlike its sister term “sympathy”, feeling sorrow for another, empathy means to experience the feelings of another, from the inside. As you can imagine, going inside the experience of another being is often very unpleasant. When the object of your empathy is experiencing sorrow, you experience sorrow. When she is elated, you are elated.
The teachings and techniques of yoga are meant to bring us closer to perfect union with the omnipresent consciousness that underlies all things. In a way, this is perfect empathy.
The difference between yoga and empathy is that the former seeks to unite with the pure divine consciousness that all things are made from, bliss, while the latter seeks to unite with the experience of the person, place, or thing in question. But, empathy is a tool for the yogi and one that is naturally cultivated through the practice of meditation.
Toward the end of my teacher Swami Kriyananda’s life, many noted the heightened sensitivity he showed toward the suffering of others. Mostly, he choked on tears of joy, but suffering too made itself known in his face. The great yoga master Paramhansa Yogananda once exclaimed, “Can you not feel its pain?!” when a disciple was carelessly moving a potted tree as he prepared to plant it in the Lake Shrine gardens.
As we meditate, we experience increasingly subtle energies in our body. It should be no surprise that the result is often a heightened sensitivity to the world around us when we step off the yoga mat.
In my new job at March of Dimes, I’m listening to stories of tragedy and loss a lot. Stories of injustice and the extreme suffering of losing a baby or mother. If you are black or brown in the United States, you are at high risk of experiencing complications in pregnancy and childbirth for a myriad of reasons, all of them avoidable and rooted in inequity.
The stories break the heart of an empath.
So, how does an empath cope? How do we develop these keen sensitivities in meditation and still move in the world with joy? Here is what works for me:
Lean into the pain. For Siddhartha, the young Buddha, the pain of seeing aging, disease, and death propelled him on his spiritual search. Do not shy away from the pain you experience if you are an empath. Lean into it and you will find, after the waves of suffering subside, that it awakens your latent desire for truth.
Release self-righteousness. The great trap in suffering is to give into the idea that you are right and someone else is wrong. That feeds separation consciousness, which leads only toward more suffering. Dr. Peter described it best in a talk last summer when he explained that your brain releases dopamine when you experience the feeling of self-righteousness. And, critically important, the amygdala, which is the area of your brain that is receiving the dopamine hit at that moment, shuts off your executive function, which is the part of your brain associated with yoga. It will feel good to think you are right, but it will ultimately keep you suffering.
Seek solutions. When you experience the suffering of others, or yourself, be part of the solution. Whether its using less plastic because the suffering of ocean creatures breaks your heart or buying fair trade items because child labor makes you weep, do what you can to put your pain into positive action.
Go inside and breathe. In other words meditate. Take time each day to withdraw from the suffering and joy around you to that quiet place inside that is untouched by either. Cultivate the peace you find there and practice bringing that peace outward into your daily interactions.
May your sensitive heart guide you to lasting joy and happiness.