Empathy, Compassion and Altruism

By Pierre Zimmerman

The word empathy is a translation from the German word Einfuhlung, which refers to “the ability to feel the other from within.” Empathy can be set off by an affective perception of feeling for a person with whom we enter into resonance or by cognitive imagination evoked by the other person’s experience. Emotional resonance usually precedes cognitive resonance and depends on the intensity of our emotions as to whether we can really respond or become reactive instead.

heartTrue empathic concern consists of becoming aware of another’s needs and then feeling a sincere desire to come to his or her aid. It doesn’t involve pity, which is egocentric or condescending, or for that matter emotional contagion, which results in distress or empathy fatigue because we confuse our feelings with that of the other.

Compassion is the capacity to use our heart to relieve the suffering of another and all the possibilities to accomplish this. It includes the realization that ignorance is the fundamental cause of suffering and gives rise to an array of mental obscurations, lack of love, meaning, confidence and absence of a clear compass. Motivation for taking actions for release of suffering counts more than their outcome or results. Compassion doesn’t exclude anything possible to prevent the other from continuing to harm or break the circle of hatred.

Altruism is the motivational state that has the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare. It is a willingness to lead a life devoted to the well being of others without the need of ulterior motive. Valuing others and being concerned about their situation are essential. Buddhism defines it as the wish that all beings find happiness and the causes of happiness. In this context, happiness is not just a temporary state of well being, but a way of being that includes, wisdom, inner freedom and strength, as well as an accurate view of reality.

Altruistic love and compassion add joy when perceiving the happiness and good qualities of others as well as impartiality. Rejoicing means that we don’t want others’ qualities and happiness to diminish, but instead to increase and persist. This serves as an antidote to competitiveness, jealousy and envy and is a remedy for depression or despairing views. Impartiality or equanimity doesn’t depend either on our personal attachments or the way others behave towards us. Altruistic love requires courage; fear and insecurity are major obstacles to altruism. We need to develop an inner strength that makes us confident in our inner resources, which help us face the constantly changing circumstances of our lives.

Pierre Zimmerman is Director of One Big Roof and an instructor with the Saratoga Stress Reduction Program.

What is Spiritual Courage?

Spiritual Courage, by Dr. Lisa Dungate & Jennifer Armstrong,
an excerpt from their blog Lion’s Whiskers

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”— His Holiness the Dalai Lama

“Here is a test to find whether your purpose in life is finished: if you are alive, it isn’t.”— Richard Bach

Spiritual courage fortifies us as we ask questions about purpose and meaning. Of course many people find the foundations of this courage in an organized religion, but there are also other ways to develop spiritual courage. Spiritual courage means being available to the deepest questions about why we are here, what is my life for, do I have a purpose?  These are profound existential questions and can be quite frightening, which suggests why fundamentalism of all kinds can gain mastery over us; thus we yearn for definite answers to these questions and are attracted to ideologies that offer resolution to our uncertainty.  Spiritual courage means accepting that you are unlikely to find the answers, but asking them anyway. We all must call upon our spiritual courage when we consider our own mortality. Spiritual courage means opening ourselves up to our own vulnerability and the mysteries of life.Spiritual courage allows us to encounter people of different religious faiths and spiritual traditions without judgment. Remember the photos from the Egyptian revolution earlier this year, when Christians made a protective cordon around Muslims during prayer? That looks like spiritual courage to us.
This video from TED.com is Matthieu Ricard, sometimes called “The Happiest Man in the World.”  It is about 20 minutes long and we encourage you to take the time to view it!

Spiritual courage looks like:
  • attending religious festivals and listening to stories from faith traditions other than your own
  • talking with children openly and honestly about death
  • having friendships with people from faith traditions other than your own
  • for parents, making sure you have written a will, arranged legal guardianship for your children in the event of your death, as well as writing advance directives for medical emergencies
  • giving your children the option to pursue a religious practice or attend a youth group, even if you don’t attend or practice regularly
  • making time to pray, meditate, or do charitable work
  • holding a funeral for a pet
  • letting go of the need to control everything in life
  • reaching out in times of need and asking for help—discovering that there are, in fact, lots of resources in your community
  • building meaningful rituals into your daily life, such as quiet contemplation with a cup of tea, or a walk in the woods with your kids

LACK of spiritual courage looks like:

  • making judgments based on the religious identification of others
  • refusing to try attending a religious service even when your child invites you or expresses interest in religion
  • refusing to attend someone’s wedding, funeral or other rite of passage because of religious intolerance
  • unwilling to question your strongly-held beliefs
  • unwilling to plan for your own death
  • not respecting the wishes of a loved one who is faced with a life-threatening diagnosis
  • unwilling to accept that spirituality can exist outside the walls of a religious institution
  • unwilling to make a values inventory
  • not walking the talk
  • lack of respect for others, their beliefs, their culture, and the environment

Spiritual courage sounds like:

  • “May I go to your church/temple/mosque with you some time?”
  • “What do you believe?”
  • “That’s not a belief I’m familiar with.  Can you tell me more about that?”
  • “I have questions.”
  • “I want to make a difference with my life.”
  • “What happens to us after we die, Mommy?”
  • “Can I say grace tonight, Dad?”
  • “I’m grateful for ___________.”
  • “Before I die, I want to __________.”
  • “Let’s talk about who we’d like to raise our kids if we die whilst they are still young.”

LACK of spiritual courage sounds like:

  • “What difference does it make anyway?”
  • “They are evil.”
  • “Don’t think about such morbid things!”
  • “All religions breed fanatics!!”
  • “Religion in the opiate of the masses.”
  • “You really believe that stuff?”
  • “Sounds like some kind of a cult!”
  • “I can’t talk to you about that because you’re not a member of my church/mosque/synagogue.”
  • “I did it in the name of ___________”
  • “I give up.”

Grab Some Lion’s Whiskers!
Here are some tips for developing spiritual courage for you and your kids:

  • read stories from all world religions and encourage your children to ask questions and find similarities from one culture to another
  • read at least a bit of the Koran, the Bible, Talmudic teachings, Buddhist teachings, etc.
  • if you’ve never been to a Passover seder, ask a Jewish friend to include you next time; if you’ve never been to a baptism, ask a Christian friend to include you; by connecting respectfully with friends from faiths other than your own, you encourage them and yourself
  • ask the important questions before it’s too late!
  • surround yourself and your children with beauty
  • take a walk in nature; wake up early enough to catch a sunrise; on a night walk, stop and simply stare at the stars; take a deep breath in the open air
  • hang famous and not so famous artwork—especially your children’s, and not just on the fridge
  • play Classical as well as Top 40 music
  • stop and smell the flowers
  • try a yoga class—even see if there is one for kids in your community
  • investigate “alternative” spiritual practices such as meditation or sweat lodge with an open mind
  • work in the garden together, it’s a wonderful way to experience the circle of life

How Do I Develop Resilience?

Developing & Practicing Resilience by Pierre Zimmerman, MS

Resilience is the ability to face life’s challenges, small or seemingly overwhelming, surprising or habitual. With it we can experience what we might label victories, an
d when we lack resilience, we might end up having meltdowns or setbacks. Some people recover quickly from adversity; others become crippled by it, and some spiral into deep depression. As we approach the end of another year, it is the perfect time to reflect on this subject.

The capacities to bounce back, resurface, and integrate our experiences and then move on are innate and possible, yet difficult. To be resilient requires of us several qualities such as awareness, pausing to reflect, flexibility, stability, and adaptability. We can use the five elements that are part of our bodies and the larger universe to illustrate these important themes:

The earth element of stability and firmness,
The water element of fluidity,
The fire element of adjustable temperatures,
The air element of mobility, and
The space element of boundlessness.

Impermanence is real and not just a thought, everything is changing in our internal and external life constantly. Once we come to terms with it, our responses to change give us numerous probabilities of what can occur and unlimited opportunities to respond to them. We have neuroplasticity in the brain, which has the capacity to rewire itself and grow numerous connections, new pathways and circuits. Activating resilience means choosing experiences that will cause neurons to fire and wire together, creating new patterns in the brain and new attitudes in our mental and emotional world.

We need to face whatever creates suffering and discomfort; it is necessary and it’s called coping. Thoughts and feelings cannot destroy us; they may weaken our outlook slightly, and that is, only if we let them. We need to pause and stay calm, letting what needs to emerge surface, which in turn will bring clarity as to the beneficial choices we can make.

This doesn’t indicate that we are unfeeling or emotionally walled off, but neither are we getting drawn into an abyss. Mindfulness of the breath and cognitive reappraising of any distressing event helps us to reframe adversity in such a way that it is not perceived as extreme. Rather than viewing an event as a mistake, experiencing shame, guilt, or inadequacy, we can look at it as an anomaly that could happen to anyone and thereby challenging the accuracy of our thoughts. The most important thing to realize is that a thought, feeling or sensation is not the totality of who we are in any given moment.

We can use the following three-part contemplation to resource ourselves and retrain the wiring of our brain. (From Rick Hanson, PhD)
1 )  I am safe
2 ) I am well resourced, I have what I need or I can ask for what I need
3 ) I am connected, I am not alone

This three-part exercise helps us become more resilient. By repeating this contemplation a few times each day, it enhances our capabilities to retrain our nervous system and go back to a homeostatic and more balanced baseline. Cultivating empathy for oneself and others is a great antidote for recovery from distress or emotional dis-regulation. These new choices will bring us healthier connections and new resourcefulness which will support us in feeling more competent and give us renewed courage to face what is, rather than avoid it.

NOTE: This article was recently published by jessie riley in the January 2015 issue of Clifton Park Living Magazine, pg. 11, please View the attached

CliftonParkLiving_JANUARY2015