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Thread: Compassion vs. Empathy

  1. #1

    Compassion vs. Empathy

    This has been on my mind a lot lately. I have been guilty of claiming to have compassion and empathy when in fact I didn't. I think it's natural to have compassion for another and their situation. I can feel sorry for them and want to help them. I can interact with them based on their needs. I can do everything possible to ease their troubles. And I can do all of this because I truly love everyone. However, I've recently become aware of what true empathy is and it's very difficult. To step inside someone else and experience their feelings and emotions. To truly know the circumstances they have been through. To become one with them. This is much more than compassion and can be a very frightening, emotional and exhausting experience.
    I have much growth to accomplish in this area and I guess I needed to write it out for my own benefit.
    Thanks for listening.

    Gassho,

    Tom

  2. #2

    Re: Compassion vs. Empathy

    Thank you Tom,
    I'm sure that my compassion is limited. Limited by my capabilities, and thats fine. Maybe it grows, over time and practice, that would be nice, but for now ... I believe we all do what we can, though we sometimes might thing we should do more or better. I can much relate to what you say, all of it, and this are just my view,

    Gassho
    Peter

  3. #3

    Re: Compassion vs. Empathy

    Hi tom.

    After reading your discussion i came to realise that patience is linked to empathy because one needs to harness patience and compassion before being able to be more empathetic towards others. however this is only my limited view.

    Gassho

    ray

    Quote Originally Posted by TomB
    This has been on my mind a lot lately. I have been guilty of claiming to have compassion and empathy when in fact I didn't. I think it's natural to have compassion for another and their situation. I can feel sorry for them and want to help them. I can interact with them based on their needs. I can do everything possible to ease their troubles. And I can do all of this because I truly love everyone. However, I've recently become aware of what true empathy is and it's very difficult. To step inside someone else and experience their feelings and emotions. To truly know the circumstances they have been through. To become one with them. This is much more than compassion and can be a very frightening, emotional and exhausting experience.
    I have much growth to accomplish in this area and I guess I needed to write it out for my own benefit.
    Thanks for listening.

    Gassho,

    Tom

  4. #4

    Re: Compassion vs. Empathy

    Tom,

    Trungpa Rinpoche came up with a term "Idiot compassion". I really like it and always try to remember it. Many teachers say that the true compassion only comes with true wisdom that we acquire through zazen. From my personal experience of doing zazen it's easier to understand or empathize with the other, when you know how your own mind works because we're not all that different from each other.

    Pema: Idiot compassion is a great expression, which was actually coined by Trungpa Rinpoche. It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it's whats called enabling. It's the general tendency to give people what they want because you can't bear to see them suffering. Basically, you're not giving them what they need. You're trying to get away from your feeling of I can't bear to see them suffering. In other words, you're doing it for yourself. You're not really doing it for them.
    http://www.shambhala.org/teachers/pema/qa5.php

  5. #5

    Re: Compassion vs. Empathy

    Thanks Andy,
    I find this very helpful
    _()_
    Peter

  6. #6

    Re: Compassion vs. Empathy

    Thanks Andy, I like that.
    Empathy is where I get uncomfortable. As I understand empathy it is to relate so totally with another that you actually experience their feelings and emotions. To me this is much more than feeling sorry for someone. And I agree with your comment on zazen and how it helps facilitate my understanding that we all are not that different. Zazen and empathy lead to my realization that somebody else's troubles really are my troubles too.
    So thank you for inspiring me to further introspection.

    Gassho,

    Tom

  7. #7

    Re: Compassion vs. Empathy

    True empathy, or compassion, is wanting to help someone in the best way for them. Sometimes that means being a little on the rough side with how you say or do things. I was cautioned on advocating giving money to homeless persons because many would simply use the money on booze and drugs. Sad as it is to say that, there is a large amount of truth to it. Giving them money instead of food or clothing would seem compassionate, but be "enabling"

  8. #8

    Compassion vs. Empathy

    I think you may be mixing up sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is when you feel what the other person is feeling. Empathy is the ability to understand what the other person is feeling, but there is no need to suffer with that other person, to be compassionate. On the contrary, if you are in a line of work where you meet ill patients or angry customers, it could interfere with your professionality and that could lead to all sorts of problems for both them and you.

    Also, what is a compassionate act? Can you tell right action from wrong beforehand? In that case it probably isn't true right action. True right action is action without thought, goals or desires, in the present moment. And Zazen may be the key to being in the present moment.

  9. #9

    Compassion vs. Empathy

    Hmm... I looked up sympathy and empathy and it doesn't seem to be as simple to define them as I thought. What I wrote above is how the words were explained to me once, but many people seem to define them differently, so take my words with a grain of salt!

    Still, you don't have to suffer because the other person is suffering. You can be just as compassionate if you just understand how and why he or she suffers.

  10. #10

    Compassion vs. Empathy

    This is how I always defined the words and this person explains it much better!

    "The prefix "sym" means "with" and thus sympathy means "feeling with" and has roots in Greek and Latin. Empathy, on the other hand, finds its roots in early 20th century psychology, and can be translated as "feeling into." Sympathy involves an awareness and participation in the suffering of another and arises when one shares an experience with someone else. The object of sympathy is another's well-being.
    Empathy, in contrast, involves an ability to comprehend another's state without directly experiencing that state and involves seeing the world from the perspective of another. The object of empathy is understanding."

    http://www.bernzilla.com/item.php?id=522#c1230

  11. #11

    Re: Compassion vs. Empathy

    Thanks Omoi, I like that explanation. Through empathy I can see the world as another does but that doesn't mean I suffer because of it.

    Gassho,
    Tom

  12. #12
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Re: Compassion vs. Empathy

    As a counselor educator, I explain the difference this way. Sympathy is feeling for someone, as in feeling bad for them when a loved one dies, in which case you send a sympathy card. Empathy is feeling with someone, as in understanding how a person feels from that person's perspective. When I feel bad for you (sympathy), the object tends to be a desire for both you and the other person to feel better. When I feel bad with you (empathy), the object tends to be understanding of the felt experience related to a certain event. Everyone likes a little sympathy sometimes; the occasional "I'm sorry for your loss" can go a long way, but too much tends to get old quickly. On the other hand, most people prefer empathy; they want to feel understood and they want their feelings to be respected. But empathy is much more functional than sympathy. Empathy is one of the most basic components of successful human relationships. No one wants to spend much time with someone that doesn't seem to understand or respect how they feel.

    As for how empathy and sympathy are related to compassion, that's deep. I think compassion is much more closely related to empathy than sympathy. Kannon heard the cries of the world, she didn't cry for the cries of the world, did she? Well, maybe a little, because it is possible to feel a little bit bad for someone while you mostly attend to understanding how they are feeling, and the combination of the two might be called compassion.

  13. #13

    Compassion vs. Empathy

    Thank you Alan, that was a great explanation. Some pieces fell into place. All who work as health professionals or counsellors know the importance of empathy, but sympathy has always been a little more vague to me.

    Would you agree that one can be empathic without co-experiencing the others person's suffering?

    Interesting idea that compassion is the combination of sympathy and empathy. I will let that one sink in a little bit!

  14. #14

    Re: Compassion vs. Empathy

    Thanks Alan, an excellent explanation of the differences between empathy, compassion and sympathy.

    Gassho,

    Tom

  15. #15
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Re: Compassion vs. Empathy

    Quote Originally Posted by Omoi Otoshi
    Thank you Alan, that was a great explanation. Some pieces fell into place. All who work as health professionals or counsellors know the importance of empathy, but sympathy has always been a little more vague to me.

    Would you agree that one can be empathic without co-experiencing the others person's suffering?

    Interesting idea that compassion is the combination of sympathy and empathy. I will let that one sink in a little bit!
    I think compassion is a complex "thing" and it as a combination of sympathy and empathy may be a way to explain or define it, but it's just an idea I had while writing that post. It may make some sense, but that doesn't mean it's accurate. There are people that have thought much longer, harder and better than I on this topic, and so I defer to them for any truly meaningful definition of compassion and what it is made of.

    I tell my counseling students that they need to be empathic without co-experiencing. To co-experience, also called identification, is to lose your self in the other person's self. This might be nice for the other person in the short run, but in the long run it is not helpful to either person.

    None of these "things" (sympathy, empathy, compassion, co-experienceing) are dualistic. Each has a place and functioning in relation to the others depending on certain events and times. Each also exists on a continuum from a lot to a little, and where on that continuum is appropriate is also dependent upon certain events and times. So it's all very multidimensional, so much so that to think about it is often the best way to not be able to grasp any of it. I lecture on this stuff at length (so this is the less than a nickel tour), but when students are getting ready to actually start counseling someone, I tell them to stop thinking about all this stuff and just BE with that person (BTW, that really blows their minds :lol.

    This stuff is interesting, fascinating even, and endlessly complex, so I recommend you stop thinking about it and just try and practice it instead. Be the buddha you are and the rest will follow.

  16. #16

    Compassion vs. Empathy

    when students are getting ready to actually start counseling someone, I tell them to stop thinking about all this stuff and just BE with that person (BTW, that really blows their minds :lol.
    You could even add: BE with that person, in this present moment!

    Thanks,

  17. #17
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Re: Compassion vs. Empathy

    I do say that, but not always in those words because the work of counseling is a little more complicated than Zen practice. Without ever calling it by name, Zen pervades my teaching. I am an academic, but I am also a Buddhist. They are (I am) not one, not two.

  18. #18

    Re: Compassion vs. Empathy

    I'm not sure your students would actually recognize it as Zen buddhistic concept, because it makes so much sense, even for someone who has never hearn a word of buddhist thought, to be with someone in that moment, if you want to be truly empathic. I.e. it could be interpreted as giving that other person your full attention, being present, without being distracted by thinking about what to have for dinner later that evening. And Mindfulness training is now getting more and more popular among health care professionals and therapists these days anyway.

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