In my last installment I began a series addressing the notion that we all have an essential self that is already at the core of our being when we are born. I suggested that there are ways to discover this essence by examining and connecting to what we deeply love, and to what gives us the most pleasure and meaning in our lives. I also suggested that we can tap into our essence through experiences of positive vulnerability. These kinds of experiences open us to feelings of loving and being loved, and create a portal through which we can find meaning, creativity, and self-esteem. In this chapter, I hope to continue to shine a light on this process of self-discovery by exploring the value and importance of empathy in connecting to our essential self and to the essence of others.
Just two days ago, I received an email from a dear friend of mine, which took me to task for lacking empathy in my response to her on several occasions. I knew immediately that she was right. I had become frustrated in my interactions with her. To me she was in an almost constant state of overwhelm and depletion, and my reaction to her was both challenging and unsympathetic. I judged that she was indulging in trying to get me to feel sorry for her, in an attempt to rally me to the cause of taking care of her. She was hurt by my interpretation and suggested that if I didn’t know what would help her in her plight, perhaps I could just empathize with how difficult her life was right now. She reminded me that whenever I had been able to be empathic in the past, that she felt understood and supported, and that this gave birth to new energy and vitality in her.
I quickly felt a sense of shame and guilt wash over me. How could I have been so insensitive? Then a flash of self-awareness struck me. I had been in a state of depletion myself for the last month, after what I had thought would be an inconsequential minor surgery. I was surprised at how the surgery drained me energetically. Only in the last couple of weeks had my energy returned, and as a result I had begun to feel more like myself. So not only had I lacked empathy and understanding for my friend, I was not in tune with myself and my own needs either. This realization reawakened me to the importance of the incredible resource that empathy can be. Empathy is the source of our ability to grasp and understand not only what someone else is feeling, but just as importantly, what we are experiencing ourselves!
After writing back to my friend to apologize for my insensitivity, and to promise that I would work on being more attuned to her, my thoughts jumped to a manual for therapists that my friend is fond of, “The Developmental Needs Meeting Strategies,” by Shirley Jean Schmidt, MA, LPC. In this manual, Ms. Schmidt outlines three parts of the Self that she feels are indispensable to healing, the Nurturing Adult Self, the Protective Adult Self, and the Spiritual Core Self. I realized that her writing on the Core Self might shed more light on what I was writing about. I recalled that Ms. Schmidt offered an extensive list of attributes for this essential aspect of the Self, and decided to include here the qualities that she believes we can experience when we connect to the Core Self:
A sense of interconnectedness to all beings
A sense of completeness and wholeness
A sense of safety and invulnerability
No ego, no struggles
No desires or aversions
Unconditional, effortless happiness
Unconditional effortless acceptance
Unconditional, effortless loving-kindness and compassion
Timeless cosmic wisdom and understanding
Timelessness, the present moment is precious and full
“The Developmental Needs Meeting Strategy” by Shirley Jean Schmidt, MA, LPC, Copyright 2009
If this list of characteristics of the Core Self doesn’t motivate us to connect to it, what will?
Those of us who meditate regularly will immediately recognize that in our deeper meditations, we begin to have these kinds of experiences. Ms. Schmidt believes that these aspects and qualities of the Core Self can be efficacious for us in a variety of ways, helping us to heal wounded parts of the self and strengthening our resources. What I find particularly validating for our purposes in Shirley Jean Schmidt’s writing is her confirmation that our Core Self is not only an essential part of who we are from the beginning of our lives, but is also an ongoing presence as we develop in childhood and adulthood. This essential self is a treasure trove of resources that are essential to our living full and healthy lives. She affirms that we can gain access to these resources and utilize them in our healing work, and in our day to day lives. However, when it comes to the issue of how to connect to them, she offers meditation as the primary key that unlocks them for us. My desire to find more routes of access in addition to meditation spurred me to remember the importance of empathy to Couples Communication in the Imago Therapy of Harville Hendricks.
In their remarkable guide for couples, “Getting the Love you Want,” Harville Hendricks, Ph.D., and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt, M.A., present the essential ingredients for effective communication:
- Careful listening, so that you can accurately reflect what you understand your partner to be saying
- Validation that your partner is making sense, and asking for clarification if you don’t understand them
- Empathy for your partner’s experience
The willingness of partners in a coupled relationship to communicate in this way goes a long way to increasing their understanding of and connection to one another. I include this process here, because it reinforces the importance of empathy in the transformational process of connecting deeply.
Toby Landesman, Copyright 2013
Empathy is the capacity to “get” or “grasp” where someone else is coming from, to recognize intuitively, emotionally, and rationally what someone else is experiencing, and to actually experience what that person is experiencing in one’s own body. I also believe that there is an experience that could be called “self-empathy.” I have experienced personally that we have the capacity to understand and embrace what we ourselves are experiencing in such a way, that we can offer ourselves compassion and support. How can we arrive at feeling empathy either for someone else or ourselves? Hendrix and Hunt can help us greatly here. Whether we are communicating with self or other, the first step is always attunement. We need to get on the right wavelength. This is accomplished by listening closely, seeing clearly, and feeling fully whatever we are experiencing as we open our hearts to our partner or ourselves.
The reflective listening process includes listening as attentively as possible, and reflecting back whatever I understand is being said. If I am only working with myself, it is sometimes useful to say out loud what I am hearing in my internal dialogue. In the Hendrix communication process, your partner will validate whether you are hearing them clearly and understanding what they are saying accurately. If you are tuning in to yourself, make sure that what you are reflecting back to yourself feels right to you. Pay attention also to your inner visual imagery, and to the felt sense of your experience. If I had been paying close enough attention to how I was feeling, I would have known that I was quite depleted after my surgery, and therefore prone to be irritable and unsympathetic. In order to really know what is going on with someone else or with me, I need to pay very close attention to my sensory experience. Whatever I hear, see, and feel will turn out to be much more important to my understanding of myself than my “ideas” about myself, which are vulnerable to the involvement of my ego. The ego has a number of beliefs about itself which it loves to dwell on; things such as, “I am a strong, healthy man, who recovers more quickly than others from just about everything!”
Ultimately, empathy is more intuitive than rational in its essence. Because of this, it requires us to be serene, patient, and fully present to our experience. Even though intuitive information comes in “on the fly” throughout the course of the day, we will sense its messages and imagery most clearly and accurately when we are relaxed and open. It also responds best to a receptive state of self-acceptance and self-appreciation. When I allow myself to experience whatever I am experiencing without judgment, criticism, evaluation, interpretation or analysis, I will get a truer reading from my intuition than at any other time. This will allow me to connect to real feelings of empathy, because I will truly sense and recognize what you are feeling internally. If I am connecting to myself, I will be able to feel and appreciate what is really going on with me!
What I am hoping to make clear here, is that empathy is a direct feeling experience. If I imagine that my body can become more porous, that there is more space than usual between my cells, I can activate a sense of openness and receptivity. In this state, I will begin to notice feelings and sensations that seem to come from outside myself, that are entering my sensory body. As we would say in the late 60’s and early 70’s, I will begin to feel your vibrations. If I can allow this openness to continue to happen, I may begin to get visual imagery and a sound track. I may hear music, rhythms, even voices. I may begin to feel sensations and emotions that are sparked by my openness to you or my openness to myself. Although these notions may seem a bit crazy to you, I can assure you that I learned this method of utilizing empathy in my training as a therapist, as a resource that fosters a real sense of what my clients are feeling, even when they are not sure of their own emotional experience. Empathy is the process that allows us to feel what another person is actually experiencing inside ourselves. It fosters that close a connection.
A good synonym for empathy is loving kindness. This is the disposition I need to adopt toward whomever I am communicating with meaningfully. If I connect to my feelings of loving kindness, the barriers to open and flowing communication begin to drop away. The entire field of meaning and connectedness opens up, which can lead to beautiful feelings of compassion. This is the sense we have when our heart goes out to another person. We are creating a context of love for our communication, one in which both the other person and we ourselves can feel safe, secure and supported. When this happens what we say becomes more truthful, more revealing, more nourishing, nurturing, and more real. In this context of empathy and compassion, real connection is fostered and real healing takes place. If this occurs in connection to my understanding of myself, my trust in myself and my love for myself will increase greatly.
I know that I am tiptoeing lightly in an area that for years was considered heresy. That there could be a healthy sense of self love was anathema to many spiritual leaders and to many psychiatrists and psychologists as well. They were worried that the notion of healthy empathy and love for the self would foster a form of solipsistic narcissism, a self-indulgent naval gazing. My experience with self-acceptance and self-empathy is that this concern is the furthest thing from the truth. When I feel a resonant empathy, acceptance, and appreciation for my experience, I feel more loving and accepting of others, more appreciative of them, and more understanding of whatever they are experiencing.
To test out my hypotheses try these exercises as an experiment. Go into a relaxed meditative state and allow yourself to get in touch with whatever you are feeling, thinking, hearing and seeing internally. Be as present and open to yourself as you can possibly be, and be accepting of whatever you discover. Allow your experience to be whatever it is. Now imagine taking this experience into your Core Self. Bring openness, understanding, and loving kindness to it. Let yourself feel and appreciate whatever is happening inside you. This experience is in fact one of feeling empathy for yourself. Express your acceptance and appreciation for the totality of your experience. Use your inner dialogue and affirm yourself, “I really understand what you are sharing with me. I can feel and sense what you are experiencing. I appreciate your openness and authenticity.” Then see what happens inside you, and report it in the comments section at the end of this blog, if you would like to share what happened for you.
Do try this process with one or more of your close friends as well. In this case, attune to them by opening yourself energetically and emotionally, and then while being fully present, listen closely to whatever they would like to talk to you about. Concentrate on understanding what they are telling you so deeply, that you can begin to feel what they are feeling. Use the Hendrix method of communication, so that at first you are simply listening and reflecting. Then as you reach a fuller understanding of what they are saying, validate that they are making sense, and communicate to them what you now understand they must be feeling. Pay attention to their response to this communication from you. Did your empathic response accurately represent their feeling experience? If it wasn’t accurate, see if you can determine what you missed or misunderstood. If your empathy was in synch with their feelings, notice how each of you feels as a result. I believe you will find both of these experiences meaningful and fulfilling. You may also experience a deepening sense of closeness and connection, both to your friend and to yourself. Please feel free to share the results of your experience in the comment section as well.
In writing this last section, I am reminded of several Friday evenings I spent with an artist friend of mine some years ago. We would get together occasionally to have a light supper and listen to music that we both loved. The experience of our getting together was almost always mind boggling, because sooner or later we would begin to have a conversation that led to wild insights and revelations. On more than one occasion, we talked about our love of viewing visual art, and trying to attune ourselves to particular paintings. We concluded that the secret to appreciating what the painter was trying to communicate was to be so open to the visual experience of the painting that we could begin to “sense” what the artist had in mind. We believed that we could “feel” both the painting and the painter. We imagined that what was happening was that the painter had managed to infuse his or her heart and soul into the painting, and that this soulfulness was present in the work itself; so much so that we could see it, hear it, and feel it in our own bodies. I suggest to you that this is what empathy actually is, our ability to be so present to someone, to some work of art or music, and even to ourselves, that we can feel the essence of that person or that work of art revealing itself to us. When this happens we can sense or grasp the core of what is going on. The more open we are, the more present we become to our experience, the closer we are to the essence of our existence, to the essence of those we love, to the essence of life itself.
Thanks to you, dear readers for your presence and attentiveness. I welcome your comments, anecdotes, and reports on how these exercises went for you. As always I offer my heartfelt thanks to Toby Landesman for her superb photography. You will find her and her work on the Web @ www.tobylandesmanphotographics.com.
Toby Landesman, Copyright 2013
Written by Tom Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.