Sunday, January 31, 2016

To have compassion INSTEAD of empathy

I came across a very interesting podcast, where Sam Harris (neuroscientist/philosopher) interviews Paul Bloom about his latest research on empathy. Bloom defines empathy as the ability to put oneself in another person's shoes and understand what the other person is feeling in their situation. Bloom wrote an article called "Against Empathy" which understanding drew a lot of criticism.

I have always felt a lot of empathy for people (even to stories on the news), to the point that I feel so much pain for others' sad stories that I become just as depressed and not very helpful to anyone. Being a highly empathetic person actually makes me dislike being around too many people and makes me a difficult person to be around with. It drives me bananas how many supposedly good-hearted people can be generous and kind most of the time, but not feel bad about occasionally taking advantage of others, for the sake of say, defending their children or their loved ones. I walk around feeling confused and disgusted; meanwhile these people whom I consider to be selfish have moved on to service other people while I haven't done much to offer my compassion and service at all.

Putting it another way, I have been self-critical of how much I judge other people. But in fact, being overly judgemental of others really is being overly judgemental of myself. Since I am so strict with myself, I am incredulous how others could "get away" with the type of behaviours that I would not permit myself to do.

So what I really should do is to try to is to try to reduce my empathy for people's suffering, because it is more draining and paralysing rather than useful for me (or for the others). Instead I should learn to develop metta, or loving-kindness towards myself and towards other people. That is way more useful than empathy.

I am so happy to have stumbled upon this podcast. Society emphasizes the importance of empathy and I have not heard about empathy being discussed this way until now. Let's hope this will lead me to better directions out of misery and depression towards productivity and equanimity.

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