Empathy

Achieving Harmony and Increasing Empathy

Peace on Earth, goodwill to all

Posted Dec 25, 2016

“Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed. Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

Harmony means being in a position of compatibility, usefulness, and benefit to other things. Harmony is balanced understanding that cannot be forced and it transmits greater harmony to others. Troubled minds, tensions and frustrations are inharmonious but they may yield to an effort to restore harmony. For example, a lullaby may calm a frightened child at bedtime.

Harmony works in concert with other inner activities that join with it such as detached judgment, objectivity, clarity and removal of layers of prior conditioning. Harmony slowly enters our perceptions and awareness and one can feel the tension of disharmony as it departs and appreciate the resonance of harmony.  Harmony is necessary for our inner development. 

We focus our inner harmony by our intention. We say to ourselves what our intention is and then concentrate on how to achieve a harmonious intent. If the intention and the circumstance are appropriate the necessary energy to gain harmony will become available. But the intention must be specific and not a vague “I want to be happy.”  

Harmonious influence is privately felt, it is not an attention getting event. The intention is what makes it work. If one knows what one’s intention is and can face and handle this, then one is all right and our intention gives birth to the act.  If the intention is not clear, one should be careful because our imagination tends to have a lot of assumptions bound up in it. This can lead to self-important, ego-centered gratuitous disharmony.

One way to establish harmony is to create a positive situation in which the presence of balanced understanding is used as a specific tool. This requires introducing energy into the situation. The critical factor is to gently elevate the situation a little at a time and not try to achieve too much at once. You must allow the situation to dictate how harmonious energy will be used.  Not everything needs to be harmonized and we should not try to impose harmony on every situation. Building up harmony is similar to learning how to relax and you cannot force it. We cannot harmonize with everything because we may lack the knowledge and the necessary capacity.  The intention to use and implement harmony is a very careful and deliberate decision.

“I did not know how to reach him, how to catch up with him... The land of tears is so mysterious.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Increasing Empathy

Empathy is attuning ourselves emotionally to another person and to appreciate the other persons feelings and see the world from their point of view. Like the American Indian perspective of walking the extra mile in the other person’s moccasins, empathy is an essential part of our successful aging. We each experience lack of empathy almost every day as we interact with impersonal businesses such as large banks, credit card companies or cable TV and internet service providers that sometimes place their concerns ahead of our needs. Even hospitals are not totally immune to a lack of empathy and our healthcare system is just beginning to appreciate the critical importance of empathy in the quality of care. For most people the first questions asked when they enter a hospital involve their payment and insurance status and not the nature of their distress.

This empathic journey into another's heart is essentially a nonverbal process. It recognizes another person’s emotional state as reflected through their facial expressions and body movements. Psychologist Paul Ekman showed in a number of studies over the last 40 years that facial expressions are universal and are not culturally determined. For example, he showed photographs of facial expressions for various emotions such as anger or surprise and discovered that people from a great variety of cultures in Brazil, Japan and the highlands of New Guinea, where tribal members had no contact with television, all interpreted the emotions based on facial expression in the same way. Paul Ekman has several books on interpreting facial expressions and one on how to detect deception and lying that may help in understanding the importance of these factors in increasing our understanding of others. The better we understand our own emotions the easier it will be for us to increase our empathy for others. Our self observation can focus on those things that cause a change in our emotions and this also can help us understand the feelings of others. If you are at a restaurant or café where you hear a conversation near you, imagine the lives of the participants. How old are they? What do you think they look like? What is the style and color of their clothing? Then at a discreet moment turn around and compare your empathic imaginings with the actual people. While this exercise is more descriptive than emotional, it can help to develop your empathy. Another technique to increase empathy is to read both fiction and nonfiction, which can help us become more aware of others and their emotional states. Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People is filled with useful suggestions. Also interact with many different types of people. Doing this will broaden our perspectives and allow us to see things from many different points of view.

To me the opposite of empathy is indifference and being so selfish and self-centered that the needs of another are not considered. This is the loss of compassion and we need to increase our ability to care for others. Perhaps practicing small acts of kindness without any desire for repayment or recognition to our families, to the people we work with and to total strangers will help us broaden our lives by achieving meaningful empathy.