The Importance of Empathy in Everyday Life

Your most important skill: Empathy

Empathy is the most important skill you can practice. It will lead to greater success personally and professionally and will allow you to become happier the more you practice. I’ve never considered myself a real programmer. I know at this point it’s probably silly to say, but I started my scholastic and professional life as a musician, and I’ve never quite recovered from the Impostor Syndrome that comes with making such a shift. One of the faux-self-deprecations I use to describe myself is: “I”m a people person who just happens to express this tendency through programming and technology projects”.

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From Chad Fowler
Your most important skill: Empathy


Metta from a Lifeboat


Image (c) Robert Blackwood

The metta bhavana can be a tough nut to crack. Its five stages, outlined in a recent post, are meant to evoke feelings of loving-kindness for different people, first for oneself, then for a friend, then for a neutral person, then for an enemy, and finally for everyone in the earlier stages, with an increasingly expanding circle that eventually includes all sentient beings.

I’ve learned a few ways of going about the meditation from different sources, including teachers, fellow sangha members, books, and even Google searches. The goal is to create a sense of loving-kindness, and how you get there in your own practice seems to be unimportant, so many people have advised me to try different approaches until I find one that works for me. Right now I’m using varying approaches that seem to work better for the different stages.

For Stage 1, where the focus is oneself, I usually visualize myself in a happy and safe setting. I’ve called up images from childhood, probably more iconic than historical, because I doubt I’m the only person who finds it much easier to feel loving-kindness for the child version of myself than for the adult version of myself. But using this kind of visualization opens the door to running away with the storyline, and a metta bhavana meditation can become a stroll down memory lane. Other times I’ll simply imagine myself sitting there on the cushion, from the vantage point of an observer who thinks, “this guy isn’t so bad after all…” That’s not quite metta, but it at least prepares the way.

For Stage 2, visualizing a close friend smiling or laughing usually does the trick, but I sometimes find myself wanting to know what my friend is laughing about. So off I go, following the storyline as I create it. Other times I’ll recite (some version of) the lines that many people use in the metta bhavana: May you be happy. May you be free from suffering. May you be loved…  The danger there of course is that it’s easy to simply recite the lines and forget about the metta itself, to just go through the motions without any emotion. But Stage 2 is generally the easiest stage, probably for most people, because you start from a point of naturally feeling metta for a close friend. That’s why one of my teachers sometimes reverses the order of the first two stages, starting with the one that comes prepackaged with a good amount of metta to get the ball rolling.

In Stage 3, I’ve found that what works best for me, so far at least, is to imagine that neutral person doing something mundane that I’ve never actually seen him or her do. Riding the subway, waking up in the morning, smiling at a partner or friend. There’s no storyline for me to fall into, but there is a sense of familiarity. This person does the same sort of things that everyone else does, myself included. So these images come with a sense of camaraderie, with that crucial recognition that we’re all in this together. That makes metta easier to cultivate.

I’ll skip to Stage 5 now, and then come back to Stage 4, and the lifeboat. Stage 5 starts out easily enough for me, with all four of us in a room, and me feeling by that point in the meditation enough metta to go from face to face and look on each of the players with loving-kindness. It’s the spreading-out that’s challenging for me. The expanding sphere image doesn’t work for me for the admittedly ridiculous reason that a sphere will include the layers of the earth before it reaches people on the other side of the globe, and I find myself fixating on images from high school geology textbooks. (I’ve admitted that this is ridiculous.) Spreading out over the surface of the planet is good enough, but I’m a bit of a map geek, so there are geographical distractions. Plus, it’s all so abstract, with a bit too many special effects for my tastes. What I usually do is a kind of shuffle of faces that I’ve encountered through the day, some real, most composites or complete fiction, and I try to look on each one as a real person, with all the same desires and challenges that I have. It’s a bit like walking down a crowded street and making an effort to look on each passer-by with metta, with a recognition of similarity rather than otherness.

Stage 4 is of course the most challenging, and the technique I use depends on whether I’m calling to mind simply someone who annoys me, or someone who I actually think of as an Enemy. Smiling, happy images tend to work for the former, while using the moon trick works for the latter. One of my teachers, the one who shared the moon trick with me, recently had another great suggestion for when I’m having a hard time getting past the past:

Imagine yourself in a very rough sea, with waves crashing around and on top of you. You’re coughing up water and at risk of going under, of drowning, but your Enemy is a few feet away in a lifeboat, and he or she is reaching out to you, trying to pull you out of danger, to save your life.

That really changes the dynamic! Suddenly the Enemy is not all bad, and maybe even quite good. You can imagine the look on his or her face, reaching as far out as possible to grasp your hands, really desperate to save you from drowning. Obviously you feel gratitude, which isn’t quite the same as metta, but which is at least something you can work with as a foundation for evoking feelings of metta.

I have a feeling that the metta bhavana is always going to be a work in progress, and it’s probably the case that people develop different approaches at different times, or with different players in the mix. The good news is that there’s an endless supply of practice opportunities off the cushion. The guy on his cellphone in the elevator next to me? May he be happy, may he be free from suffering… The woman paying by check in line at the grocery store ahead of me? May she be safe from inner and outer harm… And me? May I be filled with loving-kindness, at least some of the time


Put Them on the Moon


Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

In case you’re new to meditation and have never heard of the metta bhavana, it’s a very old and basic meditation meant to cultivate feelings of metta, usually translated as loving-kindness. It’s not romantic love, or attached love, or even familial love, but rather the kind of love, compassion, kindness, courtesy, empathy, and all of those other good things that, if universally applied, would make the world a much nicer place.

You can get far better instruction on the metta bhavana than these few words here, but in a very quick nutshell, it’s divided into five stages. In each stage, your focus is a different person (people in the last stage), but the aim is the same. You actively seek to evoke and feel metta for the person (or people) you’re focusing on, maybe by conjuring up an image of the person in a tranquil and safe setting, maybe by saying his/her name, maybe by reciting – with heart! – words like “May you be happy. May you be at peace. May you…” You get the picture.

The stages of the metta bhavana have as their focal points or objects of concentration:

  • Stage 1: Yourself
  • Stage 2: A good friend, someone you love dearly but not in a sexual way, ideally with as little baggage and as few attached strings as possible
  • Stage 3: A neutral person, someone who you see regularly and maybe know by name, but don’t have strong feelings for one way or the other
  • Stage 4: An enemy, someone you know and dislike, have a negative history with, or someone who you’re bothered by or are having difficulties with
  • Stage 5: Everyone from stages 1 through 4, then gradually a wider circle that expands to include all living beings.

When I first learned the metta bhavana, I remember thinking, “I don’t have any real enemies!” And it was probably even true at that time. I had people who annoyed me, just as I annoyed them, I’m sure, but that didn’t seem like much of a challenge. How hard is it to evoke feelings of compassion and kindness for someone who only annoys you?

As it so happens, I would soon enough be supplied with someone who genuinely rises to the level of enemy for me. A person who, on some days at least, I can’t think of without feeling a whole host of bitter and negative emotions. I don’t wish harm on this person, but I certainly have a hard time wringing any sort of compassion and kindness out of the tangle of emotions I do feel. Usually, I simply don’t think of this person, but every so often, when I’m feeling strong, I have my enemy for Stage 4 of the metta bhavana.

This can be tricky. On the one hand, it seems to be precisely the kind of challenge the metta bhavana offers us. If we can bring ourselves to feel compassion and kindness when it’s hard to do so, to say “we’re all human beings in the same boat, so I feel for you and your suffering because it’s mine, too,” we’d all be better people for everyone, ourselves included. On the other hand, most of us aren’t immune to flashes of strong emotion, and a perfectly well-intentioned metta bhavana can wind up creating hatred and ill will, and that’s not something we want to let ourselves steep in.

My solution is usually to simply pick an “easy” enemy. Someone who’s bothering me for some silly reason. But every once in a while I feel that my practice deepens if I come back to the Enemy, and actively look within myself to find and nurture the part of me that recognizes common suffering, that’s able to set aside a very real and bitter history and simply say, “despite it all, we have dukkha in common,” and that’s enough to create even a small spark of compassion and loving-kindness.

It helps that one of my teachers, a Triratna Order Member, had a very simple trick for me to use. I’d gone to him with the concern that my practice was getting clouded by feelings of hatred and ill will, and that I wasn’t able to handle a real enemy in the metta bhavana. He said that I didn’t always have to force myself to confront such a difficult person, that sometimes the “easy enemy” is practice enough. As for the Enemy with a capital E, he said, “put them on the moon!” It took me a moment, but I think I understood what he meant. Make distance, give yourself space. Encourage so wide a perspective that you don’t see the details of betrayal and anger and all the rest, just the outline of a person, far away, who’s trying to get through life the same as you are. Slowly, you can bring them back toward the Earth, and slowly the negative emotions will be replaced by genuine compassion and loving-kindness, with time and practice.

And if you have set-backs, hey, there’s always Pluto.


Change Your Mind by Paramananda

Change Your MindOne of the first books I read after coming to Triratna-NYC was Change Your Mind: A Practical Guide to Buddhist Meditation, by Paramananda. It was a wonderful resource as I started to practice meditation, with a simple and friendly tone, and clear instructions and advice on everything from cushions and posture to tips on how to bring the benefits of a Buddhist practice into your daily life. I’ve since recommended Change Your Mind to family and friends as an excellent introduction, or as an approachable tool to get back in the habit of regular practice.

Change Your Mind starts with the basics, answering the question What is meditation? and then moves to the essentials in an inviting and personal way. The author gives a thorough explanation of the importance of posture and the different postures a meditator may use. This was particularly helpful to me, since invariably my back knotted up, or my foot fell asleep, or my leg began to ache about five minutes into any meditation I started.

The first meditation covered is a simple body meditation, which helps new meditators become acquainted with their own physical presence as they sit. It’s a very accessible approach that helps beginners learn to focus on the now. Then the author covers the two traditional meditations we do at Triratna, the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana, or the cultivation of Loving-Kindness, with clear explanations as well as led practices. The author also discusses the role of intention and balanced effort in meditation, and the link between mental, emotional, and physical states and meditation, and how all of that is connected to how we (can) lead our lives.

While Change Your Mind does not focus on Buddhist philosophy, even basic points such as the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path, there is an introduction to the brahmavihāras, or the Four Immeasurables, the compassionate virtues that arise from practice of the Metta Bhavana. This is written in the same friendly, down-to-earth style as the rest of the book, inviting practitioners to experience for themselves the link between meditation and living in a healthier, more compassionate way.

Finally, anyone who’s meditated is doubtlessly familiar with the Five Hindrances, which are also covered, along with time-tested methods for dealing with them and always coming home to the object of concentration. These tools are key to sustaining a practice, especially when you’ve reached a plateau, which most people experience.

All in all, Change Your Mind is a wonderful book to read if you’re a beginner, or if you’ve been meditating for a while but want to go back to the basics for a fresh, friendly, creative, and inspirational point of view. It is neither dry and mechanical nor full of Pali and Sanskrit terms for unfamiliar Buddhist philosophical concepts. It goes right for the middle path, and makes it easy for the reader to follow along.