Is Empathy Even Healthy?
I once witnessed a woman, a fellow yoga teacher and life coach, recoil in horror when I mentioned that the name of my business is Empath Yoga. When I questioned her about that reaction, she shared it was her belief that empathizing with another makes you susceptible to taking on their energy — their sadness, their anger, their fear. And since these aren’t emotions most of us relish, why would anyone be so crazy as to take them on?
It is a common misconception, actually, to believe that empathy is to risk taking on someone else’s stuff; which is something that would actually be detrimental to both parties. Robbing somebody else of an experience life has chosen for them to have, for whatever reason, deprives them of whatever gold there was to be mined there.
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Learning Empathy Through Animals
Empathizing with another DOES NOT mean we take on their pain. True empathy means being able to relate to the human experience, even if you aren’t currently the one having that experience. Empathy is synonymous to having compassion for another’s plight, and being able to relate to how that must feel doesn’t make us weak, it makes us human.
In the July/August 2015 issue of Spirituality & Health magazine, a beautiful, heart-warming article entitled “Humanity in Animals” shares story after story of how animals empathize with each other: from primates that risk their own lives to save another to elephants that not only physically bolster up a dying member of the herd, but perform rituals of mourning upon their death.
One story was of two chimpanzees placed in neighboring cages where they could witness the behavior of each other. One chimp was given both red and blue plastic chips. The chimps had previously been trained to give chips in exchange for food, but during this experiment, a blue chip meant he’d be the only one to receive food; a red chip meant both chimps would get to eat. If the chimp who received nothing showed distress through body language and cries, most of the chimps ended up more often choosing the red chip, meaning they learned to share the bounty, altruistically, with the other.
But animals aren’t the only compassionate beings on this planet. The relatively recent discovery of human mirror neurons indicates that we are wired to see ourselves in others, that we are wired for empathy and connection.
Humans are Natural Empaths
Cutting ourselves off from feeling empathy for our fellow human (and animal) sojourners does not protect us from pain — it facilitates it. Because to be disconnected, and without the ability to empathize with another’s suffering, makes us cold, hard and, well . . . disconnected.
Again, as evidenced by these mirror neurons, we are wired to see ourselves in each other. So when we lose compassion for others, we simultaneously lose our ability to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves. We are all in this together. And just as it is necessary to feel all emotions in order to be fully awake, vibrant and alive, it is only through allowing our innate tendency towards empathy that we get to feel truly loved, loving and connected.
As Frans De Waal said in The Age of Empathy, “People willfully suppress knowledge most of us had since childhood, which is that animals do have feelings and do care about others. How and why half the world drops this conviction once they grow beards or breasts will always baffle me, but the result is the common fallacy that we are unique in this regard. Human we are, and humane as well, but the idea that the latter may be older than the former, that our kindness is part of a much larger picture, still has to catch on.”
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