If you were to ask me this question: what is the greatest spiritual quality one can have? Without a moment’s hesitation, I would say compassion. Having said that, I don’t deny that sometimes you may have plausible reasons to put your own interests first than be compassionate. It is not easy to always exercise compassion, but, like any other virtue, this too can be learned, practiced and mastered.
Today, however, I’m not talking about compassion, for, I’ve scribbled on it a few times in the past (here). Instead, I wish to share with you another important quality. It is the seed of compassion. The greatest sages of all times, across all religions, possessed it. Even in the modern world, this forms the basis of all harmonious and everlasting interpersonal relationships. Before I tell you what is “it”, allow me to share a famous short story.
In a small village, a farmer put up a Puppies for Sale sign outside his house. On a Sunday morning, a little boy knocked on his door.
“How much are they?” the young visitor said. “I want to buy one of your puppies.”
“They range between $50-$70.”
“Please, can I at least see them for a while for this much?” And, he pulled out a five-dollar bill.
The farmer thought for a moment and said, “That’s alright. There’s no charge for seeing them.”
He opened the door of the doghouse and called out to a dog. Out came a female dog followed by six little puppies nearly rolling down the ramp as if balls of fur. They were trying to match the strides of the mother. They quickly made their way to the fence while another puppy, noticeably smaller and slower, emerged from the shelter and limped his way to his mother.
“Can I buy that one, sir?” The boy pointed at the hobbling puppy. “I promise to pay you $5 every month for the next 10 months.”
The farmer knelt down at his side and said, “Son, you don’t want that puppy. Unlike the other dogs, he will never be able to run and play with you.”
“This is the puppy I want, sir.” The little boy stepped back a little and began rolling up one leg of his trousers. A steel brace, attached to a custom shoe, ran down both sides of his leg. “Actually, I don’t run too well myself, and he will need someone who understands.”
Nature has bestowed upon us an extraordinary emotion — empathy. Empathy is the seed of compassion. Simply put, empathy is a genuine effort to see the world from the perspective of the other person. It is to step into their shoes to see where exactly it’s hurting. We have a tendency to quickly judge the other person or to make them understand our viewpoint but empathy is about being a non-judgmental listener, a receptor.
Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. Instead of offering empathy, we often have a strong urge to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position or feeling. Empathy, however, calls upon us to empty our mind and listen to others with our whole being.
Marshall Rosenberg nicely sums up empathy in the quote above. In fact, in his book on non-violent communication, he cites a beautiful poem Words are Windows or They’re Walls by Ruth Bebermeyer:
I feel so sentenced by your words,
I feel so judged and sent away,
Before I go I’ve got to know
Is that what you mean to say?
Before I rise to my defense,
Before I speak in hurt or fear,
Before I build that wall of words,
Tell me, did I really hear?
Words are windows, or they’re walls,
They sentence us, or set us free.
When I speak and when I hear,
Let the love light shine through me.
There are things I need to say,
Things that mean so much to me,
If my words don’t make me clear,
Will you help me to be free?
If I seemed to put you down,
If you felt I didn’t care,
Try to listen through my words
To the feelings that we share.
When you wish to empathize with someone, just listen. When you do that and do so sincerely, a little while later they’ll start to make perfect sense to you. You’ll begin to understand their challenges and barriers, their aches and pains. Most of us have automatic response to most things in life. But, with mindfulness, you can pick and choose your emotions. When you dislike something, you can choose from anger, repulsion, empathy, compassion, indifference or any one of the twenty-seven other potential emotions experienced by us.
When you continue to practice a certain emotion as a conscious choice, soon it becomes your second nature. It is the reason why some people can be eternally angry or always selfish or mostly arrogant. Or why some people are often kind, compassionate or considerate. At some point in time, they had chosen these emotional responses over others and they’d done so repeatedly until it was instilled in their DNA.
Mulla Nasrudin went to a department store to buy a pullover for his wife. While he was at the checkout counter, a flash sale was announced offering 40% discount to customers who paid within the next 60 minutes. Soon, out of nowhere an army of female customers rushed to the counter and Mulla found himself getting pushed and pulled in various directions.
He tried to be patient and polite but even at the end of one hour, he was still at the end of the line because of the wild crowd. Upset and frustrated, he stuck out his elbows and started pushing his way through all the women around.
“Don’t you have any manners?” a lady yelled. “Can’t you act like a gentleman?”
“No, ma’am,” Mulla said loudly, “I’ve been acting like a gentleman for more than an hour. Now, I must act like a lady.”
This was just for the smiles and not to show the other side of empathy.
You don’t have to feel a certain way to act a certain way. The reverse is more practical and effective: start acting a certain way and you’ll start feeling that way. Empathy, therefore, is an act before it becomes an emotion. Practice it and you’ll experience it. And, how to develop empathy? One for another time.
In the words of Buddha: Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant with the weak and wrong. Sometime in your life, you will have been all of these.