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empathy

January 6, 2016

 

The last several months of 2015 brought both terrible and beautiful images and actions demonstrating the range of human behavior.  Always in life, both ends of the spectrum are at play.

 

Where we choose to focus our attention determines the experience of our lives, and how powerfully we respond to personal and world events.

 

As we move forward into a brand new year, I'm happy to share again the most encouraging findings from our social interactions research.

 

We, as human beings, spend the majority of our time practicing problem solving and being connected to each other.  We call the aspect of ourselves that acts this way “The Advocate.” This archetype honors the value of each life and is motivated to find a way for all to have what they need.  Our research shows that the average person defaults to acting this way more than 50% of the time.

 

Despite what we see sensationalized in the news, those who act in ways that separate one from another are in the minority.  These tendencies are present in all of us, called into play when some societal/structural force, learned and limiting behavior, or triggered emotional response derails our conscious choice to remain connected.  The impact of acting out these often unconscious elements of our personality can result in denigrating the value of human life for a particular individual or group.  The Bully, the Victim or the Bystander are the names we have chosen to represent these characters in our book.

 

In defining these four archetypes of power, we analyzed research findings regarding the perceptions and behaviors of each, and found striking differences.  While societal and cultural connotations to each archetype name may vary, for purposes of our discussion of power, we describe them as follows:

 

  • The Advocate utilizes the power of self-actualization and connection, and is focused on being and seeing the best both in self and others.  As a rule, they practice mindfulness, and have high levels of social and emotional intelligence.

  • The Bully and the Victim focus their efforts on controlling and manipulating the behavior of others, placing personal interests above the welfare of all.  Both act from a protective and defensive conditioning, and demonstrate low levels of empathy and personal responsibility.

  • The Bystander chooses not to act or engage with others, thereby tacitly allowing whatever dominant force is present to prevail.  While they share many attributes in common with the Advocate, they lack a sense of purpose and social engagement.

 

Thousands of analytical studies, as well as multi-billion dollar industries, document the efficacy of education, development and holistic/spiritual efforts in modifying human behavior.  By understanding and developing ourselves, we are able to have a more positive impact both on our lives and on the world in general.

 

Education in the socially responsible use of power is vitally important at all levels of society given the current global climate.

 

 

One of the most effective ways to increase the Advocate personally is to develop our capability for empathy.  In Buddhism, a core practice focuses on this very skill, with the development of “sympathetic joy.”  When we hear good news for another, we have a moment of choice to be joyful for them or jealous of them.

 

“Frequently we react as though good fortune were a limited commodity, so the more someone else has, the less there will be for us. As we watch someone else partake of the stockpile of joy, our hearts may sink thinking that we’re not going to get our share,” teaches author and Buddhist scholar, Sharon Salzberg.  She offers the following exercise for developing “sympathetic joy.”

 

Mindfulness Exercise

 

A simple practice can significantly increase your ability to feel empathy and joy for the good fortune of others:

 

  • Sitting comfortably with your eyes closed, silently recite your intention to rejoice in the happiness of others. Phrases often used are “May your happiness and good fortune not diminish. May they increase further and further.”

  • First, offer the phrases to someone you care about.  Choose someone whose good fortune genuinely makes you happy.

  • After a few minutes, switch your attention to a person you’re not as close to.  Bring that same feeling of joy to this new person.

  • Then focus on someone who’s having a hard time. Compassion for this person’s pain can open your heart, and celebrating even the small degree of happiness he/she might feel can help both of you.

  • End the meditation by offering the phrases in a global way: “May the happiness and good fortune of all increase further and further.”

 

 

Take a good look at the state of the world today.  If you feel any desire for something better, then make the choice this year to be in action.  Take the step to develop your inner Advocate, and be a more powerful force for yourself and your loved ones.

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