Exploring Empathy

The subject of Empathy is heavy on my mind and heart this morning. What is your experience with Empathy?
Here’s my beginning thought - outline:

Exploring Empathy:
Definition: The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Synonyms: compassion, sympathy, pity, feeling, concern, considerateness, consideration, tenderness, tender-heartedness, kindness, kind-heartedness, sensitivity, insight, fellow feeling, brotherly love, neighborliness, decency, humanity, humanitarianism, humaneness, charity, goodwill, mercy, mercifulness, gentleness, tolerance, lenience, leniency, warmth, warm-heartedness, affection, love
Usage: People often confuse the words empathy and sympathy. Empathy means ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’ … whereas sympathy means ‘feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune’ - (Oxford online dictionary)


  • What makes a person able to experience empathy? Not able to connect with empathy?
  • Is empathy an “imagining” in the mind of another being’s experience, or is it a “heart – gut – spirit” imagining or “knowing”? Is it a physical body feeling of it?
    *Is empathy transitory / situational? What makes it “stick”?
  • Does true empathy require shared or similar experience? Shared or similar suffering?
  • Does empathy extend most easily to other beings most like ourselves?
  • How is empathy cultivated and nurtured?

Me too, but from a different angle. I wonder what empathy really is, if it means, for example, a warden and his wife taking in a sexual offender, giving him a home, and even trying to adopt him (an adult man) while they have a 9 year old daughter whom he (predictably) abuses. When he is finally busted again, they keep trying to visit him in jail. Can empathy turn into insanity? (True story from a book I am reading, Predators, by Anne Salter.)

You raise some very provocative questions. I am thinking:

It is commonly believed that there are 5 senses. I differ from the common view on this subject. My belief is that there are probably more, and one of these is a sense which has a link to the originally accepted 5 senses but is not shackled to those five in that it also stems from something metaphysical on top of the physical. This sense is (as I would describe it) the “awareness of the beauty of the sacred”.

I do not think everyone has a highly developed awareness of this type of beauty, but I do think that once every human develops this sense to a certain point they will experience some degree of awe regarding this type of beauty and they will want to bask in the beauty perceived in what is sacred.

I do not believe that humans want to be profane – I believe that the perhaps not as of yet germinated seed of a human beings true nature is always firmly sacred.

Now – once we have this awareness of the beauty of the sacred we do not want to see bad things happen to the sacred, we want it to maintain a level of integrity and to stay safely beautiful. This is where empathy comes into play. When you want to see the beauty of the sacred of another entity stay at what you consider an acceptable level you can start to “touch” them in a spiritual manner, something like sending out an umbilical cord that transfers emotions and such from one soul to another. When this transference occurs there is a true sharing of states of mind, body, and spirit in a manner which is truly kind of ineffable as far as I can tell.

How do you relate your own unique brand of sadness or anger or whatnot to another with words and facial expressions alone? It must be shared in a different sort of way to approach a fullness of understanding.

I think everyone at some point in their life wants things to turn out okay due to a spiritual sort of awareness of beauty. This can result in a lot of worrying. I used to worry like crazy. Now I think I have realized that things will probably turn out of the best in the long run. That is linked to my set of beliefs which I would call (not boasting) hard won beliefs. These include: a belief in a Higher Power, a belief in a well defined umbrella purpose that exists for all that live in this world, a belief that we will all one day be linked by common values.

I hope this pertains to your post. I am not sure I know how I would answer all the questions you asked. I hope I provided a (to some extent) provocative attempt to answer some of the provocative questions.


Hmm… great questions. My first thoughts went to the concept “acknowledgement” of the other’s existance. Which seems to me something similar to recognizing something similar to the concept of a “center of gravity” in the other. A point that has no fixed location in the body, but that has meaning with regard to the other’s body nevertheless - one might call it perhaps the “center of attention” or “center of awareness”.

Next, to me it seems that even if I have no direct communication with the “other”, I can still try and project the role of my own “center of awareness” into the other and imagine experiencing the world from inside that other. Not only with regard to humans, but also with regard to animals, trees etc., even though I know that my own sensory system doesn’t even resemble theirs.
It feels sort of like the same relation I have with my mirror image, if that makes sense. I guess this “recognition” of an other resembles what you, Grandioseinterloper, point at with your expression “awareness of the beauty of the sacred”.

Perhaps then, the ability to experience empathy depends on the ability to accurately gauge the position and workings of the other’s center of awareness and experiences.
And perhaps we can get better at this with practice, just like it takes experience working with different kinds of materials before we can accurately gauge where the center of gravity of an object might lie. For many people, this might not seem to difficult with regard to a stone brick, but I wonder where the average person would place it for a headphone set.

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could we say that empathy requires the ability to “see” (feel, know, acknowledge?) the “personhood” of other beings?

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These questions are very provocative indeed. Nicely put, and in response I’d like to offer that in my experience empathy is amazingly able to be expressed within dependency, independency and interdependency retrospectively. And it is only from a soldiers frame of reference (that of say the U.S. Army) that empathy can be reconciled as having virtue within the context of the cultural movement known as Rewilding.

I have studied and practiced empathy a great deal. Most of this has been through NVC (non-violent communication) a system that I have found a great deal of respect for. I am even developing a somewhat broader system of my own based from its principles.

NVC is based on an idea that all humans share the same feelings and needs and feelings are the result of a conscious os subconscious recognition of a need being met or unmet.

Practicing empathy to me, is being present and acknowledging that the other is human just as you and although your situations and experiences can never be the same, you can identify with the constituent feeling because you have also felt it. It is not giving advice or “sharing” experience. It is the acknowledgment that you are present and human and willing to be there silently or listening, making eye contact etc…

Interesting topic and a worthy practice. I applaud you for pursuing it.

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I agree with BentTree - “acknowledging that the other is human just as you and although your situations and experiences can never be the same, you can identify with the constituent feeling because you have also felt it”. One may or may not choose to act charitably toward the other person - having been homeless, I can empathize with homeless people, but I may choose not to give money to a panhandler. There may be situations in which I would choose to hurt someone - to defend myself, for example, but that doesn’t change the fact that I recognize their humanity. I have caused harm to other people in my past. If someone is like I once was, I can empathize, but I’m not going to just let them harm me.
All religions that I know of have empathy among their highest spiritual ideals. Many or most traditional hunter/gather peoples recognize the spirits of the animals they hunt. There are countless examples of rituals and rites to honor the spirits of the food animals. This is a way of acknowledging that the animals are like us - participants in the play of the Creator, however the Creator may be imagined - and that they deserve respect. Trees, rivers and other non-animal examples of Creation receive the same respect.
The rewilding I want must include empathy. Without this sacred ideal, without recognition that all creatures are worthy of respect and even love, any social structure would be oppressive.

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