Empathy and Compassion: An Important Distinction


Through taking the role of people, objects, and dream characters that can view life in very different ways, Integral Deep Listening, a form of dream yoga, develops our capacity for compassion through teaching and expanding our ability to be empathetic. When you “become” this or that dream character or personification of some life issue of importance to you, you practice selflessness, a core aspect of compassion. In the process you develop your capacity to empathize.

Along with your sense of self, cognitive and moral ability, empathy is one of the core lines of human development. It is the ability to look at the world from the perspective of others. People who have personality disorders, like sociopathy, borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, lack the ability to empathize. It is as if their development in empathy was frozen at the age of about four. They can take roles, like children and actors, and they can appear to be empathetic, but pretending to understand is different from understanding; pretending to listen is different from hearing. Rather than an act of respect or surrender of one’s own perspective and preferences, such superficial empathy is often manipulative,  designed to get others to give us what we want.  Compassion is different, It can be thought of as a higher octave of love and selflessness.  We can be loving and compassionate and still not be empathetic. For example, you can care a great deal for animals, children, and the sick because you “should,” or because that is how you were taught to act, and not necessarily out of empathy. However genuine compassion is an expression of empathy, and genuine empathy is compassionate.

Empathy is a core life skill that evolves as we wake up. People who lack it are psychologically sick – they have personality disorders. Most people stop in their development of empathy at the level of compassion for people and animals, if they get that far. They never learn to let go of their own biases, prejudices, and perspectives in order to really see the world from radically different perspectives. One test of this statement is the Buddhist definition of enlightenment as including compassion for all sentient beings. It would never occur to Gautama that a toilet brush could in any way be considered to be a sentient being, as it is a man-made artifact, or that a gob of spit in a dream could, would, or should be considered to be a sentient being. However, when anyone interviews a toilet brush or gob of spit using Integral Deep Listening, for example with the free app for Apple and Android, “End Nightmares Forever!” they not only find that such mundane and absurd objects are sentient, but generate an expansion of their definitions of compassion, sentience, and empathy. Society does not teach this skill or encourage it; why should it? You can be very compassionate without such a profound expansion in empathy. However, for those to whom development of empathy is important, IDL interviewing is one way to learn it and begin to grasp what is possible when we completely let go of our perspective temporarily and fully immerse ourselves in other perspectives, even those which we consider to be irrelevant, absurd, or meaningless.

For years IDL has viewed compassion as one of the six core qualities associated with enlightenment, along with confidence, wisdom, acceptance, inner peace, and witnessing. These six core qualities grew out of observation of the six stages of each breath and the processes associated with them:

– Abdominal inhalation brings oxygen and new life into the body, creating life and consciousness, and therefore is associated with awakening. This awakening, which is a process, is itself associated with the quality of confidence, which we can see in the audacity of a seed germinating and bursting through the soil into the light, negentropy, or growth, in the presence of a physical entropic universe that runs down and moves toward a state of random chaos, and the natural confidence of a young child learning to walk and talk.

– Previously, IDL associated chest inhalation with a surplus of life, or aliveness, which at best is used for service of others, to grow and become more through outreach beyond our basic needs. At best, such selfless service is understood as compassion, and can also be understood as a higher order of love.

– The pause at the top of the breath is a balance point between inhalation and exhalation, yang and yin, alertness and relaxation, assertion and release. As such, it is a point of awareness and wisdom, of knowing how to stay in balance in shifting life circumstances.

– Chest exhalation is associated with the ability to consciously release breath, expectations, preferences, attachments, hopes, dreams, addictions, and self-definitions. As such, it personifies the quality of acceptance.

– Abdominal exhalation is radical and complete surrender because all of life is exhaled. It is associated with the radical freedom of inner peace.

– The pause between exhalation and inhalation is a space of clarity, regeneration, and formless creativity, like deep sleep. It is associated with Buddhist sunyata. When it is conscious, it personifies witnessing, a core quality often associated with meditation.

Again, the six qualities of Integral Deep Listening dream yoga interviewing grew out of observation of breath. Notice that all are necessary and interdependent. None is more important than any other, and the cultivation of one supports the development of the other five.

In countless interviews occurring over years, a problem emerged: many interviewed dream characters and personifications of life issues were found to not score high in compassion. If you have done much IDL interviewing you will have noticed this phenomenon. It was assumed that this was a repudiation of waking definitions of compassion, based on “shoulds” and “oughts” and social moral conditioning. One “should” be loving; one “ought” to put the needs of others before oneself, and so forth. This is an early, necessary form of moral development that many people never outgrow. Indeed, most of the compassionate giving and donation of time and money in the world comes from this very limited understanding of what compassion is. Were it to disappear, the world would be impoverished and a much more selfish place. What is the cause of these low scores in compassion by interviewed characters? Does it indicate a distancing from such scripted and distorted ideas of what compassion is, ideas that we all learned as children? It appeared that compassion to many interviewed characters was more like the compassion of the sun, which gives itself selflessly, not caring if people are sunburned or die from too much heat. However, this understanding of compassion is so far removed from what humans consider to be compassion as to not be compassion at all. Such detachment and uninvolvement, such as expressed by the sun is so non-human as to seem either cruel, uncaring, or detached to a point that caring and compassion do not appear to be motivators. However, this created a problem: if we are not looking at compassion when we explore chest exhalation and a surplus of conscious aliveness, what core quality of enlightenment are we looking at?

Empathy is a type of selflessness that interviewed emerging potentials DO score high in. Their understandings contain and their comments when interviewed take into consideration your perspective and add their own. Because their perspective contains your own, they have empathy that transcends their own point of view and preferences, in that it is common to hear opinions and preferences in interviewed characters that are different from your own. For example, an interviewed remora, or sucker fish, attached to the back of one dreamer, fully understood the perspective of the dreamer. He didn’t want a sucker fish attached to his back! He felt threatened and saw it as a parasite. The remora explained, however, that sucker fish are not parasites; they do not suck the blood and eat the flesh of their host like a lamprey. Instead, they hitch a ride on their host and munch on food scraps that it does not eat. The remora said that it was a personification or metaphor for an expanded understanding of witnessing, which was completely unexpected. The dreamer had thought of witnessing as standing apart from oneself and watching the drama of life go by, without taking anything personally, whether during the day, meditating, or dreaming. The remora had a more sophisticated understanding of witnessing. For it, witnessing was interdependent. Instead of disattached and purely observational, it was enmeshed, involved, and engaged, yet separate and observing. This was an entirely new understanding of witnessing for the dreamer, and one that reflected not only the broader perceptual context of the “remora,” but  a complete ability to empathize with the perspective of the dreamer.  Interviewed perspectives like this remora are normally and typically found to be fully cognizant of our preferences, motivations, and point of view, yet have their own. Consequently, they are extraordinarily empathetic even though they often have little interest in human compassion. Therefore, compassion has been replaced by empathy as one of the six core qualities of enlightenment recognized by IDL, as a result both of observation of breath and practicing deep listening to the perspectives provided by interviewed dream characters and personifications of life issues. This is in no way a discounting, demotion, or minimization of compassion, but only a recognition that from the perspective of interviewed dream characters and the personification of our waking life issues, compassion is often not important, but empathy always is.

The conclusion to draw is that empathy is a poorly understood vital building block of the process of awakening, and that compassion is a human-based expression of high moral development. Enlightenment includes, yet transcends humanity and its ends. This is because enlightenment involves getting out of the way, even in our humanity, so that the priorities of life itself can regulate and control development. This is indeed an act of faith and may feel dangerously counter-intuitive. This conclusion could be used to justify all sorts of non-compassionate actions. However, these six core qualities are interdependent, meaning that each on its own is out of balance and requires the five others to bring it into balance and generate higher-order awakening. Empathy without confidence, wisdom, acceptance, inner peace, and witnessing does not produce enlightenment. Similarly, IDL views the solution of personal and the world’s problems as an increase in compassion as an over-simplification. If each breath requires all six stages, isn’t it likely that human evolution is much more successful when pursued in an understanding of the need to develop and balance each of these six core qualities?

This is why IDL makes a clear distinction between compassion and empathy. It is not a conceptual abstraction, but an evolution in thinking generated by innumerable interviews over many years.

You can work with each of these stages of breath in meditation to cultivate awakening. For more on this topic, see Waking Up by this author.

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