Words by: Meera Watts
Empathy is, by definition, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy sits within people differently. Some people naturally feel empathy towards everyone nearly all of the time. These types of people will often live to help others because they are wired to respond with love and compassion. Some of us feel empathy towards those we know quite well, where we may not feel it for a stranger in need or a helpless child. Opening yourself up to the process of mindfulness meditation will allow you to take stock of what is happening in you. This opens you up to be in tune with other’s needs and feelings.
Present-Focused Attention Training
Studies have looked to understand the correlation between empathy and mindfulness. What they found is that the most profound predictor of someone helping others is present-focused attention. This is coupled with a character of non-judgmental acceptance. These aspects of a person’s self and how they view life is what creates an empathetic mindset. It is believed that mindfulness can invoke feelings of compassion, joy, and empathy while helping others.
Research found that people who are in professions that are designed around helping others could risk burnout. They also found that someone with a mental illness could have a harder time connecting with others. It’s important for those working in a helping profession to practice self-care and self-awareness so as to not risk burnout in their career.
Open Your Heart Up
The ability to be empathetic entails you to have an open heart. A powerful way of opening your heart is through mindfulness meditation. There are many guided meditations available that help you open the energy that surrounds the heart. The heart chakra is just one of seven energy centers in the body that you can focus on while meditating. The act of looking into yourself and feeling what is in you without shying away from any emotions that arise is the secret to opening up your heart. When you are less fearful, angry, or confused about life, your heart has the space to be open. When you’re at this feeling place, being empathetic is just a natural part of the process. As you process what your thoughts are and let go of things that don’t serve you through meditation, you let go of the parts that would cover up your open heart.
Offer Yourself Empathy
Part of mindfulness meditation is being good to yourself. This includes offering yourself empathy. Before you can support others, you must first stand in your own shoes and understand who you are. Mindfulness will allow you to sit in your mind and really see what it has to say. It’s likely that your ego mind has some negative things it says to you constantly. This may be a source of stress or not feeling as good as you should. When we cultivate increased self-awareness and self-compassion, we develop connections through empathy. Understanding and connecting with others begins with understanding and connecting with ourselves.
Take Care Of Yourself
You’ve probably heard that it is essential to engage in self-care in order to “fill your own cup” and prevent exhaustion from giving too much. If you’re in a role where empathy is a driving force, you’ll want to ensure you offer yourself extra compassion, love, empathy, and general care. Mindfulness meditation is an opportunity to do something for yourself. Giving yourself the time to reflect on your life and your feelings is a way to keep yourself grounded. You practice self-love within your practice, you have the time to relax, rejuvenate, and stop the mind from chattering. Meditation has been proven to radically improve your mood and general state of mind when you have a daily practice.
Stress Management Through Mindfulness
Stress wreaks havoc on your mind and body. It confines us to our racing thoughts and makes it difficult to feel the pain and struggle of others. We tend to detract ourselves when we feel stressed out as our bodies go into fight/flight. Ironically, we shut out connection in moments we need it the most. If you’re expected to be empathetic when this is happening, you may find it to be difficult and that’s okay. Be patient with yourself. Mindfulness is a technique to destress and to allow you to once again feel connected to those around you.
Research has found the mindfulness can influence empathy directly. One study, in particular, compared experiences between two individuals. The researchers had one participant be mindful for 5 minutes, while the other participant was distracted for five minutes. Both participants were then shown a photograph of a person’s eyes. They were asked to state what the person was feeling based off of the photo. Participants also completed a written assignment to further assess their reaction. The results revealed that the group who engaged in mindfulness prior to seeing the photo accurately identified the emotion seen in the photograph compared to the distracted participants. In other words, they found the mindfulness group to be far more empathetic.
It’s vital to practice self-compassion in order to cultivate empathy within yourself. By doing so, we are preparing ourselves for deeper connections, as empathy becomes a natural part of our day-to-day interactions. You have to be intentional about cultivating empathy towards yourself first. It is necessary to be aware of what fuels you, moves you, but also what causes you to feel anxious or unsure. Mindfulness helps us find the deeper meaning to our own existence, which then allows you to transcend your own insecurities. As you explore your own mental state, you can better relate to people. This is where your empathetic self sits.
Meera Watts is a yoga teacher, entrepreneur and mom. Her writing on yoga and holistic health has appeared in Elephant Journal, CureJoy, FunTimesGuide, OMtimes and others. She’s also the founder and owner of Siddhi Yoga. Learn more about her journey here.