In Lesson 5 we began to see how our happiness is linked to our concern for the well-being of others. Developing the state of mind — the compassion — on which happiness rests requires that we understand our emotions —those which discourage compassion and those which promote it. In this lesson we begin to look at emotional qualities associated with empathy — the ability to appreciate another's suffering, empathy — and compassionate generosity of spirit, sympathy and love. And we look at emotions that are harmful to ourselves and others.
We begin with empathy, a powerful force in the generation of compassion.
Empathy — a basic human feeling
When individuals — and societies —lose touch with basic human feeling, we see the results in the harm done: neglect of the poor, political oppression, war, concentration camps...
While we may prefer to see these as political or legal problems, the Dalai Lama urges us to see such events as powerful admonitions, reminders of what can happen when people — and the societies they make up — lose touch with basic human feeling.
History and current events show us that diplomacy and regulation alone can not prevent humans from harming each other. Rather we must learn to respect one another's feelings at a basic human level. The Dalai Lama is speaking of a basic human capacity we all have to empathize with one another.
When I speak of basic human feeling, I am not only thinking of something fleeting and vague, however. I refer to the which, in Tibetan we call shen dug ngal wa la mi so pa. Translated literally, this means "the inability to bear the sight of another's suffering."
Given that this is what enables us to enter into, and to some extent participate, in others' pain, it is one of our most significant characteristics. It is what causes us to start at the sound of a cry for help, to recoil at the sight of harm done to another, to suffer when confronted with others' suffering. And it is what compels us to shut our eyes even when we want to ignore others' distress.
Since empathy means projecting our experience to others, we can benefit greatly from exploring our experience of being shown kindness. In the previous lesson we explored how our lives are and have always been affected to the kindness of others, from our mother's care onwards.
The Dalai Lama observes:
A life lacking this precious ingredient must be a miserable one.
This precious ingredient is empathy — what we feel when others care for us and what we are being urged to cultivate in our own minds.