Planes, Trains, and ‘Empathy’

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Thinking and writing about religion and spirituality doesn’t, of course, make you ‘spiritual’ yourself. It doesn’t even make you a consistently nice person.

Ask my little son: why does a day of airy speculation about the yearnings of the human spirit mostly make Daddy tired, angry, and prone to throwing toys around the room when he gets home? There must be bomb-makers out there who have more patience for their children.

But it’s not (just) a question of hypocrisy. It’s the vast gulf between thinking about something and developing it as an aspect of your whole being. ‘Empathy’ is a case in point: much talked about, little practiced. (By me, certainly, and I’m sure I’m not the only one).

So I was glad that our Edinburgh public discussion group, ‘Conversations about Therapy and Spirituality’, was able to hold a properly practical event last week on the everyday challenges of ‘empathy’.

Edinburgh Waverley: easy to make connections of one sort, but not of the other...

Edinburgh Waverley station: easy to make connections of one sort, less so the other…

The session kicked off with three speakers. A railway chaplain, Nicola, talked about trying to make connections with rail staff, getting a sense of who they are and what they might need, even during the most fleeting of visits to their workplaces.

Henry, a poet, made the case for the human imagination as a powerful means of reaching out to others – more of that in a moment. And Carey, a psychotherapist, led us in an imaginative meditation on empathy.

One of the things I love about working with therapists and counsellors, who make up much of our group, is they routinely look beyond what you say, to the person behind the words – which somehow encourages me to do the same about myself.

Plus it becomes possible to do a group meditation, in which a ‘seed of empathy’ inside each person begins to flower as space is cleared for it by sweeping away mental clutter, and for this to be entirely uncontroversial and embarrassment-free.

The surprising truth is that these sorts of visualizations can yield dramatic effects. Buddhists, Christians, and others around the world have been at it for centuries, visualizing golden light passing from one’s own body into those of others, or imaginatively placing oneself in a scene from the gospels and letting one’s subconscious script what happens next – revealing something of itself in the process.

Ignatius of Loyola: the founder of the Jesuits may have let a naughty word slip out when he was hit by a cannonball on the battlefield

Ignatius of Loyola: the founder of the Jesuits may just have let slip a naughty word when he was hit by a cannonball on the battlefield

This latter practice has long been a specialty of the Jesuits, amongst the more liberal of whom you’ll find a willingness for practitioners of ‘imaginative contemplation’ to tell Jesus or God precisely what they think of him/it/her/them. The result can be a burst of vividly vulgar and violent language – but so much the better: if life has repeatedly slapped you in the face lately, that’s what honest prayer is going to look like.

It’s this idea of the power of the imagination in spiritual practice that most caught my attention at our event. Different sorts of people benefit from different sorts of practice – ‘pray as you can, not as you can’t’ – and I wonder whether for those of us who make a living from being verbose, moving into the imagination is an easier step than trying to transition straight into silence.

By way of example, one of the loveliest images of the evening – and, for me, quite sad – was that of railway tracks, with ‘empathy’ involving a jump from our own tracks (our routine thoughts, habits, preoccupations, etc) across to someone else’s. In our small group session I realized that very often myself and my son seem to be on entirely different tracks.

As a father, it’s tempting to demand that he jump from his tracks to mine, or face forcible relocation. That’s what parenting and education is, I can tell myself, never inquiring very deeply into what life on his tracks might be like.

But he can be such a pain! And this business of ‘inquiring’ really takes it out of you – lots of people in our discussions talked about how, with the best will in the world, at the end of the average day there’s just nothing left in the tank with which to generate the necessary curiosity.

My son, metaphorically represented

My son, as metaphor

Someone suggested music as the best form of emergency re-fuelling: even a few precious bars can ease our breathing, help the shoulders drop, and open us up just a little. Another option is to ask a question: though it may not seem like it now, might empathy actually be my default position? Might empathy be a matter not of effort and energy, but of returning to something natural, which was there all along?

As I write, the woman seated next to me on this plane is steadily opening her newspaper into my already tiny seat space – stealing precious cubic centimetres as I sit hunched over the laptop. I could make an active effort to see things her way – possibly she’s tired, maybe she’s engrossed in a story.

But rather than pile these rationalizations on top of my inner whining, what if I were to just do away with both? There’d be a kind of wordless empathy, the two of us sat here side by side. I might even gain energy, rather than lose it.

This won’t always work – the notion will be gone in a flash if her coffee tips into my keyboard. But it’s very liberating to think about empathy, and spiritual practice in general, as at least in part a natural state of affairs rather than just one more thing that needs to be done or achieved. A matter of shedding a burden, rather than picking yet another one up.


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