Compassion and empathy. It’s easy to say these virtues should be inherent to everyone’s daily lives, but truly comprehending what this means can be far more difficult. So what is compassion? What is empathy? Is it giving to those who have less? Is it volunteering at the local animal shelter? Well, yes and no. While these individual acts are expressions of empathy and compassion, living by these principles is a different idea all together.
First, let’s define what these terms mean. Empathy is feeling the emotion of another. It’s not just feeling for someone else’s hurt; that is sympathy. No – empathy is experiencing the emotion of another as if it your own. It’s the ability to take a step into someone else’s shoes, and understand what they are feeling, and why they are feeling it. Compassion is this action that succeeds this emotional connection. It’s when you act not for your own benefit, but to ease the pain and struggle of another. Empathy elicits compassion. So, how can we learn to be empathetic?
These two abilities make up the feeling dimension of wellbeing. When was the last time you sat quietly and reflected on your current emotional state? Are you stressed? Are you hurting? Are you sad? Now go further. Ask yourself why it is that you are feeling that way. Run through the series of events that led you to this feeling. Being able to get to the core of your feeling leads to an awareness of your internal state. This is called interoception, and it is the foundation for the ability to be aware of others’ internal states.
By being able to read another person’s internal state, you are able to connect with that person’s mind and experience what they are experiencing. If your friend is afraid, you will feel their fear. Or if they’re happy, your body will feel their happiness. Through this, we can fully embrace the entirety of who we are as human beings. We can begin to understand the importance of community, and help better our own relationships with those around us.
If this is something that you’ve had trouble doing in the past, that is ok. Empathy and compassion are not traits that we either do or don’t have. They can be cultivated, and learned. This is what WELLWVU is trying to do with Tent City this week. Tent City is a unique place where students from all backgrounds come together in unity for a single reason. The community that is created behind the Lair is a great place to start educating students on the importance of compassion and empathy in our lives. If we can all intentionally develop our capacity to care for others, then we can change the world around us.
Starting this learning process isn’t easy, but there are some basic exercises that you can follow that are highly effective at building the awareness of your internal state. If you’re interested, be sure to stop by Tent City this week and look for one of the bookmarks being passed out by WELLWVU. On it, you will find a meditation procedure that is easy to follow and works surprisingly well.