Why only empathy gets fatigued,
and why Compassion Meditation
Though we may not realise it, we are inherently designed for connection – both physically and emotionally. Within the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology, and certainly within the more recent works of renowned authors and advocates of well-being such as Matthieu Riccard, Richard Davidson, Bonnie Badenoch, Brene Brown, and Dan Siegel- just to name a few, there is an array of definitions and descriptions of what empathy and compassion are. Yet, though there may be this variance, there seems to be three fundamental consistencies that evidence-informed research supports:
- Empathy is a foundational skill to compassion, yet without self-to-other differentiation empathy can, and will, lead to exhaustion, burnout, or distress.
- Compassion instigates positive affect and action while placing boundaries on physical and emotional resonance.
- Learning to train the brain during compassion meditation, allows us to identify the self from others, and through this differentiation we create an integrated sense of altruistic love that is infinitely available.
So, what is empathy?
Simplistically put, empathy is our ability to attune to another. It is the ability to see someone’s suffering, whether physical or emotional, and to see what another sees or to feel what another feels – as Siegel states:
Empathy is the capacity to make a ‘mindsight map’ of you. It is how we take on others’ perspectives to see through their eyes, to sense another’s emotion, to resonate with them, and to consider the other’s point of view may have a validity of its own – even if it differs from our own point of view.
This resonance however, as Tina Singer (2011) and Matthieu Riccard (2015) highlight, has a dark side. When we resonate with another, specifically here another in pain, we are essentially creating a shared representation of suffering; this activates the same neural structures as those that indicate our own direct experience of pain. To be more precise, the anterior insula and the medial/anterior cingulate cortex are strongly activated during an empathetic reaction to pain. This same activation is linked to observable manifestations of subjective experiences, particularly here negative feedback loops of somatosensory and affective pain. This means that when we empathise with other we are literally “feeling” into their pain – whether physical or emotional.
Now, how and why is compassion different?
While the research on the precise distinction between empathy and compassion is limited, from what is understood we know that, rather than activating a shared representation of pain, compassion activates a shared representation of nurture and nourishment – an experience of supportive care and sustenance. And again, to be more precise, it is the left medial prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate gyrus (the gyrus is a part of the cingulate cortex) that have been shown to be active during a compassion meditation (2010). These are the areas of the brain that are most active when we intentionally instigate self-assured feelings of affiliation and connectedness through memory, quite often these are instigated from positive maternal memories of safety and attuned love.
Thus, while there is a definite overlap in the active areas of the brain in empathy and compassion, the area associated with interoception (the insula) is not as highly active during compassionate meditation. Meaning, during compassion meditation the brain has the ability to switch from a direct awareness of the self and internal bodily sensations, to an emmanating positive somatosensory and affective awareness of others and that promotes connection.
Compassion is feeling for someone; empathy is feeling as someone.
Compassionate Mind, 2019
It is only through differentiation, the ability to consciously and intentionally move in and out of our own and others suffering, that an integrated sense of altruistic love becomes infinitely available. Where we see suffering around us, where we hear of the pains of the world, there is an innate characteristic to feel “as”. And this somatosensory and affective “as”, this feeling that we are in another’s suffering can, if not meet with great understanding, lead us to levels of apprehension, agitation, distress, discombobulation, and discomfort that engulfs us; which in turn leads us to become discouraged, avoidant, and even desensitised to suffering. Yet, when altruistic love encounters suffering, when we meet another with nurture and nourishment – offering another supportive care through basic universal human needs and values – suffering manifests into compassion. This is what it means to feel “for”. This manifestation is what it means to identify the self from others, and through differentiation to create an integrated sense of altruistic love that is infinitely available.
When we repeatedly practice in loving kindness meditation – when we learn to first face our own suffering with non-judgmental courage, curiosity, integrity, dignity, self-assured empowerment and purpose, our bodies and our minds are opened up in compassionate connection. We begin to find the clarity we need within us to feel benevolence towards all others in all situations: a level of limitless kindness that is extended to all beings perpetuating well-being universally.
With compassion, we are “like a sun shining that illuminates without distinction all in its path.”