Empathy is understanding what another person is feeling. It is an important element of compassion. Compassion is an active process that relieves suffering, both for yourself and others. When you are compassionate with yourself, you feel better. When you are compassionate with others, they feel better and you feel better.
Both empathy and compassion are skills. Our brains are wired to reflect and feel each other’s emotions. We read obvious and subtle clues from others and we constantly broadcast our emotional states for all to see. We read and broadcast emotional states through our facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, scents, and texts. We use our emotional states to attract and repel people and we are repelled by and attracted to others based on the emotions that they project.
We do much of this attracting and repelling, reading and broadcasting, subconsciously. If somebody is screaming in our face, we can reasonably interpret that they are angry. They feel anger, they broadcast anger, we read anger, and we understand that they are angry. We do that so easily and so regularly that we don’t think about it. What we tend to think about is what that person is screaming about. Empathy happens behind the scenes, but we can easily bring it to our attention, which creates an opening for compassion.
If somebody is screaming in our face, we may have a hard time noticing our empathy and remembering to use compassion. We naturally become defensive to protect ourselves from the potential and actual violence of the anger. We would likely feel the anger so strongly that we would get angry ourselves. We could respond with any emotion, depending on who we are and who is yelling at us. What emotion we feel and project in response to the anger, will have an affect on the original anger. If we remember to use compassion, we can find a suitable response that will make the situation better.
When we practice compassion, we find ourselves caring about our own emotional states and the emotional states of others. We recognize how much we, and those around us suffer, and we acquire techniques that help us engage with and relieve the suffering.
To practice compassion, we begin by noticing suffering. If we are suffering, we practice compassion toward ourselves. We look into our suffering to see what may be causing it. We imagine what would alleviate the suffering. We think about what we can do to help ease the suffering. If there is something we can do, we do it. If we notice suffering in another person, we do the same thing for them. Like any skill, the more we practice compassion, the better we get at it.
When we practice empathy we notice suffering. When we practice compassion we ease suffering. We won’t always know what we need to do to ease another person’s or our own suffering, but with practice, we get better, and as we practice, we suffer less.