Empathy and the Cultivation of Compassion

By Matthieu Ricard on May 04, 2009

Empathy is to feel what others are experiencing and to resonate with them. When we meet someone filled with joy, we also experience joy. The same applies to suffering; though empathy we experience the suffering that another person is going through. Experientially, these empathic feelings are similar to real joy and real suffering. Therefore, when an empathic person is constantly confronted with others' sufferings, he or she becomes continually affected by those sufferings. We find this happens to the most dedicated caregivers, such as health care professionals. Their deep experiences of empathy lead to either ‟burn out” (the inability to cope with feelings of empathy), or to a dysfunctional avoidance of others' feelings and emotions.

Last year, I participated in a study of empathy and compassion in collaboration with the neuroscientist Tania Singer.  We examined the phenomena of ‟empathy fatigue” which is wide spread throughout the medical community. How can a caregiver maintain the warmth of empathy and yet keep the courage and optimism needed to help their patient?

The meditators who participated in the study discovered that a way to deal with this challenge effectively is to cultivate unconditional love and compassion toward the suffering person. This is much more than merely resonating emotionally with the suffering person. Altruistic love, according to Buddhism, is an attitude that consists of wishing others to be happy and find the true causes for happiness. And compassion is defined as the desire to put an end to the suffering of others and the causes of that suffering. Such altruistic love can pervade the mind so that one wishes for nothing more than the wellbeing of the suffering. Compassion is nothing else than love applied to suffering. Such love and compassion can override the feelings of distress and powerlessness that empathy alone generates and lead to constructive states of mind such as compassionate courage.

A secular training in loving kindness and compassion thus could enable health workers to better serve suffering patients without experiencing the debilitating ‟burn out” that often arises from prolonged exposure to empathy alone.  It also seemed to us that even though there can be ‟empathy fatigue,” there cannot be ‟compassion fatigue,” since compassion is essentially a wholesome, positive state of mind, while empathy is only the tool that allows one to correctly perceive the state of mind of others.  The more one experiences compassion and loving kindness, the more one progresses towards authentic well-being, and becomes unconditionally available to others.