Empathy is nothing but the awareness of the feelings and emotions of others and the willingness to respect them. It gives you the patience to listen to others, their problems and fears even during times when you can do nothing to change their situation. Empathy differs from sympathy because when you develop sympathy for a person, you are feeling sorry for their misery and wants to help them in some way whereas when you are empathic to a person, you imagine yourself in his/her situation and try to understand what would they be going through.
Mindfulness can be used as a very good tool to enhance your feelings of empathy. In this article, we are exploring the relationship between empathy and mindfulness.
Mindfulness Is Self-Empathy
We are often told about the importance of standing on the other person’s shoes and developing a perspective of their feelings and emotions. However, before we do that, it is important to cultivate self-empathy by developing a true understanding of our own feelings. Developing this self-connection is important to connect empathically with others.
How Does Stress Affect Our Empathy?
Emotional stress imprisons us in our own problems so much so that we care so little about what others around us are feeling while we are stressed out. In fact, it is quite a struggle to maintain our composure in a challenging situation when we are already stressed out. If we didn’t have all that stress, we might be able to handle that situation with more patience. We all might have noticed this in our own lives. Practicing mindfulness is an excellent way to reduce stress and thereby cultivate empathy in ourselves.
Scientists studying empathic response generated from the brain have suggested that cingulate cortex and anterior insula are the key brain regions regulating empathic response. A recent study has investigated the ways in which meditation impacted brain structure. The results of that study suggest that meditation has an impact on many brain regions including the anterior insula and cingulate cortex.
In a study exploring the relationship between mindfulness and empathy, a group of participants was asked to do any mindfulness practice for five minutes while the other group was distracted during that time period. After five minutes, the participants were shown the photographs of people’s eyes and were asked to guess their emotions. The group that practiced mindfulness performed much better in the test than the other group. The mindfulness group was also found to be more empathic when compared to the other group.
Can Mindfulness Training Turn Empathy To Meaningful Action?
Unless and until empathy makes people more kind and encourage them to do something to help others, its value becomes questionable. There is no point in understanding the sorrow and misery of people and not doing anything in your help to improve their situation.
Compassion practices taught as part of mindfulness training can contribute to enhancing your social connection and developing altruistic behavior.
A research team developed a cool study to find out the link between mindfulness and kindness.
They formed two groups, a cognitive training group and a mindfulness training group. The mindfulness group was given online mindfulness instruction for three weeks in a row. The cognitive training group was also given three weeks of online training but they weren’t trained in mindfulness.
After three weeks of training, the participants were asked to come to the research office to complete the study. There were three chairs set in the office lobby and before the participant arrived, two members of the research team sat on two chairs. The participant came and sat on the remaining chair.
After a minute later, a member of the research team came to the lobby in crutches and wearing a walking boot. She didn’t have any problem in the leg in real but that was all part of a plan. The researchers noted if the participant showed willingness to give up their seat to the person with the broken foot.
After the study was over, the researchers found that people who received mindfulness training gave up their chair at twice the rate with which individuals who got cognitive training offered their seats to the person with a broken foot.
The scientific studies investigating the connection between mindfulness, kindness and empathy are only in their starting stages and hence many questions are left to be answered. Empathic distress has to be distinguished from compassion because the former is associated with negative emotions while compassion brings out positive results.
It is important to note that most data relating to the connection between empathy, mindfulness and kindness are obtained from studies involving adults. Childhood and adolescence are important stages in the life of an individual that plays a crucial role in cultivating empathy and kindness.
Empathy that converts to compassion is the key to becoming a person who genuinely cares about other’s happiness.