The dark sides of compassion―Empathy versus loving kindness

In this article I happened to come across they speak about empathy having bright as well as dark sides.

At first sight this sounds strange, but actually it is quite convincing.

I try to give a short summary in English here:

There is a widespread opinion that only empathy, the ability to put oneself in someone else’s position, is what motivates us to help others. Some scholars question that and point to the drawbacks of this emotion.

Sometimes empathy can be so overwhelming when seeing other people’s suffering that it is hardly bearable, and the only solution is to look away.

Empathy can also promote the exclusion of those who don’t belong to the group which is often used by autocratic regimes in that they evoke or suppress empathy towards a certain group of the society and so indoctrinate people.

Empathy makes us sometimes make unskillful choices, like directing our effort not to where it is most needed but rather to a minor problem but which touches us emotionally; or empathy can also make people vote for (real or felt) political underdogs like Donald Trump.

Empathy is an emotion that can be used for wholesome as well as unwholesome purposes, depending on the person and the situation. For example a sadist can enjoy the pain of their victim precisely because of their empathy.

To show empathy does also not automatically mean to actually feel it. Sometimes people show empathy because it counts as a positive value and they want to present themselves in a positive way, not because they feel it.

Some professionals who in their work are supposed to develop compassion and empathy (like doctors, nurses, social workers etc.) can sometimes suffer themselves too much from their empathy. The “passion” aspect of compassion becomes too strong (lat. “passio” = suffering), and as a response they develop an attitude of indifference and cynicism.

There are also other means than empathy to put oneself in somebody else’s position: It is also possible to change perspective on a cognitive level which activates very different areas in our brain than emotionally feeling with the other.

The most striking point from a Buddhist point of view was to me that they contrast empathy on one hand with the development of loving kindness on the other. That means wishing the other well without identifying oneself too much with that person. This can especially be important for professional helpers in order to prevent compassion fatigue―and indeed, while I was still working practising mettā meditation was of great benefit for me!

There is this study where two groups of people were trained in two different types of “meditation”: One called “training of empathy” where the person was told to intensively put themselves in someone else’s position and reproduce their feelings as accurately as possible. With the other meditation type called “loving kindness” the person was told to develop a thoroughly kind and benevolent attitude towards the other. When after some weeks of training the two groups were shown movies with people in distress the probands of the empathy group showed much more distress themselves, whereas those of the kind attention group kept a much more positive spirit. And also the latter ones proved more ready to help others. To summarise, developing loving kindness is more eligible to promote altruistic behaviour than pure empathy.

From a Buddhist point of view this might not even be so surprising. If we look at the brahmavihāras, mettā is in the first position and karuṇā only in the second. And there is certainly a reason for that. We need to develop a firm foundation of mettā first before being able to develop compassion without overburdening ourselves. And just being able to feel what the other person feels can of course be helpful and necessary, but in and of itself it is not enough.

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Nice, thank you for that. It’s always interesting to see how these teachings relate to lived experience.

We always recommend that people start the brahmaviharas with metta, and this seems to give some evidence that this is the right approach.

From a Buddhist point of view, you can’t really have “too much” empathy. It’s not a matter of reducing empathy, but of increasing other positive qualities so they are in balance.

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It’s one of the most tricky questions/observations that I labour to explain to others about Buddhism: the relationship between dispassion and positive emotions/states of mind.

We are very often accused of being unfeeling and apathetic - consider for example the powerful words of Venerable Sariputta in SN 21.2 , where he declares that "There is nothing in the world through the change and alteration of which sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair might arise in me.”

In my understanding, karuna in a Buddhist context is somewhat complex, not so accessible or straightforward experience, as it is in the usual sense. At the beginning of my practice I remember revolting against mettabhavana because it seemed to force a certain feeling that I did not naturally experience. Now, with a different understanding and attitude, I practice it so regularly, even without sitting cross legged at all! The emotions that are associated with metta and karuna, in a Buddhist context, although incredibly profound and unique, yet are never ‘overwhelming’. They are almost unrelated to the kind of grasping sympathy that the article seem to be considering. We do not suffer because someone else is suffering; and thereby end up being “two” rather than just one sufferer in the world! We just feel a profound kind of ‘benevolent wish’ for the other to transcend his or her suffering: to understand the four Ariyasacca and the three Lakkhana, and become free of that “suffering self”. And further we feel a certain urge to spare no effort in our disposal to contribute to that result in others; and that same urge become so instilled in our extinguished hearts to the extent that it makes some of us spontaneously careful about the life and safety of tiny and dainty creatures around us. In other words, we sympathise with others not because they are actually suffering, but because they ‘think’ that they are, and because they don’t know how to get out of their suffering “selves”.

Karuna for me has been a kind of “wishing”, or even “longing”, not that suffering may no longer befall others, but that they may transcend it when it befalls them. For the attainment of nibbana is not possible for one who does not suffer and does not contemplate suffering and learn the path of transcending it. This wishing or longing with regard to oneself and others, can sometimes become overwhelming, even as to bring tears in the eyes. But even then one is not suffering; one is only experiencing saŋvega, a very unique spiritual experience -it seems- the like of which there is non!

May all beings transcend their suffering. :pray:

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From what I have experienced the drawbacks of empathy or the brahmaviharas is when they are out of order. Only Metta with not enough Upekkha for instance. Seeing the ways in which we can try to help but in many cases we are (often strikingly) limited in what we can do for others for instance. Just my thought :slight_smile:

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