Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?
—Henry David Thoreau
How can you recognize what never before has been considered? See what you don’t believe? Discover what you don’t even know to look for? Discern that your reality is a view refracted through your own formulaic lens?
Empathy hinges on an initial reflection on our own experience, as well as resonates with the experience of another. This emotional contagion allows us to both predict how our words and actions will influence others, as well as to move beyond our own subjective awareness. To enter the subjectivity of another requires creating a common ground for sharing the experiences and resonances with another.
All signifiers of personal meaning and construction (reality, relationship, experience, perception) carry the unspoken foundation question: From whose point of view? This is what empathy is primarily about: to really get another’s point of view and convey it while not abandoning our own point of view, To see beyond our own point of view may include the previously unrecognized, disregarded, unacknowledged, or taboo. True empathy uses the vantage point of the listener to be in the moment with the speaker to move together to a new place of reflection, understanding, or meaning. Two divergent pathways meet, as L. W. Sander has described in infant research, and both are changed.
Empathy is to place ourselves in the inner world of another person without getting lost there. Empathy describes a listening perspective positioned inside the experience of another, to resonate with and understand his or her subjective reality, an entire mental state. This learning affects our brains. Parents, therapists, coaches, and teachers are all brain surgeons, each training parts of the brain.
All the present moments of lived experiences, sewn together, create an evolving pattern of meaning and relating, the basis for new implicit and explicit learning. Any new experience has an unknown future. Only repetition of the past allows prediction by preempting the future. A new experience moving forward is both unfamiliar and uncertain.
To be empathic with another, we must move beyond our own position to inhabit the experience of another, to know how the person feels, senses, perceives, and processes subjective and intersubjective experience moment by moment, frame by frame. It takes two for someone to be empathic: one to be attuned, the other to be open to allow that empathic connection. At times, empathy infers what another individual would feel if he or she could feel, to shine light into a dormant portion of the interior landscape. The unspoken desire may be, as one psychoanalytic patient brilliantly told me many years ago, I want you not just to empathize with me, but to stick up for that part of me that’s not coming through yet.
Ultimately (lastly for some) is empathy for one’s self, an internal attunement that may seem elusive and ethereal. This intimacy with one’s self precedes and makes possible true intimacy with another. Empathy involves self-awareness, to resonate with another by attunement to to ourselves. We can only be empathically aware of the experience of another to the extent that there is awareness of its register in ourselves.
The greatest thing in the world, it has been said, is to know how to belong to yourself.
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