A friend of mine has been feeling surprised and confronted by loved ones’ beliefs – ones that are diametrically opposed to his own. You know the kind of beliefs I am talking about – ones around politics and racism and masks. My friend is a conscious man, so he recognizes that each of us has our own beliefs and he said he feels empathy towards them – up to a point. And he wants more. His approach to more has been to learn what leads to these different beliefs so he can understand them. But this hasn’t worked. It has just led to the discomfort of “their beliefs” not making sense.
What I am reflecting on this morning is that my approaching empathy through understanding is essentially trying to get into my heart through my mind. But my mind won’t give up enough control to allow me to go all the way into my heart. My mind wants to keep me safe and doesn’t know what “crazy shit” my heart is going to tell me. Like my friend, I have found that understanding often only gets me so far into empathy.
For me, the challenge arises when my mind wants to make sense of seemingly contradictory perspectives and beliefs. This leads to a dissonance that I feel as discomfort. My mind wants to know how I can possibly have compassion for someone that has fundamentally different beliefs than mine – ones that I just don’t understand and often think are crazy. It just doesn’t feel safe.
What I have learned is that sitting with the tension of these seemingly contradictory beliefs inevitably leads to a Third Perspective – one that holds both my perspective and that of the other person as relatively true and valid in relation to a greater whole.
From this expanded perspective, I know that a way to more empathy actually starts by fundamentally recognizing that the person in front of me is a fellow human being and therefore has an experience and perspective that are as real and every bit as valid as mine. I don’t need them to explain it to me so I can understand it and imagine it through my own lens of experiences. I can see that we started in the same place, and based on our respective life experiences, I took a slight-left turn and they took a slight-right turn somewhere along the way. I could very easily have taken that slight-right turn if my experiences were different. Now it seems we are far apart, but really we started in the same place – my fellow human being.
Diving below the stories my mind creates to simply recognize someone as this fellow human – essentially another me – feels like starting from the wisdom of my heart and allowing it to open my mind. It helps me get to a deeper level of empathy where I find myself living in Third Consciousness (which Meenal and I wrote about in our book Relating Revolution: All It Takes is One Person to Change).
Sitting in my humanness and sitting with another person’s humanness, even when it feels uncomfortable, is where true empathy begins. From there, understanding becomes both easier and less important.