EMPATHY FOR OTHERS requires a minimum level
of calm in yourself. To take an extreme example, if you are hanging
off the top ledge of a fifty-story building and someone starts
telling you their problems, you don't have much empathy, do you?
And in a more mundane example, when you're scared or upset, your
empathy for others isn't as high as it usually is.
And it is true in the other direction too:
When you are calmer than you usually are, your empathy for others
is higher than normal.
Empathy is what allows you to really connect
with people. Empathy is being able to feel how another person
feels, to share the experience with them, to see the world through
their eyes. It is the most important state of mind you can cultivate
in yourself for the pursuit of closeness.
And having a calm body and mind really
helps. Experiments have shown this to be the case, and your everyday
experience confirms it.
The surest way to calm your body is with
what Herbert Benson called the relaxation response. When
you hold one word or phrase in your mind for a period of time,
you become calmer and that greater calm lasts for several
hours afterward. Here how to produce the relaxation response:
1. Choose one word or phrase to hold in
2. Decide ahead of time how long you will
go. Ten minutes is a good length of time. Twenty minutes is best.
3. Get in a quiet place and sit down. Don't
lie down. Close your eyes and think the word or phrase. Just
hold it gently in your mind. It doesn't matter if you have other
4. Your mind will wander away. After awhile,
you'll realize you aren't holding your word or phrase in your
mind at all any more. When you notice this, simply return to
thinking your word or phrase.
5. When your time is up, open your eyes.
Don't do this with a forcing effort. For
a few minutes you can let go of your planning, your worries,
your ideas, or the conversations you might have had or will be
having. The relaxation response is a refuge an island
of peace in an ocean of unpeaceful thoughts.
Doing this, your cortisol level (stress
hormone) drops dramatically and stays low for hours. Your increased
calm gives you more empathy for people, which changes the way
you interact, which improves your connections with people, which
improves your health.
All you do is sit quietly and hold some
simple word or phrase in your mind with your eyes closed for
twenty minutes. (Read
more about this.)
Something really surprising happens when
you do that. The simplicity of your thoughts somehow calms your
mind and body. The physical changes are dramatic. Blood pressure
drops. Stress hormone levels drop. Your heart slows down. Muscle
tension fades away. And some of these effects last for many hours
Try it. It is incredibly boring sometimes,
but ironically, that might be what is so wonderful about it.
Just like excitement and fear are almost the same thing, depending
on your acceptance or rejection of what's happening, boredom
and peace are almost the same thing, depending on your acceptance
or rejection of what's happening.
A feeling of calmness is not one of many
positive attitudes that can help your relationships, it is the
key state. It is fundamentally valuable. I spent many
years chasing down the wrong animal. I thought cheerfulness
and positivity were king, but they are not. Calmness is
king. And the cheerfulness arising out of tranquility is way
better than the cheerfulness arising out of agitation.
Those are the two basic poles the
first division of attitude: Calm is on one end; agitation is
on the other. Really it's a sliding scale with deep serenity
on one end and hysterical freakout at the other. Agitation is
the malady. Calm is the remedy.
All the attitudes we normally think of when we say someone has
a "bad attitude" are different forms of agitation.
Stress is agitation. Upset is agitation. Worry is agitation.
Anger is agitation. Trying to appear cheerful when you feel sad
is agitation. Forcing yourself to make small talk is agitation.
Impatience and intolerance are agitation. When you see it this
way, you can easily see why calmness is so vitally important.
When you want to create better relationships,
calmness is the most important attribute you can cultivate in
yourself. Calmness is the gateway to love, kindness, and affection.
Calmness enhances relationships.
You're a better listener when you're calm.
When you can listen calmly, thoughtfully, intently, the person
really gets heard.
And you're a better speaker when you're
calm. When you feel relaxed and secure, it's easier to let your
guard down. It's easier to know what you're feeling and easier
to say what you're feeling.
Calmness supports sanity (good listening,
thoughtful responses to events, sound decisions, etc.).
Agitation does not support sanity.
One thing is sure: The calmness you can
cultivate will enhance your relationships.
To cultivate empathy for others,
cultivate calmness in yourself.