The Pursuit of Happiness: Developing Empathy for Others

Written by David Nichtern

I had a major epiphany once while playing with our family’s chocolate toy poodle, Leroy Brown. I realized that he’s just trying to be happy. Sometimes when he’s trying to be happy, he makes me happy — like when I go to the grocery store and come back and he acts like he hasn’t seen me for weeks. He’s so excited to see me that he jumps up on me and we just really have a love-off and have fun together. Other times, when he’s just trying to be happy he is annoying to me — like when he’s already eaten his meal and I’m trying to eat mine. He comes to the edge of the table and whines and barks as if to say, “what about me … I want your food too!” It may seem obvious, but it is now clear to me that he is actually not trying to annoy us at all — that is not his intention.

When we see and feel life from somebody else’s point of view, I think we can realize that for the most part, other people are just trying to be happy in their own lives in their own way. Sometimes their pursuit aligns with our own happiness, sometimes it is kind of neutral to us and sometimes it appears to be diametrically opposed to our own experience of well-being.

But it seems that it is actually very rare indeed that other’s motivation is to make us miserable and that, conversely, it is rarely our intention to make somebody else miserable. We are usually just trying to make ourselves happy (whether we are good at that or not is another story), and other beings are trying to make themselves happy. It is so simple when you look at it that way.

Sometimes it can be very productive, especially in a difficult situation, to actually switch perspectives and see from the other person’s (being’s) point of view. What does the situation look like to them? This switch in perspective is the basis for developing empathy. Some people are naturally good at it (like a diplomat or a social worker), and for some of us, it can be quite a leap.

There is a Buddhist practice called “exchanging oneself for others” that is intended to cultivate compassion and empathy — in Tibetan, it’s called “tonglen.” As we breathe in, we bring into ourselves that which is difficult, problematic and upsetting from the other person — everything we wish we could get rid of. As we breathe out, we send them every good quality — openness, clarity, affection, peace — everything we would like to hold onto.

Tonglen is an outrageous practice in that it reverses our normal tendency to include only that which is comfortable and easy and to exclude anything that is challenging or difficult. The result is that we open ourselves further, our heart and mind, and allow for a wider range of what we are willing to include and work within our lives. Ultimately, this particular meditation is liberating for the person actually practicing tonglen, but due to a possible shift in our attitude, it can also benefit others.

Beyond practicing tonglen, we can try to allow our mind to open further and take the shape of the other person’s mind. This is full-blown empathy, extreme tonglen in a sense. You can feel their walk, their body language, their energy, their breath, what their hair must feel like, their glasses, their anxiety, their wisdom, their suffering, their confusion, their brilliance, their hopes and fears. Parents do this for their children sometimes without even knowing it. I remember watching my son Ethan in Little League getting a hit and rounding first — the full rush of excitement, nervous about making it to second base — no, better stay with a single and be victorious!

Of course, that brings up the issue of adding our own projections onto the feeling of actually “becoming” the other person — imposing our own hopes, fears, anxieties etc. Parents are also famous for that as well. So the idea is to become the other person, filter out your projections to the best of your ability and then just come back into being yourself. You might see the situation somewhat differently at that point!



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