(I wrote this response as a letter-to-the-editor of the Boston Review after reading the September/October 2014 forum in response to Paul Bloom’s article, Against Empathy. Of course, the letter pertains to to a much larger crisis of discourse among the complementary healthcare community as it is represented by the larger culture.)
It is only with a bit of empathy, and a larger call towards clarity, that I write you with one question: in an entire issue of your fine publication devoted to empathy, you didn’t ask a single person working empathetically in a healing, energetic capacity to contribute. Perhaps that’s because you think that we can’t write or that we’re so stuck in new age terminology that your readers would lost without academic parlance.
But I wanted to write and say that the people working on the fringes of healthcare – acupuncturists, reiki healers, shamans, hypnotherapists, etc. – use empathy in a way that seems to support Bloom’s thesis. I completely agree with him that there is nothing more useless, and annoying, than someone who claims to feel your pain – and then looks at you, hoping that you will see them in pain. And then magically feel better yourself.
Although I certainly can’t claim to represent all alternative practitioners, I will speak for myself and say that working energetically in the emphatic field is the opposite of absorbing the problems of another person. When a person is in crisis, or pain, or stuck in an anxiety or panic, they are metaphorically and physically stuck, and this state of being always has a biochemical effect – whether that be a tightening of the throat, chest, stomach, lower back, etc.
And although sometimes when I am working with someone I do feel in my body the same places of discomfort that they are feeling, I always expel that sensation as quickly as is possible. Because the ultimate goal is that the person be led out of that tight spot, and into a larger field. Not to stay there and receive some advice.
Metaphorically this larger field might be a field of grass and dandelions; it might be the ocean, or the sky. It might be hovering over the problem like a bird. And from that vantage point of a wider perspective, a person can begin to cultivate the inner resources that it takes to turn the problem around; to start the healing process.
In other words, I am a facilitator of that journey. I lead a person into a state of relaxation that allows their body to calm down so that their mind can expand and find ideas, perspectives, resources, etc. that they can use to realign their inner (unconscious) states of mind. The state of empathy, to me, is a state not of absorbing the problem, but of seeing the end result: the person feeling better, more confident, calmer, and most importantly, no longer focused on the issue in the same old way.
I never take another person’s pain and suffering into my emotional or physical being. The client does the internal work, and so the catharsis, the change, the learning, is theirs.
Thanks for the compelling issue.