Empathy is one of the greatest spiritual qualities. Empathy may be the mother of love, because through empathy alone we get to know the other person, we get to see their world through them. Even though there is care and a sense of belonging in both love and attachment, they are not the same. Love is seeing the world through the eyes of the other person and attachment is making the other person see the world through our eyes. Without empathy there is no love, because unless we understand the other person, we can’t truly love that person with our heart and soul.
In our intense attachments to our way of thinking, we are often tempted to give others advice or have them see our viewpoint. But when it comes to empathy, we allow them to freely express their standpoint — without analysis or judgments.
The following is a story told by R.M. Smith (1819 – 1870):
A young student was taking a walk with a professor who was known for his kindness. As they went along, they saw a coat and a pair of old shoes lying in the path. They belonged to a poor man who was employed in a field close by and had nearly finished his day’s work.
The student turned to the professor and said: “Let us play a prank: we will hide his shoes and conceal ourselves behind those bushes. It will be fun to wait and see his perplexity when he can’t find them.”
“I don’t think we should amuse ourselves at the expense of the other person,” the professor replied. “Rather than hiding his shoes, let’s put a coin into each shoe instead and then we will hide ourselves and watch how the discovery affects him.”
The student did so and they both went behind the bushes close by. The poor man soon finished his work and came across the field to the path where he had left his belongings. While putting on the coat he slipped his foot into one of the shoes but feeling something hard, pulled it out to check the shoe. He was astonished to find a coin in his shoe. He gazed upon the coin, turned it round, and examined it again and again. He looked around him on all sides, but nobody was to be seen.
Putting the money in his pocket, he proceeded to put on the other shoe only to go through the same fate. Completely overwhelmed, he fell upon his knees, looked up to the skies and said aloud a fervent thanksgiving in which he spoke of his wife — sick and helpless, and his children without bread, whom the timely bounty, from some unknown hand, would help him feed his family.
“Now,” said the professor, “are you not more pleased than if you had played your intended trick?”
“Thank you, professor,” the student said. “Today, I’ve understood what it really means when they say, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
If we reflect on this story, we’ll discover that we can’t give unless we have a certain degree of sensitivity. This sensitivity is the seed of empathy. We can give someone grief or we can give joy, it all depends on how sensitive we are towards them, their life, their needs. So often, we take the presence of others in our life for granted. We joke around, we make fun, we share laughter. All of which is okay but when we do so insensitively, we don’t just hurt them but unknowingly we hurt ourselves too. Our spiritual progress gets adversely affected when we choose to be insensitive.
The more spiritual we are, the more sensitive we will be. No doubt, insensitive people seem to have their way more often, but they may not be at peace at all.
Sensitive ones progress on the spiritual path much faster and eventually learn to find bliss within, while being a source of strength for others.
Examine the lives of the greatest sages, prophets and messiahs, and we can easily spot a common trait: they were highly sensitive to the needs of those around them. It was through their sensitivity that they could be compassionate. It was due to their compassion that they made, and still continue to make, a significant and positive impact on our world.
Empathy, love, compassion and charity come naturally to the sensitive person. World needs such people.
We can develop sensitivity by being mindful. We need to watch our words, our actions, our thoughts and observe others. When we observe them without judgments, we may even begin to appreciate what it’s like to be in their situation.