As the world battles with the new normal we have all had to face in recent months, the need to connect with each more deeply is ever increasing. The ability to stand in the shoes of others, to truly empathise with their reality and its impact on them, is set to be a skill which we need to use ever more often.

Being empathetic creates the intention to listen to others, with compassion and thoughtfulness, in a way that draws you together. In tough times it is this ability that will connect us and give us a shared understanding, both in our yogic practice and in life. Sympathy is often confused with this connectivity but the reality is that where empathy brings us together, sympathy pulls us apart. When you sympathise with someone you create distance between you. You look at their reality with kind pity but you do not take steps to lean further into understanding their reality or how they are actually feeling within it.

If you think back to the people who have had the most influence in your life. How would you describe the communication between you? Was it meaningful, fulfilling and accepting in understanding who you truly are? The chances are those people were the ones who were openly active in listening to you, understanding what you were trying to say and able to see the world through your eyes. They were empathetic at their core and in turn you probably returned the favour.

We know that there are two forms of empathy; emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy is the form that allows us to feel how another is feeling (to feel the same emotion), and cognitive empathy allows us to understand how another is feeling and take on their perspective. Emotional empathy is the form of empathy that happens automatically, without us needing to consciously focus on it. It is driven by neurons in our brains called Mirror Neurons which allow us to respond naturally to someone else’s emotions in a similar way.  These neurons are also responsible for making you yawn when you see someone else yawn. In fact, I would bet money on the fact that by the time you end this sentence about yawning, you will indeed have yawned. That’s how powerful our mirror neurons are.

The discovery of mirror neurons has been one the most important neuroscience discoveries of recent times, and it is these neurons that underpin our ability to naturally empathise with others. These neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking, or if we put this another way, by ‘thinking with feeling’. Emotional empathy is the more primitive of the two forms of empathy and it is much more subjective as it is the automatic response to how other people feel – e.g. sadness, excitement, fear or anxiety. 

The second form of empathy, cognitive empathy, is more deliberate. It activates the pre-frontal cortex within the brain, which is where language is processed, and it is a triggered response with considered focus.  Cognitive empathy is something that all teachers and students can consciously hone – unlike emotional empathy which happens “to” us – cognitive empathy is a skill that can be truly be nurtured within teams. The more we practice it the better we can use it, just like when we discover new skills in a class.

To truly take on the perspective of another, to empathise with them, is a far more valuable skill than sympathy ever can be. Whilst sympathy is a kind and caring emotion that comes from a genuine place, it is empathy that allows us to create deep connections that can provoke positive change and shared action. Empathy brings us together, it is an equalizer, and it allows us to share in another person’s viewpoint without judgement as we feel ‘with’ them. Fundamentally, empathy is a choice and after months apart in early and mid 2020, any facet that allows us to authentically create more cohesion and connection between us all, is a choice worth making.

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