Welcome to our second episode in season one. We’ve mapped the season to ten episodes released fortnightly. We hope you enjoy this new audio adventure.
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Ability Awakens S1 E1 Empathy’s Profound Mystery
Welcome to Ability Awakens, a podcast about provocative insights in the arts of therapy, behaviour and spirituality as meaning making with Doctor Joseph Bowers and Doctor Dwayne Kennedy.
Empathy. What is it? How do we experience it? Why is it important? With us today we have myself, Doctor Joseph Randolph Bowers and Doctor Dwayne Andrew Kennedy and we’re going to have a conversation about something that most of us wish we had more of, I think, and some of us have in spades. Empathy. It’s a mystery. What is it really?
So how do we see empathy? Hmm… Good question. See. Or do we go further than just seeing? What is empathy? How is it displayed? When we think about empathy. When you think about… it’s an emotional response to somebody else that is finding life challenging, we display an understanding towards the individuals, for whatever reason they may be finding life challenging.
Empathy. What is it how do we experience it? Why is it important?
What we could learn from that to improve our lives and our relationships. For me personally, empathy was a word that I first heard more so in counselling training. It was a concept that’s used in therapeutic literature. It took me a few years to get my head around that, but also to look at empathy more from a cultural point of view. And culturally, I think where it’s like compassion or gentleness or forgiveness were more readily available to me, given my cultural background. I think that empathy opened up a new vista for me, and raised a lot of questions. Anyway, I’d like to ask initially, Dwayne, how do you see empathy?
It’s amazing that we ask a question where we see empathy. I believe that empathy can be displayed and seen. And just supporting somebody like they might be going through a process of grief and loss, and we display an understanding because everyone at some time has been through that process of loss, and loss can be seen in many ways, loss of loved one, loss of something that we care about deeply, and empathy is a feeling, like we feel what the other person is going through. To display that deeper understanding, empathy can be just sitting with somebody in silence and sharing that silence with them. In quietness.
Sounds like you’re talking about an intuitive feeling, like you can tune into where the other person is at.
It’s interesting that you say an intuitive feeling. And when you started the conversation, I was thinking, Oh my God, empathy is nearly intuitive. I believe that like there are people, and you did say before in our conversation before we started, that some people can have it by the bucket full, empathy. Others are learning to have empathy, or they’re just coming across the word empathy. And what does empathy mean?
New brought up the idea of having the conversation about empathy and wondering what? What was really in that for you? That this word has become an important part of your life. I guess.
Just reflecting on people that we work with every day in our lives, every situation that we come across on a daily basis, requires some form of empathy to the challenges that an individual may be experiencing, and it may be just due to their child displaying behaviours that are out of the ordinary, and trying to get somebody to understand that process, or to understand what may be happening or looking at solutions and we bring into that space empathy. A response of, what is that like for you? When you’re experiencing that behaviour in your life that not only interrupts your child’s life but can interrupt your whole day, and we sit with that person, that that parent, that mother. For a period of time. And we bring into a deeper space of wanting and desiring to understand. So we display that empathy of this must be challenging. This must be difficult.
I hear what you’re saying in your practise of empathy. Wondering what your thoughts are about my earlier insight that empathy is not a word really that we grew up with.
I think kindness, compassion. Loving. And when we do enter a different space of, of education, we come across new words, we come across new ideas, we come across different ways to reflect. And it is a fine line when we talk about empathy. Because we’re sort of bridging all those compassion and love and patience and kindness. We’re bringing those into a particular focus where we’re utilising those skills but within the experience of empathy.
So empathy is like a basket in which all of these human experiences of inter relationship has become focused on a particular kind of presence or a capacity to be with another person and perhaps even be with yourself.
Think that’s really powerful. Just to be with ourselves and just to step back from life. And experience that in a different way. We have to have enough empathy in our own life to think that we may feel tired from something, we may feel exhaustion, and we have to have enough empathy for ourselves to step back and do something different. To regenerate. To recharge. However, you may see that, we have empathy for ourselves. So, it’s about being kind to ourselves in empathy. And using that basket.
Talking about regeneration and renewal of the person and how we feel empathy for ourselves so we, you know, we’re kind to ourselves, makes me aware of so many experiences of watching other people that I’ve been relating with or working with. Then how over the course of an hour or a couple of hours, their spirit, their energy is renewed, and their depression is lessened, their anxiety has lessened, their existential anguish in some respects is diminishing. Through the course of the conversation and at the end of the conversation, you know, they may even have a sense of peacefulness or resolution or light heartedness that didn’t exist before they had that exchange. What you’re describing today is that, all of those different skills are actually part, part of the basket of, of empathy, unlike a basket of flowers maybe, that we can give to another person when they most need it. To lighten their load and help them through the day.
I like how you have stitched empathy together. When we really look at that and when we sit with people that on a daily basis, for us, it’s a very interesting process because we’re reaching out. We’re putting our energy path out there too, and that’s that Empathy. When we’ve spoken to somebody and they come to the end of that conversation or that brief moment. They’ve become relaxed. They’ve found a solution to how to approach life in a different way. And empathy reaches out in a particular way where solutions can be found, when we do like deeply reflect on that experience itself like that reflection. And listening in empathy and bringing a different perspective to the challenges that someone may be facing. On a daily basis. And how that can lift them up.
It’s as if you’re talking about a spirituality of empathy. I’m sure I’ve thought about this before, but you’re articulating it today in a very focused way. And it’s kind of, it’s expanding my feeling. My heart is drawn back to childhood in a way, through this topic. I suppose the metaphor of the basket in the flowers brought me there as well. Thinking about collecting flowers for my mother and grandmother. And how strongly the impressions are in my memory of their smiles and how their eyes lit up when I approached them with, with a little bunch of, you know, just wildflowers that I had picked just for them. They accepted the gift really graciously and kindly. And i think it really did make their day. And when I caught on to that as a child, how you could make somebody’s day with just something so simple, with a flower, you know, and your own thoughtfulness and presence, in their life, that you decide to do that, you think about doing that in a spontaneous way and you’re just there. It opens up their world and changes their whole day, maybe even their week or even longer. You know it has an impact and creates a beautiful memory that lasts with that individual for a very long time. And this is how many, gosh, decades later with my mother and I asked her, ‘Do you remember me picking you flowers as a child?’ And she says, ‘Oh my gosh, of course I do. Those memories are beautiful, and they make me smile. And they help me through my dark days, my dark moments.’ I think empathy has that power, that quality in our lives, what you reckon?
I like this symbolic use again. It’s like maybe picking a flower and if we had working at an energetic level of looking at empathy, what would it look like? And when we choose a flower, there’s so many different types of flowers out there in the world, each flower representing something different if it be colour or form or shape. And when we choose that particular flower that somebody loves so much, it might be a Gerbera. Or a Rose. And we use that as expression of and extension of our feeling of empathy, our expression of empathy. It goes to a deeper level of expanding empathy. It becomes circular.
Holistic, in a way. Like embracing the whole, I mean.
I’m wondering, the word empathy itself… Some of the etymology of that word relates to the first syllable, the ‘Em’ of empathy and the ‘pathy’ of empathy. The second part there, the pathos to share feeling and to share suffering. In some sense, pathos can mean deep feeling, and it can mean suffering and anguish. It can mean a darkness, or it can mean simply a really profound emotion or feeling. And the “Em’ connotes how that feeling exists within us, and it’s interesting the word. It’s a bit different from compassion, which means to share passion in community. The ‘Com’ in compassion is a word that means share sharing with others. The ‘Em” in empathy means within the individual, within, within the self. We have an experience of deep feeling. And it’s a singular meaning that we have within us. And yet we’re talking about empathy today, as in how it’s shared between people and how it assists us to be aware of ourselves and what we’re feeling, but also to tune into how that experience impacts other people or how we can tune into what people are already feeling apart from our sort of influence in their situation.
Think I’d like to take it a little bit further. I’m just thinking as I’m looking out the window and I’m just looking at nature. Just sitting here and I’m just reflecting on the wholeness of our interactions of empathy with each other. But there’s a bigger picture to empathy. When we even look at the ecological depth in ourselves and what the planet is experiencing at the moment. I believe that we empathise with what the earth is experiencing, and what the earth is going through and what we see and experience in the changing weather patterns. So, we have a deep, deep empathy, in different, in many different ways. Say that that’s from an ecological perspective.
That makes sense for a lot of people. Just think about how people react to a full moon and how much it changes people’s sense of emotions as well, just one example. But climate change and the changing seasons I think are having a radical impact on people’s sense of themselves, their meaning and their feeling self as well. Here in Australia, we experienced spring and summer coming extremely early and it’s become a pretty common thing in the last several years and definitely part of climate change. The sun seems to be in a different direction than historically, and you know in any given month, and that has a big impact on literally how your day goes and how you interact with your environment.
Looking at all those signs too and we empathise with the wholeness from a sort of a microscopic level to a larger picture of our environment. What’s happening to us internally and what’s happening to us externally? And how we view that? When we use empathy, what are the things that we can see in the world that are changing? How are people moving towards empathy? And just in recent weeks, I’ve been really interested in just doing research on how people are becoming involved in environmental impacts like the desert impact on the planet and how that affects us. And how does this affect everybody? How can we change that? Are there people out there doing a change or becoming a part of that process? And I found over the last 100 years, which I find incredibly amazing, that China has been reclaiming their desert. And I’m not talking about like Australian desert where there’s trees and everything. This is like sand, reclaiming sand, and planning hundreds of thousands of trees. And in Saudi Arabia, they’re doing the same. And in Australia they’ve started the greening process again and I think on a higher level, this is empathy at its best. Empathy for the generations that are coming into the world, the generations that are here, and a bigger picture of like how we see the environmental impact through empathy.
So, empathy has a value even in social justice, maybe, and ecological justice.
Yes, because on a larger note, it’s actually keying people into what I see as an energetic pathway. We either literally open our eyes and smell the daisies, the use of the metaphor of the flower again within empathy. Or we choose to close our eyes and we want to bury our head in the sand, literally, and see the deserts expand across the world. So when we utilised that expansiveness of the flower and we want to see more of that in nature and we. So people are turning towards the empathy, to respect. And I think respect, really, when I say that, is a part of empathy, too. That’s that unconditional positive regard that we have for each other in those sacred spaces. But we’re having unconditional positive regard for our planet. And people are waking up.
She loves me. She loves me not. She loves me. She loves me not. She loves me. She loves me not. The Daisy. The perennial Daisy empathy. You’re entering into a sense of empathy as a social and ecological phenomenon. Really. That has a deep ethical value in our lives, and that is impacting all of us now so much with climate change. I know that personally because of having invested so much energy in planting trees all around my little property here in town and turning it into a little forest. But then during the last major drought that we’ve had here in Australia, I lost most of those trees and they had to be cut down for fire safety reasons and I will never forget the devastating feeling that I had watching those trees being felled, after living with them for several years and enjoying their beauty and their shade, and the sound of the wind through their leaves, and seeing the bugs and creatures all of the wildlife that they brought into this place. So much life, it was devastating watching them die and not really being able to do anything about it. That I guess is another level of empathy that empathy leads us to. To suffer with, to have compassion. To do something to, to try to deal with the challenges that are happening around us and in the world.
This is a big issue and I think like on a smaller level, if large countries can actually combat deserts, breaching farmland or breaching forest we having access to water sources. We live in a particular location. I’ve been inspired that you’ve been willing to plant more trees, but you’ve changed. You’ve reframed how You want to see your part that you play in nature. You’ve gone from native Acacias which are growing throughout Australia, to planting fruit trees, and I think when we look at that whole process, we have a deeper empathy. We want to bring in the bees. We want to bring in the birds. And we look at those fruit trees doing all of those things.
That’s very true. And I always had this vision of having a food forest around the places that we live, and I would so passionately love to share that with the world in some sense, because if all of the dead lawns that people have, you know, in the world, and all of the water that goes into feeding those lawns was given to plant trees that could feed us and provide local produce and be shared at local farmers markets. How much more rich and enlivened would we be, how much better would the environment be with the bees that are suffering to even find one flower to feed them now. They need people to wake up and to change what we’re doing. I’m quite surprised really this direction in the conversation I didn’t expect this to go in an environmental way and I don’t normally think of empathy in that way, to really be quite honest. And I wonder why is that. But that’s going to take me awhile to reflect on in our topic today.
When someone receives empathy, can this help them to grow?
Even displaying empathy in the smallest way, and that might be just through our words when somebody rings us up and they’ve lost their dearly beloved, and they’re in tears and you just see it or you just listen to that process in a deep way. And just be with them. And show that empathy, empathy extended in that way builds the foundations of relationships. That can literally change the behaviour of the other person. It can change the way that they view life. Just by having that empathy. By having that understanding. Even if we don’t say anything just because we are there for them can change that whole process of why me?
There’s certainly an aspect of presence in empathy that we just have to be there. Does that exist even if people are not aware of empathy?
That a good question. Because when we reflect, it can be an automatic response. Even like when somebody doesn’t know what to say and they’re just present, they truly don’t know what to say to the other person or they, they sort of withdrawal from that process because they go, I don’t know what to say. They ask themselves, how can I intervene? I believe that other person. Just needs that company. That’s the expression of empathy.
What is it like for the person who is displaying empathy? What’s happening within them?
That’s an interesting process too. When we think about empathy and how we may be expressing empathy towards someone at particular times, that empathy can be so deep and so profound. To experience somebody else’s loss. That we may even express tears in those moments with that other person. Because we feel a deep, deep connection. And here we go again. Connection. And when we look around us, even though we have spoken about many pathways through empathy, environmental, we you see the connection, our livelihood, just our being. And how we need the earth just to be. We need others just to be as much, and when we display that. From yourselves. We realise that deep, profound connection to someone else.
Where does this ultimately lead? A sense of empathy. Not so much in relationships, but within the evolution of the person?
Displaying empathy and in the whole experience. The other person that feels like their life has been so challenging right up until that point where they’ve had somebody come into their life and displayed as beautifully put it, into the metaphor, a bucket full of empathy. It causes a reaction within them. They have to react in a particular way. They have to literally change the interaction that they’re having with you. That starts to heal them. They start to unpack their issues on a deeper level. They loss their fearfulness, their trauma and through that empathy, and showing that deep respect, and that deep positive regard, we are literally helping somebody to rise to a point of healing. Giving empathy to others has taught me to reflect, even in a deeper way, of how I see life and how making those connections are important for others from my life.
Has this changed you over time?
When I reflect on that. Even though we may not even dwell on those words when we were younger or they weren’t present in our lives, empathy, we were displaying it. I really believe that people from an early age can have displayed empathy, and I believe particular people in our lives who were pivotal points, displayed so much empathy towards us, even if it was just one individual that changed that whole pathway for us, who encouraged us on the pathway to empathy or nurtured out empathy to become deeper.
I like that metaphor in the pathway to empathy. Can you tell me more about that pathway of empathy.
Just watching somebody on the pathway to empathy, like working with somebody that comes into your space several years ago, who displays so much anger and frustration and behaviours that are not understandable at the time. You watch them slowly grow because you’re sitting with them, displaying empathy, listening to them, displaying empathy, understanding them, and reflecting with them, showing empathy. And all of a sudden, they’re reflecting back to you of their day, saying this is what I’ve done today. I helped this person out in this way. The anger diminished, and the path of empathy shone through for them, just as much as you.
Thank you, Dr Dwayne Andrew Kennedy for such an insightful conversation. I am your host, Doctor Joseph Randolph Powers, we are Ability Awakens podcast. A provocative, insightful show about the arts of therapy, behaviour and spirituality as meaning making. Thank you for welcoming us in it and for listening and being with us today.