Empathy (Wise Speech 2)


Lingzhao’s helping.


One day, Layman Pang and his daughter, Lingzhao, were out selling baskets. Coming down off a bridge, the Layman stumbled and fell. When Lingzhao saw this, she ran to her father’s side and threw herself to the ground.


“What are you doing?” cried the Layman.


“I saw you fall so I’m helping,” replied Lingzhao


“Luckily no-one was looking,” remarked the Layman.


What’s important here is Lingzhao’s baffling response to her father lying on the ground. We expect her to reach her hand to him. So, what’s going on?


In Zen, there’s a strong tradition of mulling over koans to gain enlightenment. Koans are questions and stories to break habitual ways of thinking. The story above is my favorite koan in The Hidden Lamp edited by Florence Caplow. It’s the story of the eccentric Pang family. Layman Pang had been a senior bureaucrat and gave up an upper middle-class life and moved to a small poor village with his family. The daughter Lingzhao was said to have a level of clarity that surpassed that of either parent, who were themselves highly accomplished practitioners.


If you’ve read the blog on honesty, you’ll be aware that this is the second in a series about Wise Speech, one of the Buddha’s wisdom practices.


The Buddha outlined four immeasurable qualities, one of which is compassion. They are called immeasurable qualities in Tibetan because they’re given constantly to all beings across all times and the effects are long-lasting. That is, they’re immeasurable in all ways.


However, to know when we’re compassionate can be tricky. Often, it comes from feeling sorry as reflected with comments like The Poor Ukrainians. It must be awful. So close to empathy but yet so far away.


Pity, what the Buddha called a near enemy of compassion, is a subtle form of objectification and emotional avoidance. Poor thing. A person saying this is coming from above and looking down. There’s no real engagement with supporting the person. And if a person offering help comes with this perspective and the help is declined, the giver may feel indignant and become self-righteous.


The word patronize is interesting for its 2 meanings. Patron as a noun means to support and encourage and the verb to patronize means to act this way which is why regular customers patronize particular shops. However, the adjective to be patronizing is to speak with condescension. Etymonline.com says this term came into use in the 1700s. It was a time when poverty was rife in England and wealthy women were doing their good works much like my grandmother in the 20th century, turning up to charities in a Rolls Royce wearing her fur coat in order “to help the poor and unfortunate”.


Here's a contemporary take on the same issue. The blog Stuff White People Like takes a gentle stab at the progressive Left liberals in Knowing what’s best for poor people. I was dismayed to discover how stereotypical my attitude was and how much I'd misunderstood compassion.


"White people spend a lot of time of worrying about poor people. They feel guilty and sad that poor people shop at Wal*Mart instead of Whole Foods, that they vote Republican instead of Democratic, that they go to Community College/get a job instead of studying art at a University.


"It is a poorly guarded secret that, deep down, white people believe if given money and education that all poor people would be EXACTLY like them. In fact, the only reason that poor people make the choices they do is because they have not been given the means to make the right choices and care about the right things.

A great way to make white people feel good is to tell them about situations where poor people changed how they were doing things because they were given the ‘whiter’ option.


"But it is ESSENTIAL that you reassert that poor people do not make decisions based on free will. That news could crush white people and their hope for the future."


And now we move to the other near enemies of compassion.


The second near enemy is idiot compassion, also called enabling. According to Pema Chodron, idiot compassion is when we avoid conflict and protect our good image by being kind when we should definitely say “no”, and perhaps later, we might regret our inaction.


The third subtle near enemy is despair where a person is so overwhelmed by another’s pain it becomes anguish to the point of immobility for instance, doomscrolling and passive social media use.


So, how do we empathically interact with people?


The book Rapport by the Alisons recommends 3 steps to engage empathically with a person.


First, become aware of your own emotional landscape linking thoughts and feelings. Tap into what’s driving the desire to help. Take the example of giving to a person on the pavement begging.


  • How much is the help offered to alleviate your own shame or guilt?

  • What outcomes are you expecting from this person about the gift?

  • If you gave an apple bought for $1, how would it differ from giving a $1 coin?


The second step is to avoid becoming competitive with who suffered more. Check in with yourself whether you feel hard done by and if your life is tougher than another’s. For instance, do you feel compassion for the very wealthy? If you saw Jeff Bezos begging on the pavement, would you give?


The third step is to imagine the world from the person’s perspective. If it were you sitting on the pavement receiving this, how would you feel?


So to recap the steps for empathic behavior,

  1. Feel your emotional response

  2. Don’t compare your situation with theirs

  3. Imagine the world from their perspective.

And now returning to the story about Lingzhao helping her father. By throwing herself next to her father, Lingzhao was in the best position to help because she understood her feelings, wasn’t competitive and most importantly, she saw the world from his perspective.


They were in it together.


Credit: Photo by Milan Rout from Pexels