Compassion as a practice of shifting focus from the self on to another

Emily Dickinson was perplexed by this notion that access to truth has two dimensions, which she referred to as circumscription and circuitry. Circumscription refers to the outer reaches of what we as humans can possibly understand about the cosmos, the universe, and ultimate truth. The circuit refers to our individual existence, and the scope of what is at hand to us in our own lives as a tangled web of knowledge and experiences. She recommends that we should be be “gradually dazzled” by truth, that otherwise we might slip into weak-minded delights in our forgery of truth rather than standing bare within it.

I am perplexed by a different dichotomy: subjectivity. I have often defined true empathy as the recognition of another person as an independent subjective being. It stuns me how many instances there continue to be in society of a failure to recognize the subjectivity of another. How would our lives change if we could pause for just a moment to remember, to really consider the fact that this specific person has an incredibly rich and vivid subjective life, a personal narrative, a history, that they suffer and experience joys, and that all of this is as central to their existence as all of your own stories and experiences are to yours? What if we could do that not just for our closest, most intimate loved ones, but also for strangers on the sidewalk, or a person on the other side of the world who we might never meet? Would there be some sort of energetic cost to this, or would it instead perhaps be ever-expansive, a sort of endless portal into the possibilities, the range, the dynamicism of human experience?

The discovery I have felt is that subjectivity is relative; I am now experiencing the world from this point of view, from this body oriented in this way with this morphology and these sensory apparatuses, etc. However, if I surrender to a greater awareness beyond myself, my own singular subjective perspective, I can just as well accept that others are also bearing subjectivity, just from another point of view, another body, another narrative. So, for instance, we can look into the eyes of another and genuinely recognize another looking out back at us. If you’re really paying attention, (I think) that does something to shift our sense of reality. Suddenly it expands. Phenomenal reality becomes…ours, and not just mine. Subjectivity points back towards itself and beyond itself simultaneously. “I see you.”

At the same time, subjectivity is also interdependent. We co-constitute one another’s experiences. We create a shared reality. While I may show up a half hour late for a meeting, the expression that I have on my face (carefree or frazzled) when I do arrive has a role in how you respond. The self can scarcely be described or defined without instantly referring to the other, or others. We exist in matrix of interactions between multiple different subjective beings. It is a very complex system. So while I can recognize you as an independent subjectivity, I also recognize that at every moment that I interact with you, your subjective experience, and my subjective experience, are mutually participating and co-constituting one another.

This is the dynamic of social interaction that social and cognitive neuropsychology miss in the study of empathy: it is not a one-way pathway. Our social reality is not usually passive reception of others at a distance, but is usually unfolding rapidly, with online processing, during interactions. I think this is where interpersonal understanding gets really interesting.

I have been thinking a lot that so many people do not want to take responsibility for hurting another person. I understand this, or at least, I sympathize — to sit with the discomfort we may personally feel of shame and guilt that we have hurt another is very difficult. I think it is a very common experience for women in particular, and those who are highly sensitive like myself, to hear that we are “over-reacting” when we express that we feel hurt by someone. It does not matter. What matters most is that we are able to put aside our own judgments and extend care for another.

What amazes and impresses me about the experience of compassion, from what I understand of it, is that it seems to involve pushing oneself and one’s own worries and interests aside for a moment, to make space for another. I think that’s one of the most impressive things that a person can do.

I think that compassion involves allowing yourself to be something with another that does not seize the other into your own subjectivity. To truly realize, “This is not about me right now.” To get lost in the plot of another person’s life, to “take a walk in their mind” (Vashti Bunyan). To put your self on pause for a moment…let the mental chatter rest, worries go away, and shift your focus instead to what is going on for this other person.

And, it should be noted, I think also this is what empathy is not necessarily. Examined as an affective (emotional) arousal in response to another person, empathy does not necessitate care. Empathy may involve feeling what another is feeling, but not necessarily considering that the other person might feel something very different, or may respond to a situation differently than we might. Empathy can be a strange form of transposing our subjectivity and our lived experience onto another, assuming that they are one in the same, without recognizing, “wow, this person is not me.” I think this is something that is nuanced and that not enough people understand about the nature of empathy, and the nature of some of the deepest issues in society right now in interpersonal understanding surrounding issues of oppression and mistreatment.


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