Updated: Feb 18
In September, we briefly outlined how an empathetic approach to raising children can have far-reaching benefits in their development. If you missed it, find it here: “How Empathy Plays a Part in Raising Children.”
Many people expressed feeling it was easier to show and practice empathy when dealing specifically with children. It’s almost as if the concept of empathy, when applied to grown adults, becomes suddenly abstracted and harder to implement. After all, children are young, have not had much life experience yet, and frankly might just not know any better!
If you are reading this, you are probably an adult and more than likely have a job or something resembling a workplace. In the United States, small businesses have an average workforce of ten employees.1 Regardless of a business's size, everybody is generally trying to get along with one another. Some achieve more success in that than others.
Today we will learn from Thích Nhất Hạnh, an esteemed Buddhist monk well-known for his views on empathy and mindfulness. Once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Hanh does a great job of reminding us that compassion and empathy can be extremely simple.
“When someone is truly listening, you feel it; when someone pretends to listen, you know.”
We are all capable of the first type of listening and also equally guilty of the latter. In the past, when we pretended to listen, it probably wasn’t because we didn’t care. Our minds are easily distracted and tend to wander at the most inopportune times. Now think about a time when you were the one being forthcoming with someone and they only kind of listened.
Hạnh believes that when you listen to someone you listen “with only one purpose: to help him or her empty his heart.” Contrast this with what we generally try to do, which is give opinions, use reasoning, etc. It’s a natural reaction on our behalf. However, it injects our own interpretation and ego into the mix— and by extension, our judgments. By practicing Hạnh’s “deep listening,” the goal is this: “even if [they] says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion”.2
Empathy as Action
There is a misconception that we either have the trait for empathy or we don’t. Hạnh’s reminder is simple yet profound. “Compassion is a verb.” Empathy is no different. We should not be waiting to feel compassion and empathy but rather actively cultivate it. It is a conscious decision. As with all practices, whether meditation, better spending habits, or being more consistent with healthy eating, it’s a decision that becomes easier and easier each time it’s practiced.
“Don’t blame the lettuce.”
We at E.I.A. appreciate how Hạnh does an exceptional job of lowering the barriers we often experience with adults that aren’t typically present with children.
This brings us to one of our favorite quotes from Hạnh, found in his 1992 book “Peace is Every Step.” Despite the simplicity of the metaphor, it manages to encapsulate so much, including the concepts we mentioned in this post. If nothing else resonates with you today, we hope that this does!
“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”
On January 22nd of this year, Thích Nhất Hạnh passed away peacefully in Tu Hieu Temple, Vietnam, the same temple where he began his journey as a novice monk at 16. He was 95 years old. If you’d like to learn about his life, read his obituary in The Guardian by following this link: Thích Nhất Hạnh Obituary.