How Compassion Became Empathy

Buddhist compassion practice changed radically over the first few centuries following the Buddha’s passing. One way it changed is outlined in a paper by Buddhist scholar Anālayo: compassion practice became more of a practice of empathy. This development coincided with a number of other interesting changes in Buddhist belief and practice that we will outline in this video.

Papers mentioned:

Anālayo, “How Compassion Became Painful

Anālayo, “Compassion in the Āgamas and Nikāyas

Sutta mentioned:

Firebrand (AN 4.95)

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  1. Bill Gayner on June 13, 2018 at 7:42 am

    Hi Doug,

    Thank you so much for this excellent video. I appreciate the integrity, clarity and depth of knowledge you bring to your work. I had seen in Analayo’s book on compassion in the early Pali cannon and Chinese agamas that compassion practice emphasizes kind intention rather than empathy, but it is helpful that his article you referenced spells it out even more clearly. Like you, I love Analayo’s work, although I am sure you have a much more thorough understanding of it than I do.

    Analayo cites medical experts stating empathy in doctors leads to burn out, a claim that seems to me sadly ironic even if it has some empirical support. But it depends on how you define empathy. From a person-centered, experiential, or emotion-focused therapy perspective what is being described here is not empathy, it is enmeshment, where people are fusing with and identifying with other people’s emotions. This is why tonglen doesn’t lead to burn out: it doesn’t involve fusing and identifying with other folks suffering. I don’t do tonglen, but I assume the practice implicitly includes defusing/decentering from emotions, i.e., recognizing thoughts and feelings are not direct apprehensions of reality. Contemporary psychological mindfulness theory describes how decentering involves meta-awareness that disembeds us from difficult thoughts and feelings, and leads to disidentifying from them and lowering reactivity.

    A significant research literature indicates therapeutic empathy is key in successful therapy outcomes, not to mention enhancing self-care and therapeutic presence in therapists. Here, empathy involves being able to follow one’s own and others feelings and thoughts with a kind intention, as well as being able to reflect on interpersonal patterns happening in the relationship, without losing sight that we are different people. Empathy, i.e., being understood by a therapist in a way that facilities clients making better sense of and processing their feelings, helps clients feel safe. “As an active ingredient in change, empathy has three important functions in therapy: First it promotes a positive working alliance; second it helps to explore and deconstruct clients’ worldview and assumptions; and third… it promotes and enhances clients’ capacities to regulate their affect” (Elliott, Watson, Goldman, & Greenberg (2004). Learning Emotion-Focused Therapy. Washington, DC: APA, page 112).

    Empathy of this kind goes beyond the Mahayana compassion practices such as tonglen to which Analayo refers, in that it is interested in more than decentering, but also following and making deeper sense of one’s own and others feelings as well as arriving at core emotions in order to transform deeply conditioned maladaptive emotions conditioned by toxic developmental conditions and making sense of adaptive emotions in order to navigate life better and cultivate one’s own and others’ flourishing. This deeper level of work relates to sankharas, volitional formations, referred to as emotion schemes in emotion-focused therapy and schemas in cognitive-behavioural therapy. It is interesting to note that, while orienting to a traditional, abhidhamma-style of vipassana, Andrew Olendzki also translates sankharas as emotions.

    In exploring how to adapt mindfulness-based interventions to integrate more self-compassion directly into mindfulness practice in order to better address deeper sankhara/emotion scheme patterns such as maladaptive shame, I realized that wise compassion is empathic. This means providing more freedom in the practice for embodied experiencing of one’s own emotions and thoughts, including remembering, planning, imagery, and action tendencies. It has roots in Buddhist humanism and post-Theravada practice, teachers like Stephen Batchelor, Winton Higgins and Jason Siff, but as an emotion-focused therapy approach to mindfulness, is oriented to neohumanist principles specified by contemporary emotion theory (theorists like Frijda, Greenberg, Damasio, Lazarus) and based on a neo-Piagetian epistemology called dialectical constructivism developed by Juan Pascual-Leone and Les Greenberg.

    I am interested in Winton Higgins contextualist hermeneutic stance towards the early scriptures and Buddhist tradition which recognizes and values the inevitability of how our current perspectives will colour our interpretations of ancient texts as well as how Higgins and Batchelor cite Alisdair Macintrye in how living traditions involve evolving intergenerational debate over the goods of the tradition that is alive to the original generative questions of the founders. This enables us to explore how the past can reveal new possibilities for us in the present, while adapting our practices in the light of empirically based developments not available to previous generations, let alone the iron age. I believe this is similar to your secular Buddhist perspective, integrating Buddhism with contemporary scientific perspectives.

    Warm regards,

    • Doug Smith on June 13, 2018 at 4:33 pm

      Thanks Bill for the long and interesting comment! I don’t know a lot about how contemporary psychology approaches the question of empathy, except that there are more and less skillful forms of it, and more and less skillful ways of using empathy in daily life. Of course, this talk and the essay by Anālayo that it springs from are not intended to be full treatments of these mental states, but rather historical sketches that can get us thinking a bit about how ideas change, and about the range of options open to us in regular practice.