As a topic of interest, mysticism includes thinking about theology and other spiritual subjects, and states or events of consciousness are certainly among them. In fact, it seems to me that those of us who are fascinated by mysticism spend a lot of our time thinking and talking about these things. To people just beginning to scratch the surface of mysticism, it could even look like that kind of thinking and talking is pretty much all mysticism is about! But mysticism isn’t just a topic of interest, or even a way of thinking. Mysticism is a way of life, and this article will join others in this blog by trying to offer an approach to its practical dimension. Said another way, today I’m inviting us to consider how to bring mysticism into our everyday ordinary experience and action, and more specifically by considering the practice of empathy.
What is Empathy?
Here is a definition of empathy provided by Merriam-Webster:
the [capacity or] action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
Let’s note that empathy can be in thought or in feeling, and in both at the same time. This is an important point, because most of us lean more toward either thinking or feeling in our way of connecting with and understanding others, some of us are at one of the extremes of this polarity, and all of us can find one or the other more challenging at at times. Therefore, as it is defined here, empathy is possible for anyone to practice at anytime, although each of us will vary somewhat in exactly how that practice comes most naturally in the moment.
How can Empathy be Mystical?
Mysticism is about the faith and hope in, and the pursuit of or opening to, realizing direct, unmediated, union with the Divine One. The essential mystical experience is thus a complete loss of any subject-object duality between self and God, and involves a dissolution of all concepts, feelings, and perceptions of any “other,” even if it seems to have been only for a brief flashing moment when reflected upon from ordinary consciousness. Yet empathy actually requires the subject-object duality of perceiving another entity with its own inner experiences. So how can it be mystical?
Many mystics who claim to who have had the essential mystical experience have realized in its aftermath that at the deepest levels of their being they were already intimately connected with God. In fact, Genesis 2:7 makes it clear that the Nishmat Hayyim (nishmat = breath, spirit, or soul; hayyim = of life) that animates Adam is God’s own breath or spirit, which in Christianity we call the Holy Spirit. This breath is obviously not literally the air we breathe, so the analogy informs us that the Nishmat Hayyim is just as necessary and universally present to all human beings, both around us and within us, as the oxygen that is essential to our physical existence.
Those mystics who have received and realized the essential mystical experience can know this truth as immediately as we each know our own existence – we are all children of the Divine One, each of us always in direct communion with the Holy Spirit, and thus we are always in communion with each other in our deepest or highest dimension of being.
For example, the Book of Acts records the Apostle Paul as preaching this:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth … he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. … ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
In her Revelations of Divine Love, the great mystic St. Julian of Norwich similarly says:
Our soul is so fully united to God of His own Goodness that absolutely nothing comes between God and our soul. … It is more worshipful to behold God in all than in any special thing.
And this is also the greatest significance of words Jesus Christ speaks in prayer according to the Gospel of John:
I have given them [my followers] the glory you [God] gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am.
And yet, it isn’t possible to be fully present to our individualized places in creation, and thus in dualistic interactions with others, while simultaneously having our awareness completely dissolved in the Divine One without the faintest hint of subject-object duality. It is possible, however, to be mindful that our individual beings are occurring in and of the One, just as the more or less distinct thoughts of a mind are nonetheless each expressions of and united with the mind that thinks them – their essence is one. In fact, just as the words prayed by Jesus suggest, the fully realized mystic can be immediately aware of union with and in the Divine One that both encompasses and flows through all our dualistic perceptions of self and others.
Because each human being is one with God at heart, it follows that empathy, the capacity or act of seeking deeper understanding and communion with another human being, leads us into deeper and more complete communion with the Divine One. The scriptures teach us not only to love God with all that we are, but also to love others as ourselves, because both are necessary for the most complete experience and expression of the unity Jesus prayed for us to know. This is also the deepest understanding of Christianity’s tradition of regarding an encounter with a stranger as a potential visitation from Christ. To practice empathy with this understanding is therefore to engage it as a mystical practice.
How do we Practice Empathy?
As noted before, there are two primary categories of empathic experience – thinking and feeling. While we may find ourselves spontaneously experiencing either or both, to actually practice empathy requires us to intentionally engage these potentials. In other words, the practice of empathy is the conscious choice to try understanding and/or feeling what another person thinks and/or feels. It’s that simple! Yet, as simple as the explanation is, the application can be more complicated, and it has a number of dimensions that can be attended to and refined. Rather than go into a more lengthy examination of those dimensions, for now I prefer to offer some steps to actually develop our abilities to empathize. We’re going to focus primarily on empathy for the feelings of others, because most of us get much less training and practice with this in Western culture than we do with paying attention to and understanding the thoughts of others.
Step One: Perception and Identification
This step requires that we turn our attention toward the experience of another person with the intention of identifying the thoughts and feelings the person is having. This requires not only listening to what the person says, but also paying attention to facial expressions, gestures, posture, and other non-verbals or “body language.” At this point, the aim is not to analyze, critique, or judge the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the person, but to try recognizing them as clearly as if they were our own. Such recognition in thinking includes the ability to accurately restate the other person’s thoughts, but in our own words. It also includes the ability to understand how one idea connects with another in that person’s chain of thoughts. In feeling, empathic recognition includes the ability to actually experience some degree of the sensations or emotions of the other person. Empathic thought and feeling begin to combine when we not only share in the feelings of another, but we are also able to name those feelings and understand how they are related to the other’s thoughts.
Step Two: Enhancing Perception and Identification
For this step, I suggest you try an experiment, and that you repeat it often. During your ordinary daily activities, find times to carefully observe another human being. The person might be someone you live with, a stranger out in public somewhere, or, as a last resort, someone in a movie or some other video medium. As you observe the person, pay attention at a physical level and try to recall or imagine what it physically feels like to do whatever it is the person is physically doing. If the person is walking, call up the feeling of your feet impacting the floor or ground, the movement of your legs and arms, and so on. If the person is talking on a phone, feel the phone in your hand, pressed to your ear, etc. Is the person drinking a cup of coffee? Feel all the sensations of holding the cup, smelling the coffee, and sipping the warm liquid into your mouth and swallowing it.
Once you have conducted this experiment several times, start to bring in the emotional dimension. Listen to and watch people having emotional experiences. As they do so, make an effort to share in those feelings to a manageable extent. If the person is laughing, recall not only the physical sensations of laughter, but the happiness that goes with it. When people laugh at themselves, feel the added emotional “flavor” of that experience. (We all know what that’s like!) Similarly, seeing an angry person, imagine what that anger actually feels like.
Step Three: More Fully Integrating Empathic Thinking & Feeling
A useful tool in identifying emotions, and thus to integrating empathic feeling with empathic thinking, is building a vocabulary rich enough to distinguish subtle differences in the intensity and combinations of emotions. There are many models and resources available for anyone interested in developing a vocabulary and understanding of emotions, each with its own appeal, but I’d like to offer Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions as a good starting point. (This model doesn’t entirely suit me, even though I find it immensely useful. For instance, I prefer the word “affection” where Plutchik shows “love.” I don’t agree with labeling an emotion as “love,” because love isn’t simply a function of emotion, yet it can be experienced and expressed in any emotional state.)
As you study the wheel, try to recall how each emotion actually feels, and how it affects your thinking, behavior, speech, and so on. It may help to remember specific moments in your life when you felt each emotion. Then, as you practice perceiving the feelings of others, use your growing vocabulary and understanding to more fully connect with their personal experiences.
Empathic thinking can be even further integrated by trying to identify what the feelings seem to be about. What is it that’s so funny or angering? Why is it so? How can this feeling affect the way a person thinks and behaves? What has it been like for me to feel and manage this emotion in my own experiences?
In working with that last question, and with the previous recommendation of recalling similar experiences of our own, we are engaging the aspect of empathy that we commonly call relating. Relating to others can be a very helpful aspect of empathy, but it can also distract from empathy when we allow it to lead us into hasty assumptions about what others are experiencing. It’s therefore important to be mindful that relating may offer us clues to deeper understanding of another person, but we cannot take this for granted; there is much room for error.
Step Four: Communicating Empathy
At this point, we are no longer merely observing and empathizing with another from some distance, but reflecting back to the person our effort to accurately feel and/or understand their experience. Perhaps the most basic way of doing this is to simply state an awareness that the other person is experiencing some feeling or feelings, and ask them to speak about it. Just these two very basic acts of empathy — (1) recognizing the fact that another is experiencing something, and then (2) opening to share in that experience — can be immensely powerful! On the one hand, they demonstrate to the other person that we are loving them in one of the most fundamental and unconditional of ways. On the other hand, these acts also welcome the honor of a clearer connection and deeper understanding of the other person’s experience with less potential for distortion and misunderstanding from our own assumptions.
Once an experience has been communicated to us by other persons, we then have the opportunity to test and refine our empathy for the experience. We do this by reflecting upon it with our own words, summarizing and paraphrasing what they have said, appropriately expressing relevant emotions through our own non-verbals, and perhaps also offering some insight about the experience’s meaning in one way or another. As they receive the reflection, they can indicate to us where our empathy is or is not accurate and helpful, and we can then work with them to gain clarity. In this process, we may use the practice of relating their experience to our own not only to more adequately feel and understand their experience, but to reveal to them and ourselves that we have these things in common. In other words, accurate empathic relating is a very intimate and profound way of communing, of realizing union, with other human beings. It is one of the most beautiful ways of loving others as ourselves, and thereby more completely loving God.
While the practice of Christian mysticism is commonly understood to include thinking about theology and other spiritual subjects, it also has a practical dimension without which it is only a topic of academic interest, at best. Certainly there are many forms of ritual, prayer, and meditation that come to mind for mystical practice. Yet we should also realize that mysticism as a way of life is incomplete if it isn’t integrated into the social dimension of our everyday experiences. The practice of empathy is one of the most meaningful ways we actualize the mystical life.
No one has ever seen God. But if we love one another, God lives in us. God’s love is made complete in us.We know that we belong to God and God belongs to us. God has given us the Holy Spirit. 1 John 4:12-13