When we feel empathy, we vicariously and imaginatively enter someone else’s experience and emotions. It opens us beyond our self-centeredness. It widens my sense of reality, and it helps me consider issues from different points of view. If both people in a relationship are empathetic with one another, empathy helps us come to a deeper understanding of one another. If we are arguing, maybe we can come to a compromise and find a way forward that meets both of our needs.

But research into empathy also suggests that empathy can lead to increased bias. This is because we tend to identify through empathy with those closest to us and with those most like us, then take one side in an argument, ignoring the “other side’s” perspective. This can happen in interactions ranging from world affairs to our own children, where we pit ourselves against others for the sake of the one with whom we most empathize. This can lead to policies that are unfair, privileging those most like us, and even neglecting others’ rights.

When arguments are fueled by “extreme empathy,” which I would describe as a form of identification that decreases our capacity to hear different perspectives, it can be nearly impossible to see the humanity of those with whom we disagree. We get so caught up in defending our own views that we shut out anyone who thinks otherwise. This often happens through dismissive judgments of other people’s character.

I have seen good friends disassociate from one another because they empathized quite lovingly with different people. One friend might empathize most with the working class who have suffered from technological advances, globalization, opiate addiction, and a sense of betrayal by corporate owners and government representatives. Another friend might empathize most with the plight of people of color who suffer from the legacy of slavery and hundreds of years of systemic racism, right to this day. While there can be overlap in these concerns, what can happen is that each person, whose heart is in the right place, might prioritize one group over another, dismissing the unique concerns of the other group. Empathy with one or the other can fuel escalating competitiveness, all in the name of love and justice.

Or it can simply lead to neglect of those with whom we least relate.


In Mahayana Buddhism, our call is not to repress our empathy but to cultivate a wider circle of concern. Avalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva of compassion. (S)he hears the cries not just of one side or another in a conflict but “hears the cries of the world.”

Avalokiteshvara embodies the mantra, “there but for the grace of God go I.” Were I born into the exact same circumstances — the same body and mind, the same upbringing, and the same causes and conditions affecting me — then I would embody the other person’s perspective. This does not mean that people have no personal responsibility for our views and actions. But without being touched by some sort of opening encounter, it is very hard to open beyond our conditioned perspective. Can we recognize that the person with a different view also has reasons for feeling as they do?

Mahayana Buddhism calls us to open beyond our conditioned, limited perspective to hear all the cries of the world. This is an incredible challenge, given the power of self-centeredness and given the power of empathy. We have a strong tendency to empathize with those ideologically closest to us and to polarize against those at a greater distance.

What would it look like to expand our circle of concern to hold all beings in our hearts? Perhaps our fear is that we will then abandon our values. But my experience is that this is not what happens. Compassion for all beings does not render one’s sense of right and wrong meaningless. One can still take a stand for the sake of non-harm. And one can still advocate for those who suffer injustices. Empathy for those who suffer is not erased by compassion for all beings. But we can gain a wider, more inclusive circle of concern.

Compassion opens us beyond identification with one side’s feelings. Compassion opens our hearts to the plight of all beings and allows us to care even for those with whom we disagree. If we can open to the possibility that we don’t actually already know everything, by listening, we can develop a greater understanding of the motives of people with whom we’d disagreed, and perhaps we can find ways to address the needs of everyone involved. Rarely is it actually a zero-sum game in the way that politicization tends to suggest. Rarely is it true that we must meet one person’s needs or the other’s. We can address both the poverty of the white working class and the unique, systemic injustices of racism, and to set these two up as oppositional is a success of limited empathy, but a failure of compassion.

True compassion is challenging. In my experience, it is very hard to have compassion for people with whom I disagree or toward whom I feel revulsion. Arno Michaelis is the founder of one of largest white supremacist groups in the world. He admits to severely beating people because of the color of their skin. He said that when he was called a racist, his hatred only grew, and he reacted with greater intensity, becoming even more violent. The confrontational approach failed with him again and again. But when he was met with compassion, he softened. He tells the following story of how compassion began to transform him: “One time I was greeted by a black lady at a McDonald’s cash register with a smile as warm and unconditional as the sun. When she noticed the swastika tattoo on my finger, she said…: ‘I know that’s not who you are.’” He described himself as “powerless against such compassion.” Michaelis went on to found a group called “Life After Hate” which, through compassionate witness rather than harsh judgment, helps people abandon white supremacist groups and find a healing path.

Compassion “as warm and unconditional as the sun” does not mean abandoning our sense of right and wrong. In fact we can take strong stands against those with whom we disagree. We do not even have to empathize with them. Compassion also does not mean remaining in abusive relationships. There will be times when we will just need to protect ourselves and those we love. We will probably not be capable of unconditional compassion all the time in part depending on our own situation and identity. But when possible, practicing unconditional compassion means not “writing off” those with whom we disagree. Instead, we listen and treat them with dignity, then we offer our own view. “I know that’s not who you are.”

One recent study examined a new approach to canvassing. The canvassers, advocates for transgender rights, [didn’t] judge others or their opinions or “try to build rational arguments for why someone should think one way or another.” Instead, they listened respectfully to the opinions of those they met. One canvasser said, “There’s something special about caring about why [people] feel the way they do. You can connect to their values in that way.’” Canvassers then shared some stories of their own. This form of canvassing reportedly had a more positive, longer term impact than traditional forms of canvassing. Compassion works.

Save all beings

Buddhist practice is meant to challenge us to open our hearts. Can we remain open to all beings even as we advocate for justice and kindness in the world? In such polarized times, this is no easy task. I am not always able to live up to this teaching. But the teachings are meant to awaken us to what we do so that we can atone and vow to do better. Perhaps practicing compassion for all beings can increase our own equanimity and contribute to a more civil society.

Our bodhisattva vow is not to save some beings but to save all beings. It may be worth reflecting on those we have shut out of our hearts.

The root of the word, heal, literally means “to make whole.” When we divide the world into inherently “good” and “bad” people, the divisions we make in our own heart-minds manifest in the world. In allowing all beings to reside in our hearts, we heal ourselves. If we can stay in respectful relationship with those with whom we disagree, perhaps we increase the possibility for healing in the world.

Originally published at https://morningstarzensangha.blogspot.com.

Zen teacher, priest & guiding teacher of Boundless Way Zen, practicing with Morning Star Zen Sangha in Newton & Waltham, MA.

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