Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of April 27, 2009

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Seeing with Empathy

We frequently pass by strangers as we go about our day, strangers who mean little to us, to whom we have less connection than to the computerized voice that greets us when we phone most any large organization. We know in our minds that these strangers are flesh and blood, thinking and feeling people like ourselves. But in our heart and even in our perceptions, none of that registers. They may as well be cardboard cutouts. Until we have a direct interaction with someone — and possibly even after that — their personhood stays hidden from us.

In the ordinary way of life, this does not matter. Indeed it simplifies and saves time not to consider as people those unknown strangers whose paths intersect our own. This non-perception of strangers as persons like ourselves offers an efficient mode of living, as we automatically relegate them to some stereotype. But those of us who aspire to the spiritual way also need to develop our capacity for a very different mode of perceiving others, even people we do not know. That capacity is to see with empathy.

The first step is to actually look at the people passing us by, to look at their faces, at their posture, their gate, their gestures. We take the other person in detail and as a whole into our perception. But we do this quickly, without staring or making the other feel uncomfortable. A slightly extended glance can suffice.

Yet in this brief glance, we see the person, we see what it is like to be them. We see them as they are in themselves, not as they are in our judgments, reactions, or indifference. Each detail tells us something, providing a clue to who and how they are. We do not think about or consider the meaning of these details; we just notice how they make a whole picture and let them shape our perception intuitively.

And we put ourselves in the other personís place. Extrapolating from our own life, we feel how they feel and experience as they experience. We enter their world for a moment.

This is a practice, a practice toward true empathy. We may not do it perfectly and would not even know if we had. Yet the effort of seeing with empathy gradually opens our heart, our being toward our true, primal, and intimate connection with all people. And that naturally leads beyond perception to empathic action, be it inner or outer.

For this week, practice seeing with empathy.


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