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Monday, December 2, 2013

Mindfulness and empathy

Even as mindfulness is becoming ubiquitous -- popular with businesses, physicians, and stressed-out average joes -- empathy is declining.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof cites the work of a Princeton University psychology professor, Susan Fiske, who found that when research subjects look at photos of the poor and homeless, brain imaging shows they often react as if they are seeing things, not people. Her analysis suggests that Americans sometimes react to poverty not with sympathy but with revulsion.

Instead of seeing the similarities -- there but for the grace of God go I -- we look for differences, for explanations to reassure ourselves that whatever led to other people being in difficult circumstances won't happen to us.

Mindfulness, though, should lead us in the other direction. Seeing how we want to be happy, to be safe, to live at peace and how many of our thoughts are about that and how we can secure it opens us up and lets us know how much others also want that.  Mindfulness -- kind, non-judgmental, present-moment awareness -- lets us see how we suffer. It's only a small step to see that others also want what we want and suffer when they don't have it. All we have to do, really, is to extend kind awareness to others.

And when we see the world through the lens of mindfulness, we also are more clear about how we can reduce suffering, our own and others'.

When mindfulness is equated with bare attention, it can easily lead to the misconception that the cultivation of mindfulness has nothing to do with ethics or with the cultivation of wholesome states of mind and the attenuation of unwholesome states. Nothing could be further from the truth. 
- B. Alan Wallace
We should be courteous to the poor as well as to the powerful. We should avoid attachment to relatives and animosity toward enemies, ridding ourselves of all partiality. But let us be especially respectful towards poor, humble people of no importance. Do not be partial! Love and compassion should be universal toward all beings.

Dilgo Kyentse Rinpoche