A 10-Step Guide To Enlightenment And Affective Empathy, A Powerful Tool Of The Human Mind

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This question originally appeared on Quora. Answer by Nicole Gravagna.

I teach empathy, and I watch people go through the same phases I went through while learning it. I’m certain that empathy (both affective and cognitive) are useful in the office.

Affective empathy - feeling sad with someone who is sad - is a powerful way to connect to another human. When used wisely, it’s one of the most powerful tools a human can have to communicate with another human. Imagine the negotiation tactics possible when you can feel another person’s apprehension no matter how subtle.

Affective empathy is misunderstood by those who don’t use it. Let me clear something up, when I feel another’s emotions, I’m not overpowered or destroyed by them. If I cry when someone else does, it’s an act of biological solidarity, it’s not because I’m too weak to prevent myself from crying. It’s because I’m strong enough to let another person’s emotions pass through me and create a natural response in my body. All I have to do to stop the tears is to shift my attention away from that person and the effect is instantly gone.

Rational cognitive empathy is not much of a superpower. Yeah, so you can read my body language and you know I’m having a hard time. You nod and pat my shoulder. Big woop. Cognitive empathy is pretty lame.

Jean Piget studied the development of children from infancy through adulthood. He has a legacy of cognitive development that maps out the stages that most people go through when they grow up.

I have been studying people who, as adults, choose to further their own empathy development. There is a distinct pattern that people go through as they go from cognitive empathy (being able to guess what someone else is going through) to thorough self-less compassionate affective empathy which is the realm of Buddhist masters and other enlightened people.

The path from layman to enlightenment is an interesting journey that might surprise you. Here’s a few of the waypoints.

  1. Basic ‘theory of mind’ understanding that other people have feelings.
  2. Being able to surmise, based on one’s own past experience, what someone else is going through. This is as far as most people go in empathy. Cognitive empathy goes here.
  3. Recognition that we can actually feel each other’s emotions. We have mirror neurons that let our brainwaves sync. This is a logical understanding that it’s possible to feel sad just because you are looking at a person who is sad. This is an understanding that affective empathy exists.
  4. Understanding, in the moment, that what you are feeling is actually coming from someone else. This is the experience of feeling an emotion and understanding that you feel that way in your body simply because you are looking at someone who feels that way. First foray into affective empathy.
  5. Using empathy to feel (in your body) the emotions of everyone you come in contact with everyday, and using that information, in the moment to understand the experience of the people you see. At first, this is fun, then after a few days, it’s extremely overwhelming. You want to hide. Look at the ground. Ignore people. Living alone or in a cave seems like a viable option. It’s hard to turn this off at will once you turn it on. Imagine waking up to a world where everyone is naked all the time whether you want them to be or not. Novel at first, then not so cool.
  6. When empathy becomes a part of your everyday experience, and it’s no longer overwhelming, you can start to see the truth of situations that you were previously blind to. The truth isn’t often pretty. This stage includes the desire to disown friends and family because of the hard truths associated with their lives. Everyone has hard truths, but somehow when you become privvy to the truths of your loved ones, it hurts more.
  7. Once you realize that you can see the truth in everything, you start to get frustrated that people live the way they do. You want them to see how they can fix their lives. You want them to fast-forward to the time when their problems are gone. Since you can see the clear solutions, it’s hard to accept that they can’t or won’t see those solutions. This stage is obnoxiously devoid of compassion. Empathy without compassion is kind of asshole-y. It’s not a fun stage.
  8. Compassion creeps in slowly, case by case as you realize that the truth is invisible to most people. They have no idea what you are talking about when you try to help them. You might as well be speaking another language. You can start to see that people are beautifully flawed.
  9. Compassion becomes a normal part of everyday life along with your empathy. You can feel a person, or choose not to, at will. You can choose to make note of the feelings or let them drift by like street noise. This is the point where you stop feeling like a jerk, you call the friends you stopped hanging out with and life gets back to normal. In some ways everything ends up exactly the way it was before you learned empathy. In some ways, it’s a whole new world.
  10. You no longer judge yourself or others. You no longer see the world as anything more than cause and effect. Most humans are entities of pain, suffering, and numbness, except the few authentic souls who have somehow broken through that way of being. You can love them all, no matter how horrid or entrenched in pain. It’s still hard to be around those you love who are in pain since you feel every last bit of it.

Once you’ve gotten through the levels of empathy, having business meetings is pretty easy. You can hear/feel/see/read between the lines when talking to anyone.

Negotiations are dead easy. Nothing is hidden anymore and you are very clear with yourself about how you feel about certain offers. You know what other people want because they will betray themselves while trying to hide their “secret” desires. High-stakes conversations aren’t intimidating anymore. You know you are talking to a human. You can feel everything they feel. How can anyone be intimidating when you can basically read their mind?

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