Building Empathy In Our Daily Lives

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

As a child cries of hunger, a mother so helpless,
She sleeps in hunger, so loving, so selfless.
I wonder why do we live a life full of apathy,
Let’s feel the pain and live with empathy.

“Love the whole world as a mother loves her only child.” — Buddha

Empathy: A Human Quality

Empathy is a quality that uniquely makes us humans. Empathy helps us understand the pain of those who are around us. It drives us to help them and alleviate their suffering. We get so busy with our lives that we start to ignore those who need our help in our day-to-day lives. This kind of life then degenerates into a life of apathy. We begin to care more about materialistic successes than look at human achievements. Unfortunately, life is not fair as well. This means that some of us get access to many more resources than others. The poem gives the example of a mother who is willing to go hungry for the sake of her child. She epitomizes a life of selflessness and empathy. We can learn how to build empathy from the selfless love that a mother has for her child.

​​“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” — Socrates

This Is Water

In his essay, “This is Water,” the famous writer David Foster Wallace talks about the importance of awareness and perceptiveness of others. He argues that as we live our lives, we tend to overlook the problems that others are going through daily. Maybe the car speeding by you has a sick person in it; perhaps the shopkeeper that you are haggling with has a home mortgage and education loan that he cannot pay; maybe the agent cold calling you are struggling to find clients and perhaps will lose her job. David F. Wallace argues that true education is not knowing facts or figures or being good at calculations or analysis. True education is learning the ability to think. It is the ability to understand what the other person is feeling. It is the ability to know how you can use your abilities to help out others. True education is coming out of our default setting where we believe we are the center of the universe and understand that we are a small part of it.

Marcus Aurelius writes, “Acquire the habit of attending carefully to what is being said by another, and of entering, so far as possible, into the mind of the speaker.

My Three-Step Process To Developing Empathy

Developing empathy is a skill. The following techniques can help you develop the feeling of compassion towards those around you:

  1. Listening To Others: The first and foremost principle of practicing empathy is to listen to what others are saying. You must be able to acknowledge their values, beliefs, and autonomy. It may be your spouse, your mother, father, friend, etc., who may need help from you. They may be suffering through depression, losing someone close, losing love, failure in their career, etc. By listening to them, you can share with them the pain they feel. This will take away a lot of burden from their minds.
  2. Putting Yourself In Their Shoes: To empathize with others, it is necessary to put yourself in their shoes. This can happen only when you try to understand their situation deeply and make yourself vulnerable to them. Often, we overlook the gravity of the situation another person is in just because we do not have the same perspective as others.
  3. Relating To Your Past Experiences: You can understand what others are going through by relating their current situation to your own past experiences. We experience many different problems in our lives. As we mature in life, we can use these experiences to help others experience the same. This is unique to humans, and we must use our ability to help others fight their demons.

Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” — Marcus Aurelius

The Future Buddha As A Wise Judge

A woman, carrying her child, went to the future Buddha’s tank to wash. And having first bathed the child, she put on her upper garment and descended into the water to bathe herself. Then a Yakshini, seeing the child, had a craving to eat it. And taking the form of a woman, she drew near, and asked the mother, “Friend, this is a very pretty child. Is it one of yours?” And when she was told it was, she asked if she might nurse it. And this being allowed, she nursed it a little, and then carried it off.

But when the mother saw this, she ran after her, and cried out, “Where are you taking my child to?” and caught hold of her. The Yakshini boldly said, “Where did you get the child from? It is mine!” And so quarreling, they passed the door of the future Buddha’s Judgment Hall.

He heard the noise, sent for them, inquired into the matter, and asked them whether they would abide by his decision. And they agreed. Then he had a line drawn on the ground; and told the Yakshini to take hold of the child’s arms, and the mother to take hold of its legs; and said, “The child shall be hers who drags him over the line.”

But as soon as they pulled at him, the mother, seeing how he suffered, grieved as if her heart would break. And letting him go, she stood there weeping. Then the future Buddha asked the bystanders, “Whose hearts are tender to babes? Those who have borne children, or those who have not?”

And they answered, “Oh sire! The hearts of mothers are tender.” Then he said, “Who, think you, is the mother? She who has the child in her arms, or she who has let go?”

And they answered, “She who has let go is the mother.”
And he said, “Then do you all think that the other was the thief?”
And they answered, “Sire! We cannot tell.”
And he said, “Verily, this is a Yakshini, who took the child to eat it.”
And he replied, “Because her eyes winked not, and were red, and she knew no fear and had no pity, I knew it.”
And so saying, he demanded of the thief, “Who are you?”
And she said, “Lord! I am a Yakshini.”
And he asked, “Why did you take away this child?”
And she said, “I thought to eat him, Oh my Lord!”

And he rebuked her, saying, “Oh foolish woman! For your former sins you have been born a Yakshini, and now do you still sin!” And he laid a vow upon her to keep the Five Commandments and let her go.

But the mother of the child exalted the future Buddha, and said, “Oh my Lord! Oh, great physician! May your life be long!” And she went away, with her babe clasped to her bosom.

Source: The Jataka Tales

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About Ravi

Ravi is a poet, innovator, and entrepreneur. Ravi got a degree from IIT and Princeton University and lived in Bangalore and California, working at various software startups. He is the author of Be Buddha and regularly blogs at Ravi’s Blog.



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Ravi Tandon

Ravi Tandon

Entrepreneur, software engineer, and author. Top writer in Startup. My books and writings: