. . . when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.Kalama Sutta: The Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry (translated by Soma Thera)
While there now exists an entirely new (spiritual) paradigm for empaths, or energetically sensitive beings, (some of which my version of is included herewithin,) can anything be drawn from the Early Buddhist Texts as strategies for those where the characteristic of anukampa, or empathy, significantly impacts their day to day experience?
Empathy in the context of this article means deeply feeling what another is feeling. Experiencing what another is experiencing — at the least, experiencing the most predominate experience(s) of another — to the point where, temporarily, very little difference seemingly exists between the one empathing and what, or who is being empathed. The caveat being there is really no way to know exactly the entirety of another’s experience. Additionally, there often seems to be very little choice involved whether or not to empath.
This is all lovely and wonderful if only the positive and pleasant was all that was being empathed. So naturally, this article mostly addresses what’s being empathed and perceived as negative, unhelpful, unskillful, unwise and unwholesome without intending to attract more nor push it away.
Perhaps a (still somewhat broad) guiding question to further narrow this enquiry: How can we aim towards the highest, fullest, most total, and most complete currently accessible versions of the wisest, most wholesome, skillful, ideal and optimal perceptions, views and responses for empathic experiences and phenomena? (And perhaps eventually going and incorporating beyond even this?)
And without paving another way to be down on ourselves for falling short of what’s mentioned, all this also intends to provide options to cultivate and develop greater balanced empathy while ending (programmed) victim/victimizer mentality.
But first some background and context questions.
So how and why does someone become an empath?
Short answer: While I have several guesses, I don’t know, and this is not very relevant anyway for viewing and responding to everyday life (circumstances) as an empath. More important though are the mechanics of empathing and why it seems so rough and sticky at times.
So why then do many empaths seem to not have much of a choice as to what they empath?
Again I could give several answers but I’m not sure about them.
If you’re an empath you may already be familiar with the core of this whole matter: the Four Noble Truths — the truth of dukkha/ suffering/ stress/ unsatisfactoriness; the truth of its cause; the truth of its cessation; and the truth of the path leading to its cessation. If not familiar, please stop reading this article and study the Four Noble Truths for background and context because this article will address several strategies heavily referencing and drawing upon the teachings of the Buddha via the Suttas then applying them to dealing with dukkha as an empath. It’s also good to study the three characteristics of existence, especially in reference to (spiritual) practice and/or seeing and knowing them in real life.
Fear is born from arming oneself.
Just see how many people fight!
I’ll tell you about the dreadful fear
that caused me to shake all over:
Seeing creatures flopping around,
Like fish in water too shallow,
So hostile to one another!
— Seeing this, I became afraid.
This world completely lacks essence;
It trembles in all directions.
I longed to find myself a place
Unscathed — but I could not see it.
Seeing people locked in conflict,
I became completely distraught.
But then I discerned here a thorn
— Hard to see — lodged deep in the heart.
It’s only when pierced by this thorn
That one runs in all directions.
So if that thorn is taken out —
one does not run, and settles down.
Who here has crossed over desires,
the world’s bond, so hard to get past,
he does not grieve, she does not mourn.
His stream is cut, she’s all unbound.
What went before — let go of that!Sn 4.15 PTS: Sn 935-951
All that’s to come — have none of it!
Don’t hold on to what’s in between,
And you’ll wander fully at peace.
Attadanda Sutta: Arming Oneself
translated from the Pali by
So are there any helpful explanations about why empaths so commonly empath pain, stress and negative material?
Before answering, it’s disclaimer time. Everything in this article could be unskillful, unwise, unhelpful claptrap to discard. A mere encapsulation based on what I’ve experienced, learned and practiced with so far.
Even slight distortions, if adopted and carried out, can have a big impact in the long run so please reach out with constructive feedback so anything of benefit with this type of information can evolve. As far as I know, many of the various challenges empaths face often go unaddressed in Buddhist communities.
It seems empaths regularly sense the of pain and stress from the currently intrinsic nature of dukkha in this realm. Or, in pop psychological parlance, perhaps empaths sense emanations of pain and suffering from the collective (un)conscious. This empathing the clinging and dukkha from beings, and immanent within beings, is currently made possible by the interconnectedness and interdependence amongst all beings. Furthermore, perhaps even ill-will is being empathed.
Why? Empaths can often be very caring, sensitive, attuning, intuitive, spiritual, and helpful. And ill-will is a coarse poison that often times predominates experience and demands attention to be skillfully addressed with loving-kindness. Ill-will cries out for love. The good news is ill-will is usually easier to overcome than the other poisons of greed and delusion/ignorance because once the source of ill-will realizes it harms itself more than what it hopes to harm, it then becomes a no brainer.
As she was standing to one side, a devatā recited this verse to the Blessed One:
“Having killed what
do you sleep in ease?
Having killed what
do you not grieve?
Of the slaying
of what one thing
does Gotama approve?”
The Buddha:Having Killed — Chetvā Sutta (SN 1:71)
“Having killed anger
you sleep in ease.
Having killed anger
you do not grieve.
The noble ones praise
the slaying of anger
—with its honeyed crest
& poison root—
for having killed it
you do not grieve.”
So then, wouldn’t it also make sense for the field of an empath to attract existing negativity in order to heal it? If not, consider how such a perception could potentially be helpful — instead of the unfortunately more common perception of victimization — when encountering negativity and the ensuing shame, blame and guilt of “what did I do to deserve this”? The rub being the risk of falling into martyrdom or messiahhood so we simply remember to acknowledge this and know our options for how to handle empathing unchosen negativity.
Let’s consider nine categories of approach:
- Gratitude for opportunities
- Mindfulness (– especially of contact and vēdanā)
- Hedonic Tone and the Three Characteristics of Existence
- Self and identification
- Equanimity and compassion
- The Four Right Efforts and Five Hinderances
- Miscellaneous strategies
No mud, no lotus
~helpful, albeit somewhat cliché, koanic axiom
1) Gratitude for Opportunities
First off, this is not burdensome drudgery interfering with living a good life. Instead, we seize with gratitude each and every moment of negativity and energetic density as opportunity for mastery, wisdom and the resulting goodness for all. Gratitude for a chance to practice kindness, compassion, and equanimity (more on this in section five) and the high vibrational state resulting from viewing and responding properly to what’s being empathed. Gratitude for another step towards realizing awakening — including training to master khanti — translated as patience, forbearance and/or forgiveness — one of the 10 pāramitās or “perfections.”
Too much of a stretch?
The Monastic Alternative
As a teenager she often visited the monastery. She was deeply attracted to the monastic life. The Buddhist path to liberation was what had the most meaning for her. When she became an adult, she planned on joining the
However, when she turned 21, her older sister and her
sister’s husband died in an accident and she became the foster parent for their two young children. In addition, her own parents had become quite old and needed her help. As the only income earner in the family, she had to work long hours every day. She loved to meditate but with all the work and caregiving she had to do, she had no time for it.
Since she was not able to fulfill her aspirations for following the monastic path, she went to the Abbess of the monastery and asked how she could follow the Path with the life she had to live.
The Abbess said that if she couldn’t meditate, then the best alternative is to be grateful for everything.From “A Monastery Within: Tales from the Buddhist Path” a book by Gil Fronsdal
Similar to the way the Buddha gave different discourses depending on audience and circumstances, consider the possible wisdom in trusting however we’re viewing and responding to empathic phenomena is the most optimal way we currently have access to while still progressively intending for improvement, refinement, and evaluating our views and responses so as not to use this as an excuse for lack of effort and accountability.
Also, it’s hard to go wrong with the Five Daily Reflections I abbreviate as old age, illness/sickness, death, (and especially) separation, and self-responsibility. More on these later. Reviewing and reflecting on these regularly, not to induce major bummers but to shake us and wake us to the truth of what, and how this life really is right now. Not squandering or taking any moment for granted. Rejoicing gratefully for such an auspicious human birth and for the preciousness of each moment and all the possibilities they entail.
Let us not forget the very profundity of energetic sensitivity itself — the deep intimacy with life and reality it affords along with the amplified ability to feel into the truth of something.
What’s a key ingredient for identifying and strengthening gratitude? Right Mindfulness of course.
2) Mindfulness (especially of contact and vēdanā)
Of all the stuff we could have too much of, we very rarely can have too much right mindfulness to help cultivate more space for discerning the best choices to make and increase wisdom.
In reference to the world of empaths, mindfulness posts up at the six sense gates to reminds us of the pleasantness, unpleasantness, or neither-pleasantness-nor-unpleasantness that informs and colors much of our views and responses — particularly noticeable retrospectively for those times where there was lack of mindfulness.
When mindful of pleasant or unpleasant we then can discern more skillfully if continuing to think, speak, act, and/or to remain present will lead in the short and/or long term(s) towards more stress or less stress.
For example, as long as it is not a threat to our safety, remaining present to our embodied felt experience in an unpleasant environment is a training for being present in (important) unpleasant situations where there are less options for numbing out, distraction, addictions, escapism, denial, avoidance, etc.
While right mindfulness is important for all the remaining categories, it can significantly assist in seeing and knowing via investigation how the consciousness arising from contacting objects with our sense organs is a condition for the arising of vēdanā, or feeling tone, or more accurately translated as Hedonic Tone — the valence of each and every phenomena as pleasant, unpleasant, or neither of these.
3) Hedonic Tone & the Three Characteristics of Existence:
When it comes to aiding empaths, vēdanā by far deserves its own section. Again, empathy is sensitivity to feeling very deeply — especially from/with fellow humans — on gross and subtle levels while others seem to go on lost in various mental activities and/or exciting or entangling with emotional reactions. Perhaps this is due to lack of (capacity, interest in, or availability and discipline for) mind and emotional development, care and training. Or even yet realizing they are on a healing journey.
After a significant amount of inner work, healing, meditation and certain spiritual practices, often times the felt sense of worldly stress, unsatisfactoriness and suffering now sticks out like a sore thumb while before, at times, at best, maybe we would here and there momentarily ask ‘how can I and others be happier,’ then it’s quickly back to business as usual. We do the best we can but unknowingly do many things we think will make us happy momentarily when in fact they often can cause more and continued stress. Or, we can invest much time, treasure and effort planning for future happiness — that may or may not pan out — like tossing a happiness bone into the future and chasing after it.
Since it can be easy to get lost in the subtleties, confusions and complexity of empathic experiences we (can) step back and simplify. As aforementioned, no matter if internal, external or lack of such a distinction, or being empathic or not, the three basic bins of vēdanā apply — pleasant, unpleasant or neither of these. And we can feel this in the body.
THE CONTEMPLATION OF FEELING
“And how, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating feeling in feelings?
“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu when experiencing a pleasant feeling, understands: ‘I experience a pleasant feeling’; when experiencing a painful feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a painful feeling’; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling’; when experiencing a pleasant worldly feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a pleasant worldly feeling’; when experiencing a pleasant spiritual feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a pleasant spiritual feeling’; when experiencing a painful worldly feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a painful worldly feeling’; when experiencing a painful spiritual feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a painful spiritual feeling’; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling’; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling.’
“Thus he lives contemplating feelings in feelings internally, or he lives contemplating feeling in feelings externally, or he lives contemplating feeling in feelings internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in feelings, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in feelings, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things in feelings. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: ‘Feeling exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.
“Thus, indeed, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating feeling in feelings.”-from The Way of Mindfulness
The Satipatthana Sutta and Its Commentary by Soma Thera
As soon as we see and know these hedonic hotspots, or lack thereof, greater space opens for more choices on how to view and respond instead of the habit pattern autopilot of variations on how we cling to sense pleasures. We even crave for more and more of these pleasures, while wanting zero unpleasantness with little regard for our true, longterm well-being and emancipation from stress. Even more complex and challenging are the extremes of reversals of taking pleasure in the unpleasant and finding pain in the pleasant.
“As for the course of action that is unpleasant to do but that, when done, leads to what is profitable, it’s in light of this course of action that one may be known — in terms of manly stamina, manly persistence, manly effort — as a fool or a wise person. For a fool doesn’t reflect, ‘Even though this course of action is unpleasant to do, still when done it leads to what is profitable.’ So he doesn’t do it, and thus the non-doing of that course of action leads to what is unprofitable for him. But a wise person reflects, ‘Even though this course of action is unpleasant to do, still when done it leads to what is profitable.’ So he does it, and thus the doing of that course of action leads to what is profitable for him.
“As for the course of action that is pleasant to do but that, when done, leads to what is unprofitable, it’s in light of this course of action that one may be known — in terms of manly stamina, manly persistence, manly effort — as a fool or a wise person. For a fool doesn’t reflect, ‘Even though this course of action is pleasant to do, still when done it leads to what is unprofitable.’ So he does it, and thus the doing of that course of action leads to what is unprofitable for him. But a wise person reflects, ‘Even though this course of action is pleasant to do, still when done it leads to what is unprofitable.’ So he doesn’t do it, and thus the non-doing of that course of action leads to what is profitable for him.”Numbered Discourses 4 Aṅguttara Nikāya 4
12. With Kesi1 2. Kesivagga
115. Ṭhānasutta — Things
The good news is vēdanā — like everything else — is anicca, or inconstant. Like they say about Missouri weather, if you don’t like it, wait five minutes. Pleasant one moment, unpleasant the next. Other times, when neither of these happen, boredom sets in. Then on to seeking pleasant or unpleasant for more excitement. Again and again, in no particular order.
At times this can seem like there’s no escape, no other options, but that’s just the nature of this current reality. Being aligned with this truth can bring happiness instead of mired in the confusion and frustration that accompanies unawareness.
For whom there is no “I-making”
All throughout the body and mind,
And who grieves not for what is not
Is undefeated in the world.
For whom there is no “this is mine”Another selection from the Attadanda Sutta: Arming Oneself
Nor anything like “that is theirs”
Not even finding “self-ness,” he
Does not grieve at “I have nothing.”
In better news, and on a less obvious level, with such inconstancy, there can really be no long term, consistent self for whom all this happens to, or belongs to. Any and all is empty of a constant, immutable thing called a “self.” But it’s an emptiness imbued with compassion.
In the long run, no one can really be feelings, or own feelings. They don’t belong to anyone. Nor are feelings in a lasting way in us or others, nor the inverse of anyone being in and amongst feelings. At the same time there’s no apartness or separation from feelings. Wherever such feelings come from they are not personal, rather more like observing and experiencing the unfolding of transient energetic processes.
Sticky energies seeming harmful in nature often require investigation and a response — be that energetic, an intention, blessing, appropriate teachings, clearing, transmutation, etc. This is one way to express the strategy, or teaching of anattā, commonly translated as not-self.
If there’s somewhat of an understanding that feelings are not mine there can still be tendencies to blame others for what we’re feeling. And if no one really owns feelings, nor do they belong to anybody, then this can sometimes encourage and/or promote a disavowing of self-responsibility for actions coming out of experiencing negative feelings and lending to tacit consent for others to shirk their responsibility.
Or one can get lost in overly praising others, and/or the opposite of forgetting (or not finding it important) to express honor and respect due to the impersonal nature of reality because, in a way, on a less relative and more elevated level of reality there’s really no one to respect or disrespect.
So empaths sometimes distance themselves from life this way because of such confusion surrounding self(s) and not-self. This is where the teaching on the two truths is helpful — knowing what fits more into conventional truth (where ethics are vital) and what fits more into ultimate truth.
Let us then now dig into views and strategies that while they augment a deeper innerstanding of not-self are more closely related to conventional notions of living amongst beings in the everyday world.
4) Self and Identification(s)
For the hour we are in, what goes a long way is the simple consideration that everybody is doing the best they can; if they could do better they would. Even just taking a regular interest in how (best) an empath can refine their path while being in this world establishes a supporting faith for proper path work to present itself.
Going further now into the Five Daily Reflections mentioned earlier: old age, illness/sickness, death, separation and self-responsibility. These provide a base and a framework for properly viewing the world and aligning with the truth of the way things are here and now, moment to moment. They are the way things have most likely been in our past and the way they are likely to continue into our future for quite sometime.
Perhaps separation and self-responsibility are particularly relevant for empaths.
Actually, it’s more of a partial inverse of being separated from all that is held dear. At times there seems no separation from the pain, grief and despair of the world, from others and ourselves, but we’ll still likely be separated from this the same as we’ll be parted from beloveds (for quite sometime to come.)
It can seem at times others are (unconsciously) projecting their energetic crap onto anyone nearby energetically sensitive enough to notice — or similar such energetic litter from who knows where being empathed like a sponge. Whatever and however our experience shakes out, we are still all self-responsible for how any and all of this is being viewed, perceived, responded to and/or acted upon. Perhaps counterintuitively, self-responsibility actually uplifts and empowers. Just flip the Spiderman line: “with great responsibility comes great power”.
‘I am the owner of my action, the heir of my actions, born from my actions, related through my actions, and actions are my family house within my ancestral linage. Any action that I do – whether it is good or evil – I will be the heir.’My mostly amalgamated translation of the 5th of the five regular reflections: [Kammassakomhi kammadāyādo kammayoni kammabandhū kammapaṭisaraṇo yaṃ kammaṃ karissāmi kalyāṇaṃ vā pāpakaṃ vā tassa dāyādo bhavissāmī….] perhaps taking liberties (with kammapaṭisaraṇo) to keep with the bloodline motif. I drew on and adjusted the existing translations from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upajjhatthana_Sutta and https://suttacentral.net/an5-nivaranavagga
When these five reflections are really seen, felt and known deeply, and then become part of our operating system, the heightened emotions not serving humanity associated with worldly shenanigans start to melt away. Not only does this not interfere with our wise and skillful capacity for action, but actually contributes to more effective action. These five contemplations cut to the core of our current basic human existence in order to remove the cancers of being ignorant and deluded about things as they actually are. Being in alignment with such truths aides happiness as well as better preparedness when more intensely encountering sickness, old age, death, separation and choices for action.
But what is it? What is this “I” that still gets sick, ages, dies, separates and subsumes responsibility for actions in this world? This classic, fundamental, and profound existential question — previously explored via “not-self” — continues inspiring many, many works across many mediums of expression.
For the energetically sensitive, and even those with mere momentary experiences of empathy, let’s consider investigating “I” in terms of identity and identification.
- Who, and/or what is seemingly projecting what to be empathed?
- Who, and/or what is receiving that which results in empathy?
- (Without going too far down rabbit holes) whose karmic imprints are involved, if any?
In other words, what the hell is going on — how does this work?
- What nouns (like things and names) are involved, if any?
- Am I consciously identifying something or someone where experiences are coming from?
- What (and how) am I (consciously) identifying as a self experiencing such things?
- (How) has this changed over time?
- Lastly, what ways of identifying and relating to all this lead to the (long-term) benefit, happiness and emancipation for myself and others?
Without really answering most of these questions here, either subjectively or more universally, what could be some helpful identifications to assume on the path to realizing full awakening?
Ultimately, the Five Clinging Aggregates — body, hedonic tone, perception, formations/fabrications and consciousness — won’t be taken as me, mine, myself, or as anyone being made up of them. But what about day to day life and in more formal types of meditation? What about even considering calling oneself an empath?
It’s quite helpful to identify with what is skillful, wholesome and wise, especially in relation to our choices of what and how we think, speak and act.
More specifically, amongst the myriad possibilites for these we’ll look briefly at four ways of being and follow up by dedicating a section to compassion and equanimity.
The first is what I’ve heard Ajahn Puddhadhammo called centering oneself in the citta, or heart/mind. Instead of being tossed around by unceasing sense experiences one identifies with the stable knowing function of consciousness/mind instead of the objects, or what is being known. Such a way of experiencing is way more obvious in meditation. But once this becomes seen and known, along with the resulting relief, centering oneself in the citta can carry over into our non-meditative life.
If we feel compelled to identify as an “I” we can also identify as the love within anything that’s happening. Some examples: don’t really prefer being around somebody but in a situation where’s it’s happening anyway? Can I view and interact with the love — or the cry for love — within this somebody? How about when experiencing frustration in a public place? Can I notice and identify with the love within frustration?
Then there’s turning and rooting attention to that which is more supportive like the triple gem and our spiritual entourage — any deities, beings, family, friends, teachers, wise elders, communities, etc — not to save us but for motivation. Being inspired. Encouragement. Empowerment. Support. Self-care. Or just the aspiration to cultivate these (someday).
Even when it seems like the whole world is against us, there’s (the continual warmth of) the sun nourishing us directly and indirectly without any consideration of what’s in it for the sun. This Earth upholds, accepts and supports us without judgement.
We can then apply this notion to noticing the supporting and helping parts of whatever is, or whatever comes our way. Even how the underlying awareness itself makes all this possible. And how the truth of knowing and seeing the aforementioned Three Characteristics of Existence helps extract us from the stress of entangling in deluded states of ignorance.
But doesn’t this all rely maybe too much on perceptual shifts? Well, what’s important to you? Really, really important? Can you get to the heart of this to identify a handful of core values in order to live life from and in alignment with them?
The crown jewel of identification for empaths though may well be equanimity and compassion.
5) Equanimity & Compassion:
When turning to the Four Bhramaviharas, or Sublime Abidings to address empathing challenging states, it makes sense to focus primarily on equanimity and compassion moreso than vicarious joy and loving-kindness. That said, loving-kindness can condition and attune us to a momentous friendliness in our perception, speech and action. And Vicarious Joy helps charge our batteries by acting as a respite from negativity. It’s obviously not all downers all the time.
Sufficient ways exist to practice the Bhramaviharas. It’s advisable to start with reading what the Suttas say as well as the various established methods. Test them out and experiment to find what works best.
How admirable and sensible would it be to eventually reach a point where it is second nature to respond with these four boundless states in all circumstances — towards self, beings, and perhaps with and towards even various processes, formations, fabrications, and forces?
The more formal practice, semi-formal practice, or just briefly pausing to recall them, the more we swole up our Bhramavihara muscle increasing the likelihood of returning to how we naturally view and respond to life when unhindered.
After realizing awakening the Buddha spent much time in great compassion meditation. He did after all choose to teach out of compassion, seeing there were some beings with little dust in their eyes who could penetrate the meaning of what he had realized. If the Buddha spent much of the day immersed in compassion surely this is of significance to take a cue from.
Obviously, this is a challenge most of us likely fall short of, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be practiced and trained toward. And it usually starts with self-compassion.
In fact, the Buddha once said:
Searching in all directions
With your awareness,
you find no one dearer
In the same way, others
are thickly dear to themselves.
So you shouldn’t hurt others
if you love yourself.
After a time of extreme ascetic practices the-Buddha-to-be remembered a time from his childhood, where without effort, innate joy arose while sitting under a rose apple tree at a time where fields were being plowed. It dawned on him that self-infliction wasn’t the way to enlightenment and wholesome pleasure is not the enemy.
Without mindfulness, people exude pain, or get sucked into and swirled around in whirlpools of pain then chase sense pleasures for relief. It makes sense then not to add to this. To eventually eschew dependency on external pleasures, dwelling here and now in universally beneficial, wholesome, pleasant abidings, such as compassion.
“So at a later time, having seen the drawback of sensual pleasures, I pursued that theme; having understood the reward of renunciation, I familiarized myself with it. My heart leaped up at renunciation, grew confident, steadfast, & firm, seeing it as peace. Then, quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities, I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation.
“As I remained there, I was beset with attention to perceptions dealing with sensuality. That was an affliction for me. Just as pain arises as an affliction for a healthy person, even so the attention to perceptions dealing with sensuality that beset me was an affliction for me.
“The thought occurred to me: ‘What if, with the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, I were to enter & remain in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation—internal assurance.’ But my heart didn’t leap up at being without directed thought, didn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace. The thought occurred to me: ‘What is the cause, what is the reason, why my heart doesn’t leap up at being without directed thought, doesn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace?’ Then the thought occurred to me: ‘I haven’t seen the drawback of directed thought; I haven’t pursued that theme. I haven’t understood the reward of being without directed thought; I haven’t familiarized myself with it. That’s why my heart doesn’t leap up at being without directed thought, doesn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace.’
“Then the thought occurred to me: ‘If, having seen the drawback of directed thought, I were to pursue that theme; and if, having understood the reward of being without directed thought, I were to familiarize myself with it, there’s the possibility that my heart would leap up at being without directed thought, grow confident, steadfast, & firm, seeing it as peace.’
“So at a later time, having seen the drawback of directed thought, I pursued that theme; having understood the reward of being without directed thought, I familiarized myself with it. My heart leaped up at being without directed thought, grew confident, steadfast, & firm, seeing it as peace. With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, I entered & remained in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation—internal assuranceSelection from
Book of the Nines
9.41. To Tapussa
We can remember uninstructed worldlings usually know very little first hand about the rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal (of sense pleasures), nor know little of the rapture and pleasure born of composure and unification of awareness. Without assigning any value judgement about this — because there is a type of happiness in sense pleasures — due to lack of instruction, training and motivation, they live primarily within the spectrum of externally induced pain and pleasure and/or repeating the (mostly unwholesome) habit patterns of blaming, shaming and guilting themselves and others.
This is where equanimity comes in. I recently described equanimity to a psychologist friend as ‘… a kind of wise grandparental love underlying or overarching the other Bhramaviharas. The even keel, balanced affirmation that while I care and want what’s best for you, you must live your own life, making your own decisions, and be responsible for them.’
When applied to sensing the energy around us, and coming at us, we can ask, ‘who is responsible for the experienced reality of/from energetic projections’? As already explained, it doesn’t really matter as much who or what is perpetrating challenging energies because this often can incite the tendency to shame, blame or guilt in an unhelpful way. What matters most is taking responsibility for how we view, experience and interpret phenomena and any and all subsequent choices, responses and action based on them.
Equally so, we realize, on a relative reality level, this also applies to other beings who, for their own empowerment and well-being, must do the same.
Then there’s the choice of not being required to relate to our (inner) experiences. Not in a cold, callous way, just simply knowing the vastness beyond however we could possibly relate to anything helps usher in peace and stability. When abiding in such stability we are at our utmost for responding and helping without a need to feel bad about feeling OK when others around us aren’t.
Alright. On board with benevolent states of pleasant abiding? Good. Let us now explore the Four Right Efforts and address the Five Hinderances to help cultivate, generate, strengthen and maintain benevolent states of pleasant abiding.
6) Four Right Efforts and Five Hinderances
For the empath, the Four Right Efforts — of 1) eliminating and 2) preventing unwholesome states and 3) generating and 4) maintaining wholesome states — can serve both as a sorting system for incoming energies and a four-fold taskmaster for (silently) responding energetically — or not responding, which is also a response. As an aside, perhaps a reoccurring agitation or annoyance could (also) signal a lack of willful response — even if it is just reassessing a view.
On plenty of occasions I just address the negatives in life, zeroing them out. But as Matt Kahn says:
For example, say you need to travel through an energetically dense and challenging location. One could review unwholesome states that have arisen when in this area before (and in similar areas) reflecting on their danger to the mind then resolve to prevent such states from arising without the need for suppression or judgementalism.
From similar further reflection, resolving then to eliminate any arising unwholesome states while passing through, not out of any kind of ill-will; reward and punishment; or shaming, but simply knowing such states do not support anybody’s longterm benefit and happiness.
Conversely, what wholesome states have been, and would be helpful when traveling through this and similar areas? If some of these states were once maintained, how were they? If any subsided while still useful, how did they subside? How can this retrospective knowledge, as well as (at first speculatively) generative knowledge then be applied?
How then can the importance of such subtle energetic work be better seen and known in order to support, amplify and further the Four Right Efforts? Maybe the Butterfly Effect resonates and a ripple effect is noticed from increased skillful driving. If feeling adventurous, perhaps safely stop in this location for sometime to practice.
But not so fast. Even when smoothly cruising right along one can still find oneself in bumper to bumper traffic with the Five Hinderances — greed/lust; ill-will; sloth/torpor; restlessness/worry; and doubt. The upside being these are actually potentials for mastery. The more challenging the hinderance the more opportunity there is for deeper, fuller, more far ranging, impactful and comprehensive innerstandings and subsequent applications of how to better handle these temporary states.
While it’s hard to predict which ones will show up when, how often, for how long, and with what kind of intensity, the standard Theravada Buddhist teachings on the Hinderances help tremendously. Amongst these teachings, wisely compiled in Unhindered: A Mindful Path Through the Five Hindrances, the jhanic factors offer antidotes to the hindrances. So it seems to also make sense to extrapolate this medicine to if experiencing and/or (perceiving) empathing hinderances from others:
- Vitakka/directed contact – craving for sensual pleasures
- Vicāra/sustained contact – ill-will
- Pīti/rapture – sloth and torpor
- Sukha/bliss – restlessness worry agitation anxiety
- Ekaggatā/one-pointedness – doubt
But don’t stop with the established teachings. What else can help? How else can the Hindrances be viewed and addressed? How can we best integrate the knowledge and insight gained from (de)tangling with the hinderances?
For instance, consider these insights or intuitions for a possible dimension of the hinderances not usually mentioned:
- greed sometimes incites and/or reinforces one’s justification to disregard and push much aside that stands in the way of one’s (personal/egotistical) goals
- ill-will can sometimes distortedly display as a righteous (moral) superiority fighting hate with hate which only leads to more hate
- using sloth and torpor to shut down, avoid and escape feelings
- restlessness as self-justification to scatter attention, run away, and/or feel too important and busy to rest so subsequently starting to prioritize what’s more important than cultivating wholesome states
- doubt as an escape or avoidance of investigating reality. Also, maybe doubt is a way to blow off, escape or avoid what challenges one’s beliefs
Samatha, or serenity practice is one way, at least in more formal meditative context, to cultivate and develop these Jhanic factors that also help hold the hinderances at bay when present.
In addition to the brilliant way of what I’ll just call the Ajahn Sucitto method, one way to do Samatha practice is to exclude any emotions, feelings and sensations (that are not the meditation object), immediately dropping them and returning to and staying with the meditation object, over and over, again and again. Eventually the required energy and effort for doing this becomes less and less and (in no particular order) results in:
- unwholesome states arising to be purified as they are seen and released
- grounded stability and clarity develop
- the Jhanic factors come online
- the mind quiets
The stabilizing, focusing and deeply penetrating nature of formal samatha practice in turn allows for a greater likelihood to see and address hinderances during other types of meditation and similarly so outside of meditative contexts. It increases the likelihood to see and know for ourselves that in any given moment we can choose what to attend to and how we attend to it.
The more we exercise our Samatha muscle the more the aforementioned fruits can manifest in our living reality while chipping away at the dualistic perception of control and/or lack of control.
Samatha can even soup up the horsepower of the Four Right Efforts with more calmness and clarity. This gives the attentive mind a much needed unification to better cultivate and maintain wholesome states while eliminating and preventing unwholesome states.
After better innerstanding how energetic sensitivity can work, and how to establish and increase stabilizing wholesome states, it is time to dive into this energy thing itself on a more fundamental level.
At some point on our journey we come to see more and more clearly nothing is really (to be taken) personal. But then what is phenomina though, and what is observing it?
Energy and consciousness is maybe one way to structure an answer. Four of the Five Clinging Aggregates (that we mistakenly assume are a solid, lasting, stable self) — body/form; Hedonic Tone; perception; (volitional/mental) formations/fabrications — are various states or modes of energy. And the fifth is consciousness itself.
As far as I know, the Buddha never really got into the intricacies of how and why various kinds of energies do what they do. Perhaps it is too vast and complex a topic. Even moreso, when applied across multiple timelines, time periods, and the significant differences of energetic systems and processes, even just amongst human beings, it seems likely that clumping more stuff together, calling it “energy”, could muddy the waters of the Buddha’s core teaching of knowing suffering and the end of suffering. Just because someone can’t tear apart a car and put it back together doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from only knowing how to drive it. At the same time though we still need mechanics.
However, for empaths there are pleanty of useful things about energy mentioned by the Buddha and otherwise.
In this realm we currently find ourselves in most would say something along the lines of ‘I have energy,’ or, ‘I don’t have energy.’ Certain things give energy, and there are ways to expend energy. Namely, this speaks to the Four Nutriments — food, sense impressions, volitional thought, and consciousness. So when it comes to these four nutriments what are we hungry for? What are we feeding ourselves? Are we malnourished? Do we need to go on a diet?
Empaths can use awareness and reflection to assess how much (negative) outside energy is being taken on and then how much will and energy is expended to deal with it. Energy itself can even be investigated, especially in the body. This actually combines two of the seven factors of awakening, energy and investigation.
- What kind of energy?
- Positive, negative, or neither?
- When, how, from and to where does it arise, remain then subside?
- What are its causes and conditions?
- What is the allure, danger and escape?
- What beings, forces and processes are involved?
- How do I feel, view and respond to any energy or lack thereof?
And of course, from the get go, this article builds atop certain energetic preferences as an underlying basis. So realizing we have preferences for energies — just as we may prefer strawberry ice cream over strawberry sherbet, or vice versa — these questions arose:
- If the consciousnesses behind certain energies being experienced had any idea of the potential harm they could cause how likely would it then be to occur? (Because many good hearted, well intentioned and caring folks seemingly do things causing subtle harm out of unawareness.)
- Why don’t I like this energy?
- Can this energy/feeling cause significant harm, or do I just not prefer it?
- Or, if an energy signifies past harm, is this occurring as an opportunity for processing and healing?
At least as ubiquitous as holding preferences in life is the energetic game of what happens to us and how we respond. And since consciousness seems drawn to that which needs the most attention for healing, when it comes to human interaction the tendency can be to match energetic states in an attempt to better relate and show care. However, because of this, often times how we respond comes from, and stays in, the the very state we wish to uplift.
Instead, while we remain present and listen, if called for, we focus and give more energy to our mindful, heart-centered response, particularly if someone challenging is set on dominating energetically in unwise and unskillful ways.
However we respond, or don’t respond, and regardless of outcome, or the storms on the seas of energy, there’s the option of relating to any and all of this with non-attachment.
From what I hear, the English speaking Buddhist world often dances around modern psychology’s indictment of “detachment” as a pejorative and kowtows with “non-attachment.” Better are the verbs “unhook,” “disentangle” and “disengage.”
The point here being any and all (psychological) clinging (for adults) sets us up for suffering. Therefore, like water off a ducks back, as a line well refrained in the suttas puts it: “whatever is not yours abandon it.”
Naturally then, we (can) skillful disengage from that which clings to experiences and phenomena including clinging involving empathic “material.” Step out of all this and observe. It’s not stable. It’s shifting and changing. It’s never finished. This is not to bypass, avoid or become aloof from life, we simply unhook from what keeps us hooked into suffering, stress and unsatisfactoriness.
Easier said than done sometimes. Quiet seclusion and a degree of physical distance can provide more space to see and know the extent of entanglement and discover how to disentangle. Kind of like a fish not knowing it is in water because that’s all it’s ever known.
To take it a step further, as mentioned in section five, there’s no requirement to relate to anything. Whatever is happening inside us, to us, around us, or in the world at large, the option exists to not frame, view, label, categorize, understand, respond or take action. In other words, not knowing is OK too.
Just realizing this as a choice can provide relief when the whole world seems to be taking sides on even the most trivial banalities. Again, if we need to know or act, but aren’t doing so, it will likely eventually happen anyway as life puts us in similar situations again and again until something changes and we learn.
Before detaching from this article here’s a few brief odds and ends to start to wrap up.
9) Miscellaneous Strategies
At the foundational level we can (continue to) establish and maintain natural and healthy boundaries, especially when stuff gets tough. Sometimes we just draw a line without any obligation to explain why — even if questioned about it. These boundaries can be short or long term. They can be very thick fortresses where forgiveness, kindness and compassion can be considered from afar.
A couple of years ago I received some very helpful wisdom. It came from a simple statement encapsulating a reading, ‘Yes i AM, experiencing this Feeling AND _ i AM Letting Goodness FLOW!’ The “yes” indicates feminine allowing and receiving while the “and” part expresses masculine will and action. To rephrase it less personally, “this feeling is like this now, and can be just the way it is, being subject to laws of (this) reality.”
While perhaps coming too much from fighting in an energetic war stance, the article “Tired of being a Negativity Sponge? 12 Ways to Reclaim Energy and Prevent Energy Infiltration” does add further light to what may be going on in our day to day energetic domains. It also gives 11 ways to be more responsible with one’s energy.
Then there’s the more common world of therapy. Perhaps within this context is Psychoanalysis which many modern therapists consider a relic, or a deep pursuit not recommended to the masses much anymore. While I haven’t undergone formal psychoanalysis, one day this came to me:
At times, our energy exchanges on various levels get complex and messy. (In a therapeutic environment) we can allow these processes to be perceived as exchanges of healing energy.
Step outside and away from the sharp steel and glass angles of city buildings and nature becomes more apparent. It is then easier to become more conscious of the inability to be separate from nature and its cycles of decay and of renewal (and realizing our own worthiness for these processes). And from such a space other energies, especially subtle ones, are more likely to be made known.
During the retreat Love as the Breath of Life Ajahn Sucitto described a helpful technique for incoming negative energy. Withdraw to your strength, your center — not running away or contracting. Change to a wider focus, more collected, composed. Establish an upright axis with your spinal column. Extend awareness from feet on the ground into the sky with the perception of spaciousness then stay there; then there’s no place for projected negative energy to land. There’s no being lured out to fight it. Since there’s no want to push it away or deal with it, there’s no entangling and taking on the energy. Take your center back.
Along with a few other ways of addressing the challenges of energetic sensitivity this article explored gratitude, mindfulness, Hedonic Tone, the Three Characteristics of Existence, “self,” identification, equanimity, compassion, right effort, hinderances, energy, and detachment.
So did any of this approach wise, wholesome, skillful, ideal and optimal perceptions, views and responses for empathic experiences and phenomena? Did anything go beyond this? What options expressed here can best cultivate and develop greater balanced empathy?
I would love to learn any of these assessments as well as questions, experiences or methods pertaining to this article.
Sense well friends.