Empathy - it's not about cognition

Feb 19 2010 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

In his recent book, "Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis," Jeremy Rifkin concludes in one of his chapters: "...what is needed is a more transparent public debate around views of freedom, equality and democracy…a moratorium on the hyperbolic political rhetoric and incivility...and begin a civil conversation around our differing views on human nature."

He goes on: "This would offer us a moment in time to listen to each other, share our feelings, thoughts, concerns and aspirations, with the goal of trying to better understand each others' perspectives, and hopefully find some emotional and cognitive common ground."

While Rifkin's book is a detailed explanation of how we came to be a culture of incivility, and how empathy is a "way out," his conclusion falls short of a real solution. He equates "cognition" with "consciousness" and assumes we can talk ourselves into being empathetic.

But love and empathy are matters of the heart, not the mind, and here is where Rifkin and so many others who posit intellectual, social and cognitive solutions for social ills come up short.

Cognition and consciousness are not synonyms but polar ends of a continuum. Here's my take.

We live in challenging times - socially, politically, economically and in our daily lives. Incivility, disrespect, anger, hate and out-and-out personal attacks are a consequence of the un-ease and dis-ease many are experiencing.

So, can I just "think" myself into being empathetic with those who push my buttons? I think not.

Empathy is the ability and willingness to relate - not just cognitively or emotionally, but spiritually - to what another is feeling and thinking. Being empathetic, we choose to "walk in another's shoes," without egoistically needing to fix, teach, tell, advise, sympathize, explain or "set them straight."

Empathy is a heart-felt choice to engage intimately with others, providing a safe container for another to be vulnerable in our presence, feeling safe, secure, valued and heard. So, why is empathy so hard?

Under the surface-level anger, vitriol, distrust and disrespect, there's an element that sources our incivility - fear. Fear of what? Fear of losing control. Control of what? Our "identity," our need to feel like a "somebody."

When individuals and groups fear a loss of democracy, freedom and status or fear losing their jobs, homes, health care, educational opportunities, or their sense of self, they fear being relegated to the ranks of "nobodies."

How do you deal with these marginalized, fearful folks? Do you push them away? Do you see them as a threat to your identity, to your need to be a "somebody?" Does your "somebody-ness" depend on your doing, being and having more than them - a "zero-sum" approach where you feel, "if you get yours, then I won't get mine? Is your life a "me. vs. you" proposition? Do you see others as a means to end? This is where empathy comes into play.

One of the tenets of many spiritual traditions is the notion that "I am you". It is a metaphysical (far from cognitive) concept that points to the interconnection of all of life. An I/Thou approach to others is not based on packaging - looks, net worth, material possessions, etc. Instead, it is based on a heart-felt "we," rather than "me vs. you", a belief that we are more alike than separate.

There are four levels of consciousness:

  • Unconscious - instinctual, follower
  • Subconscious - habitual, robotic, drone-like, reactive
  • Conscious - aware, intelligent, conceptual
  • Higher Consciousness - intuitive, guiding, truthful, loving, universal

Empathy reflects a state in which we interact with others with a higher consciousness. It's not about "deciding" to do so; it's about an "inner knowing". It's heart-felt. Empathy results from "going inside," asking our hearts if our unconscious, subconscious, or conscious "stories" about others are honest, sincere, authentic and true, or are really defense mechanisms to protect our "ego" self. Empathy allows equality between and among individuals, all individuals.


  • Have you engaged in uncivil, demeaning, or disrespectful behavior recently? Did you justify your behavior? How?
  • How do you generally interact with folks who think differently from you?
  • Do you live life from an "I need to be right" perspective? If so, why do you think that's so?
  • Do you ever view compromise as a weakness? How about being empathetic?
  • Do you ever rationalize or justify another's uncivil or disrespectful behavior? If so, how or why?
  • Do you ever use "passion" as an excuse to behave inappropriately?
  • Have others ever accused you of behaving in an uncivil manner? If so, how did you respond to their accusations?
  • How did you and your family, deal with disagreement as you were growing up?
  • What do you notice if/when you think others on the planet are your brothers and sisters?
  • Can you envision a world where it's possible to respond to disagreement without being uncivil, bullying, enraged, or otherwise disrespectful?

So this higher consciousness, not cognition, is the "secret sauce" of cooperation, collaboration and connection with others. Higher consciousness is a heart-based state that allows me to "feel your pain" - I am you.

What's needed is a shift in consciousness, not cognition, that puts a microscope on our emotional, psychological and spiritual orientation to the planet and the people inhabiting it. This internal exploration is quiet, slow, continuous and intentional. It's not "thinking about," it's not intellectual. Here we query our heart, not our mind.

Einstein said "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." My take here is that thinking is not the problem, but consciousness. While folks may be thinking differently, they are not moving to a higher level of consciousness. And this is the problem - old wine, new wine skins.

The Indian Philosopher Krishnamurti said: "Thoughts are like furniture in a room with the windows and doors closed." Much of the dialogue about incivility issues are in this room, with the doors and windows closed. Lots of listening, agreeing, disagreeing, and "solutions" but it's the same old furniture, only now with different colors and textures.

Why? Because discussions are mostly intellectual and cognitive. Only the heart will allow fresh air and lead to true transformation.

The solutions to our challenges are not about new (cognitive) flavors of democracy, freedom, economics and the like; they are about co-relating and co-creating on a spiritual level.

Our mean-spiritedness, anger, mistrust, and intolerance will not be reduced or eliminated by a cognitive understanding, but through the application of the salve of a higher consciousness produced by our hearts and souls.

True empathy is not a matter of cognition. it's a matter of heart. The common ground we look to find is not in the real estate of the brain; but in the fertile fields of our hearts.

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.