Empathy comes from the heart, not the mind

Dec 17 2012 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

In his book, "Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis," Jeremy Rifkin argues that "...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. 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 provides a detailed explanation of how we arrived at our 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 this is where Rifkin (and so many others who posit intellectual and cognitive solutions for social ills) comes up short.

Cognition and consciousness are poles apart. They are not synonyms, but rather polar ends of a continuum. Here's my take.

We live in challenging times - socially, politically, economically and in our daily lives. Incivility, disrespect, and out-and-out personal attacks are a consequence of a prevailing sense of unease. So, can I just "think" myself into being empathetic with those who push my buttons? I think not.

The challenge of empathy
Empathy is the ability and willingness to relate - not just cognitively or emotionally, but spiritually - to what someone else is feeling. Being empathetic, we choose to "walk in another's shoes" without needing to "fix", advise, sympathize, interrogate, explain or "set them straight". It is a heart-felt choice to engage intimately with others, providing a safe container for another to be vulnerable in our presence and to be valued and heard.

But why is empathy so hard? Underneath the hood of surface-level anger, distrust and disrespect there's an element that sources our incivility: fear – in particular, fear of losing control, losing our "identity" and our need to feel like a "somebody".

When individuals or groups fear a loss of democracy or status, or worry about losing their jobs, their homes, their health care, their educational opportunities, their families and sense of self, they fear being relegated to the ranks of "nobodies". And nobody wants to be a "nobody".

So how do you deal with these marginalized, fearful individuals? Do you push them away? Do you see them as a threat to your identity, to your feelings of being "somebody"? Do your feelings of status and "somebody-ness" depend on doing, being and having more than them - a "zero-sum" approach to life where you feel that "if you get yours, then I won't get mine"?

In other words, is your life a "me. vs. you" proposition? Do you see others merely as a means to end? If you do, this is where empathy comes into play.

I am you
One tenet of many spiritual traditions is the notion that "I am you" - 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 the other's packaging (their looks, net worth, education or the quality and quantity of their material possessions). Instead, it focuses on a heart-felt "we" rather than "me vs. you", on how we are more alike than different. I/Thou assumes a higher level of "consciousness" in how you orient to the planet and the people on it.

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 where in which you interact with others at a higher level of consciousness. It's heart-felt, resulting from asking ourselves whether our unconscious, subconscious, or conscious "stories" about others are honest and authentic or are really defense mechanisms designed to protect our "ego" selves.

This higher consciousness also allows us to enter into communication and harmony with others from a place where we relate to others as "brothers and sisters".

From a place of real empathy, the energy of love and warmth fill the space between two people, not the coldness and resentment of the "me vs. you" perspective. Empathy allows equality between and among individuals. And higher consciousness, not cognition, is also the "secret sauce" of cooperation, collaboration, compassion and connection with others. It allows me to "feel your pain" – to feel that I am you.


  • Have you engaged in uncivil or disrespectful behavior recently? Did you justify it?
  • How do you generally interact with those who think differently from you?
  • Do you live life from an "I need to be right" perspective? If so, why?
  • Do you ever view compromise as a weakness? How about being empathetic?
  • Do you ever justify another's uncivil behavior?
  • 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?
  • How did you, 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, angry or otherwise disrespectful?

Empathy is not thinking
So what we need is a shift in consciousness, not cognition – one that puts under the microscope our emotional, psychological and spiritual orientation to the planet and those inhabiting it. This internal exploration is quiet, slow, continuous and intentional. It's not "thinking about", it's not intellectual. Here we query our hearts, not our minds.

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. You may be thinking differently, but that's not the same as moving to a higher level of consciousness. And that's the problem: old wine, new wine skins.

The Indian Philosopher Krishnamurti described thoughts as being "like furniture in a room with the windows and doors closed". Sadly, many of the well-meaning individuals who seek "solutions" to incivility issues are in this same room. They suggest plenty of solutions, but they are all the same old furniture, only with different covers. The problem is that discussions are mostly intellectual and cognitive. Only the heart allows fresh air to circulate and brings true transformation.

That's why the solutions to our challenges won't be found in new (cognitive) flavors of democracy, freedom or economics; instead, they lie in co-relating and co-creating on a spiritual level. Our mean-spiritedness, anger, mistrust and intolerance will not be eliminated by cognitive understanding because true empathy is not a matter of cognition. The common ground we need 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.