On Empathy, Altruism and Selfish selflessness

I was wondering the other day how a homeless person would get on if they set themselves up outside a Yoga studio. Would they receive an endless stream of smiles, food, conversation and support. Would they be in on some of that ‘open hearted expansive love for all living beings’ that the teacher is telling us we are ‘radiating out from our heart chakras’ as we upwards facing dog ourselves to bliss in our organic bamboo hemp leggings?

Love for all living things

Love for all living things

Or would this human being without a home find themselves just as ignored and sidelined as they do anywhere else in a busy city. Do we only radiate over those we find sanitary and fitting with our schedule? Does our Yoga expand out to that which we find difficult, ugly and poorly aligned with our feel good coconut water flavoured enlightenment in this life time?

Can any of us who get on a Yoga mat and chant with love Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu say that we are really and truly acting in a way that is contributing to the wellbeing of all? Like ALL beings, not just the ones that suit us? I can’t. I often walk past homeless people and ignore them, I buy cheap clothes that are most likely made under substandard conditions in Vietnam or China, I am writing this on my macbook and I can’t vouch for Apple’s environmental and ethical standards of manufacture.

This open hearted love for all thing is easy when directed towards the lovely beautiful sparkly things. It is also easy from the comfort of my comparatively privileged existence as a white middle class female in the Western world. I can spout off all I like that we are connected and the whole world is ONE, that we can all open our hearts and love everyone, but really – has the world ever told or shown me otherwise? It’s easy to love a world that seems to love you back. We can only ever see the world from our own unique human experience and some people have a very very different experience to me. Like those who have grown up in a world where they are the ‘wrong’ colour, sex, religion or wrong anything else that is different.

How would it feel to be in someone else's head?

How would it feel to be in someone else’s head?

Can I ever really understand what the world looks and feels like to anyone else other than me? Can empathy actually exist or can we only hope to sympathise with those around us. By definition empathy is ‘the understanding and sharing of a specific emotional state with another person’. Sympathy, on the other hand, does not require the sharing of the same emotional state. Instead, sympathy is a concern for the well-being of another. So I can feel concern for others, but will I ever really know what life is like for them? Just because this time round (so far) my journey has been on the receiving end of much love from the world can I expect someone from a completely different set of experiences to as easily feel the same?

So as a mindful person trying to navigate my way through this world I need to respect the different experiences of others and appreciate they may just want to tell me to ‘shut up’ and maybe punch me in the face a little bit if I blab on in class too much about our ‘expansive and radiant love filled bliss bodies connected and at one with all’.

OK, so if I can’t ever really empathise then I will take myself out of the equation and try to act completely altruistically. Selfless service to others all the way.

Altruism is the act of giving to another or offering service without asking anything in return. Doing for another without even bringing your ‘self’ into the equation. But does altruism really exist? When I do finally bring myself to donate money to some cause or fish around for change in my bag to give to one of the pantheon of causes out there, I am the one who feels good. It is probably a piddly amount of small change but it makes me feel good – am I actually the one getting MORE out of this arrangements than the cause I am supposedly supporting?

Sharing is best

Sharing is best

Just like the act of saying thank you to someone is actually less about the person being thanked and more about how good it feels to be grateful for something. When I give my change to the Blind, Deaf, Rainforests, Tigers, Homeless or Children in war torn countries am I actually giving money and saying thank you in order to feel good that I am on the giving and not the receiving end. Is this altruism or actually my ego cleverly disguising total self interest as interest in others? Or perhaps we think we are purchasing some kind of ‘karmic insurance’, If I give now to others, I buy myself some good karma for when it comes a time that I might need the charitable help of others.

By giving to others we are putting ourselves in a space of gratitude – this absolutely makes us feel better. We don’t give to others to punish ourselves and end up feeling bad, we give to others and feel good about ourselves. We congratulate our thoughtfulness and the contribution we are making to the wellbeing of those more unfortunate than ourselves.

Do we as the givers actually end up receiving just as much from the giving as those we are intending to help? If we all just gave more to others all the time would we in fact be a whole lot happier?

There is always...

There is always…

So instead of going to a yoga class this week take your ‘self’ out of the story and try to see the world from another perspective – a perspective that might make you feel uncomfortable and not immediately filled with an easy flow of joy. Then go and give some stuff away to someone who needs it more that you. I guarantee you’ll feel just as good and you actually will be contributing to the well-being of all

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu


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