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By Nikita Mor

Empathy, Compassion and Altruism Research is still in its nascent stages, despite being a vital need, considering the current global political scenario, rising mental illnesses, social and economic inequality. According to President Obama, an “empathy deficit” was an even more pressing problem than the federal deficit. Empathy acts like a binding, social glue, and provides the evolutionary basis for human co-operation. As we are becoming increasingly connected in our digital age, it seems as if we are losing true empathy to the illusory nature of the deceptive screens of digital media. With the recent discover of mirror neurons (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron), and the advent of virtual reality, scientists are becoming increasingly interested in empathy.

Empathy is broadly divided into two kinds, Affective Empathy and Cognitive Empathy. If we are to combine eastern philosophy with western psychology, we can add Somatic and Spiritual Empathy to the categorization. People have various kinds of empathy types depending on stunted growth or development in certain areas of their psyche, their genetic makeup and societal conditioning.

1. Affective empathy

Affective empathy is also known as emotional empathy. It is the capacity to respond to another person’s emotional state. New age spirituality has introduced the term, ‘empath’ for people who exhibit high emotional intelligence in this category.  Empaths are known to be highly sensitive to the energy of the environment in which they are in, and have great difficulty maintaining their own boundaries. They have trouble distinguishing between their own and other’s emotions, which is called emotional contagion. This is due to their inherent need to help and heal humanity. They suffer from issues of abandonment, loss and rejection. Bipolar and borderline disorder patients are said to be high in emotional empathy, and low in emotional empathy.

Emotional empaths can learn to regulate their emotional state through self-awareness and self-management. Mindfulness meditation is a great way for emotional empaths to develop emotional independence. Conscious cognitive behavioral therapy such as will raise their intellectual empathy enabling them to view their emotions in a more objective and detached manner.

2. Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive Empathy is also known as intellectual empathy or perspective taking. This kind of intelligence enables a person to put themselves into another’s shoes, such that they can understand different points of view from an objective and rational standpoint. This is very useful for compromising and conflict resolution. They can recognize and perceive other’s inner motivations, thoughts and emotions, but do not feel them like emotional empaths do. Psychopaths and narcissists are said to be high in cognitive empathy and low in emotional empathy. They use their high emotional quotient to manipulate and emotionally abuse their victims. Cognitive Empaths must learn to become emotionally responsible, and get in touch with their feeling nature by opening their hearts to experience unconditional love, trust and emotional intimacy.

While emotional empathy more often happens to us inherently, cognitive empathy can be inculcated and developed through deliberate action by adopting exercises and activities such as role-playing, acting and writing workshops. Reading literature, watching films and honest and open communication with others also increases intellectual empathy.

3. Somatic Empathy

Somatic empathy is about physical reality, and how connected we are to the needs and desires of the body function. It is based on the principle of vitalism that seeks to bridge the mind-body dichotomy. In contemporary times, people are being medicated by suppressing the problems manifesting in their bodies, rather than addressing the root psychological cause.

For example, the writer Alice Miller in her recent book ‘The Body Never Lies’ says:

Ultimately the body will rebel. Even if it can be temporarily pacified with the help of drugs, cigarettes or medicine, it usually has the last word because it is quicker to see through self-deception than the mind. It language is the authentic expression of our true selves and of the strength of our vitality.”

Somatic empathy can be developed through practices such as the Feldenkrais method, which is a therapeutic dance that puts you in touch with the movements of your body. Vipassana meditation is a brilliant somatic meditation invented by S. N. Goenka and it teaches us to become aware the sensations of the body in order to master the power of our minds.  

4. Spiritual Empathy

The primary purpose of this form of empathy is a direct connection and communion with the source of universal consciousness and natural intelligent design. It is commonly known as enlightenment in esoteric eastern philosophy. Examples of spiritual empaths are religious leaders such as Gautama Buddha, and even great scientists such as Albert Einstein.

This form of empathy belongs to the realm of the quantum world of metaphysics, which is often beyond the comprehension of the human intellect, and can be accessed intuitively and imaginatively through the meditative practices.

“The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.” – Albert Einstein