Empathy appears to be a rather popular concept these days. In fact if it appears that you have no empathy with one who is suffering then you "must be cold and heartless". So Empathy is universally held in high regard.
When one examines this Empathy which is expected then you must theoretically be able to put yourself in their Suffering position and feel something akin to what they feel and furthermore feel sorry for them. What is more, that "fellow bedfellow" feeling must be expressed as condolence, and is called COMPASSION.
Traditionally, religions have espoused compassion as one of their higher
values, if not the highest. This COMPASSION is often attributed to a god supreme,
who is presented as merciful and taking pity on those who suffer, and in
extraordinary circumstances is even capable of intervening in human affairs to
improve their lot.
On the other hand, pity has also been considered a noble response in
society, and especially in Catholic countries, images of Christ on the cross and
the Virgin Mary as mater dolorosa silently
yet effectively convey the notion that suffering for the suffering of others is
not only the highest kind of divine love but also its most genuine human
EMPATHY and COMPASSION
Following cultural archetypes, we could say then that these two are the
masculine and feminine aspects of a single phenomenon.
COMPASSION is wishing that they do not Suffer
EMPATHY is experiencing what the other feels
This non-involvement which is less emotional might well explain the appeal of EMPATHY, insofar as it is perceived
as a neutral term, devoid of both the religious and the gender overtones of
compassion and pity in these increasingly secular, egalitarian times. Perhaps
that is why it has become common currency in psychotherapy and the mental heath
Be that as it may, the fact that empathy has displaced compassion and
pity as a label does not mean it has left behind the fundamental attitudes behind
its forerunners: to help and assist on one side, to and share and console on
the other. One seems more involved with mental processes, whereas the other is
more affective. If we look at definitions of empathy by experts, we can detect
a similar divide. Empathy can be variously conceived as:
“A complex form of psychological inference in which observation, memory,
knowledge, and reasoning are combined to yield insights into the thoughts and
feelings of others.” (William Ickes)
“The capacity to know emotionally what another is experiencing from
within the frame of reference of that other person, the capacity to sample the feelings
of another or to put one’s self in another’s shoes.” (D. M. Berger)
Or it can be understood as:
“An affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension
of another’s emotional state or condition, and that is similar to what the
other person is feeling or would be expected to feel.” (Nancy Eisenberg)
“Empathy is about spontaneously and naturally tuning into the other
person’s thoughts and feelings, whatever these might be [...] There are two
major elements to empathy. The first is the cognitive component: Understanding
the others feelings and the ability to take their perspective [...] the second
element to empathy is the affective component. This is an observer’s
appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotional state.” (Simon Baron-Cohen)
“[Empathy] is what happens to us when we leave our own bodies...and find
ourselves either momentarily or for a longer period of time in the mind of the
other. We observe reality through her eyes, feel her emotions, share in her
pain.” (Ken Lampert)
Perhaps the best definition is that of Carl Rogers:
“To perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the “as if” condition. Thus, it means to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it and to perceive the causes thereof as he perceives them, but without ever losing the recognition that it is as if I were hurt or pleased and so forth.”
What does Dharma have to say about empathy/compassion? Buddhist
teachings portray compassion as part of the innermost essence of human beings,
along with wisdom, and yet this compassion is understood quite differently from
the virtue of religion, in a way that is likely to disconcert newcomers and
maybe even put them off unless it is properly explained.
In Dharma psychology, compassion is understood as the noble aspiration
that no one suffer. Suffering, of course, is the cornerstone of the entire
Buddhist teaching, which means that anyone aspiring to follow the path of
Buddha Dharma needs to gain deep, experiential knowledge of what suffering is,
how it arises and how it can cease, as well as the method to bring about its
Furthermore the Dharma must add to the Carl Rogers definition:
“To perceive the illusory internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, knowing that Suffering to be an unnatural condition, without ever losing the “as if” condition. Thus, it means to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it and to perceive the illusory causes and the Natural solutions thereof, without ever losing the recognition that it is AS IF if I were hurt or pleased and so forth, nevertheless knowing the Truth regarding Suffering.”
Perhaps you can see the debility in the mundane approach to Empathy.
First, it reinforces the concept of Identity.
Second, it justifies the existence and acceptance of Suffering.
Within Compassion too, with mundane Empathy as a base, any Compassion is linked to an "I" who percieves the neccesity for Individual cessation of Suffering and thus puts blinkers upon the correct attitude, which is the Bodhisattva concept that all suffering should cease for all human creatures.
The Diamond Sutra, Part XXV, makes that clear.
"Subhuti, what do you think? Let no one say the Tathagata cherishes the idea: 'I must liberate all living beings.' Allow no such thought, Subhuti.
"Why? Because in reality there are no living beings to be liberated by the Tathagata. If there were living beings for the Tathagata to liberate, He would be participating in the idea of selfhood, personality entity, and separated individual.
"Subhuti, though the common people accept Identity as real, the Tathagata declares that Identity is not different from non-Identity.
"Subhuti, those whom the Tathagata referred to as 'common people' are not really common people; such is merely a name."