Empathy as a psychological way of being in the world

Alfred Adler was an Austrian medical doctor, psychotherapist, and founder of the school of individual psychology. His emphasis on the importance of feelings of inferiority, the inferiority complex, is recognized as an isolating element which plays a key role in personality development.

Empathy is key to the way forward, with ourselves in our own psychological development, with others, and with the many beings we share this world with. It’s something I find in my practice clients often need permission to give to themselves as they work on the issues they think brought them into the work and those that are influencing them unconsciously into the work. I’ve often used a version of tonglen practice, breathe in first compassion for yourself, then exhale compassion for the other (or the world) as a therapeutic tool. Dr. Keihl’s book felt very much like reading an extended version of tonglen, both the above version and the original which breathes in the pain of the world and exhales compassion. I was struck with the words, “Empathy is a grand connector across our complex web” (p. IDK because I have the kindle version).

I got to thinking how can we support the development of empathy in ways outside mindfulness and Buddhist practices. I think art in its many varieties is an option here. I’ve been considering the genre of novels that tell the story of an animals life from the perspective of the animal. These kinds of books offer a way into the life of the Other. I started by thinking of the book The Bees by Laline Paull. I learned so much about bees when I read the book, fell in love with the story of their lives, the meaning the had in their daily activities, and found myself feeling so connected to them we decided to start keeping bees (and planting special flowers for them). Two other books are interesting in this kind of empathy building, the White Bone (an elephant tribe) and the Rat, both of which tell their stories from their points of view, displacing humans. I’d like to believe these kinds of stories can build a bridge that can matter in this effort to curb climate change.

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