So what exactly is empathy? How does it differ from compassion or sympathy? Is there even a difference? Valid questions and depending on who you ask you will get differing responses that all seem weirdly similar. I thought it worth clarifying, from my understanding, the difference between these states of being, as well as dispelling some myths about them while I'm at it.
Sympathy is quite simply the state of "feeling sorry for" another person's plight, trouble or complications. It arises from our ability to see the other person as suffering and recognize that they are essentially having a hard go of it. We often sympathize when we have a difficult time placing ourselves in the other persons shoes, or when we only cognitively understand another's difficulty.
Sympathy typically comes with a sense of detachment, and as such we may not be emotionally affected by the person's issue. Sympathy is the first level of what I will call "love consciousness" (how's that for a hippy term) and is typically developed early in childhood when we first become cognizant that other people suffer when we may not be suffering.
Not everyone develops the ability to sympathize, and there are varying degrees of sympathy from the sincere to the guilt-induced obligatory variety. Common sympathy thoughts/statements include things like; "wow, that really sucks", "I feel bad for you", "I could see how that would be hard" etc. they are typically accompanied by either a slight level of sadness or a feeling of even awkwardness which arises because while you may recognize the situation/problem is difficult, but you also recognize it's not necessarily your problem.
Sympathy, when employed disingenuously can feel patronizing and can serve as mere lip service for those who don't want to seem insensitive or uncaring. We can sometimes express this type of sympathy when we learn of something difficult happening to someone we aren't close to. Sympathy tends to be more readily available when we are close to someone, and less available to strangers.
Sympathy very rarely occupies mental space outside of the immediate moment a situation is presented, in other words, it doesn't keep you up at night.
People often sympathize with starving children in 3rd world countries but very rarely make strides to actively help. However, if help is given through sympathy it is relatively detached and can often arise out of a desire to absolve guilt (I.e., putting money in the canister at the grocery store,). Don't get me wrong, this type of assistance is helpful and can sometimes insight compassion if one delves deeper into the problem at hand.
Compassion is a form of upgraded sympathy. When we feel compassion toward another we feel compelled to offer aid. Our sympathy may have deepened to such a level that while we cannot personally identify with the situation we recognize that the person/people need assistance. We often feel a sense of duty, responsibility, sadness or anxiety in considering how the other person could possibly be feeling (usually because we put ourselves in their shoes).
Compassion compels us to be of service to others. It represents a different level of moral/ethical functioning because it moves us out of impersonal detachment into productive service. Compassion begins to utilize our heart energy and people may feel the love we have for them.
Compassion contains more spiritual energy because through our desire to ease the suffering of others despite our having not experienced the plight ourselves we have moved closer to the recognition of universal connectedness. Compassion can easily be mistaken for meddling or rescuing when our own personal egoic need to fix another's problems because we know better usurps the purer compassion aims.
However, compassionate service does typically involve some egoic attachment as we often feel better once we've administered aid. This is not a bad thing and is often referred to as altruism, which is the act of helping others in order to feel a sense of well-being and accomplishment. As such it is a feature of a high functioning ego when compassion and service are sought as a way to alleviate sympathetic feelings of sadness or pain. Compassion is often what arises when people move to help others after a disaster or tragedy.
There are two distinct levels of empathy which are very rarely discussed. "Normal" empathy is the ability to feel the others pain as one's own. You need not have experienced the exact same situation as the other in order to feel empathetic, nonetheless you can seemingly feel the same feelings of hurt, pain, fear, hopelessness or joy that one may be experiencing in your own body/mind as though it were you.
There are some personality styles that are more naturally empathetic such as those who are inclined to process information kinesthetically. There is an imbibing of the other's emotional content which can cause the person to seemingly feel the feelings of another. Additionally, Those who are empathic may psychically pick up on emotional energy around them and internalize them as their own (sometimes involuntarily). However being empathic does not presuppose that someone may also feel compassion or offer aid, and for some it can be burdensome.
Spiritual or True empathy is the identification of the other as the self. It comes from the deeply felt (not cognitively understood) realization that what happens to another happens to oneself. True empathy develops typically after one has gained enough wisdom to intuitively understand the connectedness of all beings. Spiritual empathy can extend to any living being, even those some may consider undeserving of empathy (the murderer, the rapist, the thief, and the saint). It doesn't imply condoning the action but understanding that ones actions arise from their own state of awareness, and awareness develops over time (often many lifetimes).
True empathy is not only the recognition of the self in the other but the recognition that what you do to another you do to yourself. Once one has gained True empathy it may have periods of dormancy and activity depending on ones level of awareness of it in their consciousness, but it does not go away. There is always the twinge of recognition of connectedness behind each interaction.
Spiritual empathy may include compassionate service, or or may only be a recognition of the state of empathy in one's consciousness without action (typically the greater awareness or karmic ties and universal laws, interference or action may not be taken, this is why some of the great spiritual masters can seem alternately giving and detached). Those who are at the beginning levels of spiritual empathy development may feel deeply pained by world problems and the suffering of others and if properly motivated may take to administering to others or alleviate suffering (think Martin Luther King Jr., or Gandhi).
For example Amma, the hugging saint who has embraced over 33 million people, has said that true love (empathy) is seeing God in everyone and treating them as such. As a Perfect Master this propels her toward living in a constant remembrance of herself as God and God in the other. She sits for sometimes 20 plus hours at a time hugging people as though they were her own children. Aaron and I have been to receive her darshan (blessing) a few times now and we are floored by the genuine love that seems to seep out of her pores.
Research has shown that True empathy is actually a rarity in human beings, and that when people do experience empathy it often makes the uncomfortable, at which they cut it off. True empathy is an expression of the opening of the heart center.
Showing sympathy, compassion or empathy does not presuppose one is better than another, it's merely deeper expressions of love. However Sincere sympathy is miles ahead of false empathy or worse cold indifference.
Furthermore virtually nobody (except maybe some highly advanced souls) can experience empathy all the time. It would render most people ineffective in caring for their everyday needs. We all shift in varying degrees from indifference to sympathy, compassion and empathy.
Quick Guide to empathy, sympathy and compassion
1.) "That sucks they seem pretty hurt."-sympathy
2.) "I hurt because I've been through something like that."-sympathy
3.) "I feel bad, that could be me."-sympathy
4.) "I feel terrible that they're hurting, I want to help."-compassion
5.) "I can feel how hurt they are"-empathic empathy
6.) "I hurt because they hurt."-empathy
7.) "I hurt because I am you."-true empathy