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Empathy Struggles

As prior blogs have explained, I have been gifted with a 4-step practice to help us engage with others as we would wish—as our best selves. The LovePOEM is comprised of Pause, Observe, Empathize, and Message. Prior blogs have dived into Pause and Observe. One blog introduced Empathize. I encourage you to refamiliarize yourself with these prior steps. This and future blogs will more fully explain Empathizing. When we have not Observed clearly, it is nearly impossible to Empathize. And, we need to Pause so that we have the space and resources to Observe. However, remembering to Pause does not always happen.

We have all noticed that we are better able to Empathize with—to stand barefoot next to—some people over others. I was first able to recognize this in work contexts, when I would feel envious of someone’s accomplishments, and therefore, insecure about my own. Next, I started seeing how I struggle to Empathize with certain people in situations where I fear not getting enough ‘space.’ As I Observe when I struggle to Empathize and empathize with myself for these struggles, I have options as to how I will respond.

Yoga: Opportunities to Practice the LovePOEM

A particularly poignant example of my struggle to use the LovePOEM when it could have helped me occurred a couple of years ago in a yoga class. I was at a studio new to me; being unfamiliar with the norms, I had arrived earlier than most of the students. I placed my mat on the floor and started relaxing into the space. Another student arrived, clearly upset when they saw me, and placed their mat close to mine. Throughout the session, we would inadvertently bump into each other, and I was repeatedly aware of the hostility that I perceived to be coming from them. If I had Paused and Observed, I could have found the empathy to assume that this student was used to practicing in the spot I had taken—a lovely window-front location—and for whatever reason, would benefit from having it that day. I could have moved to somewhere else in the room, or at the very least, moved my mat slightly up or back so that we didn’t run into each other as we practiced. Instead, I ‘stood my ground’ and continued the conflict. As the class ended, trying to avoid eye contact, we each quickly rolled up our yoga mats and departed. I didn’t leave the class feeling relaxed—and I bet they didn’t either! Although it wasn’t a rejuvenating yoga experience, I am grateful for the collisions as they pointed out to me my fears and needs, and where I wish to do additional work on compassionately rewriting my scripts.

Recently, I had a similar—and, oh so different—yoga experience. This time, I was the one coming in when there was little remaining space. I asked another student if I could share their large spot. Again, I felt less than fully welcomed by the other student. And, so, I Paused. I Observed. And, with empathy, I wondered how I might make this yoga class as healing as possible for each of us. I realized that even though I was in a corner, I could move my mat back about 6” and still not hit the wall. Similarly, when we assumed standing poses, I purposefully stood a little further back on my mat, making it so that we could each spread our arms, without hitting each other. As the yoga class continued, supporting my Pause practice, I Observed myself more deeply. I realized that this stranger reminded me of someone with whom I have a complex intimate relationship—there were some surface similarities in their builds and mannerisms. I Empathized with myself—how my fears that I might not ‘get enough space’ had been triggered. I wondered if my classmate might have similar fears. From this place of self-empathy, I challenged my transference: this was a unique person, about whom I knew next to nothing. I acknowledged that the beloved of my intimate relationship has never practiced yoga—here was one obvious difference between them. Later, when their left foot was near my mat, I observed that one of their toes crossed over the other. It looked painful. It made their ability to balance on that foot all the more impressive. My heart overflowed with empathy—and curiosity about all that I did not know about them. I felt love for my yoga neighbor. And love for myself—and for my beloved, wherever they might be. I didn’t get to thank my yoga partner for sharing ‘her space’ with me, as she left quickly after the class ended. Trying to stand barefoot next to her (which we literally were doing at times), had made this yoga experience so different than the prior example. I left that class feeling calm, connected to my yoga community, and with enhanced capacity to care about others.

LovePOEM: Sequential and Recursive

Sharing space in a yoga class with a stranger is a relatively low stakes and easy time to practice the LovePOEM. And, yet, as my examples show, just about anytime we are with others, our assumptions and needs have the potential to spark conflict in our interactions. Low stakes, easy interactions are therefore perfect grounds for practicing the LovePOEM. Also, as these examples illuminate, as we repeatedly cycle through Pause, then Observe, and then Empathize, we can go deeper into our understanding of and empathy for ourselves. As my acceptance and empathy for myself blossomed, I was able to have deeper empathy for my yoga neighbor. Unbidden and most welcomed, I even felt more empathy for my non-present beloved. Imagine how different an after-class conversation would have been with these two yoga students, had I engaged with them, due to where I was emotionally!

Yoga and other mediation practices are inherently designed to help us Pause. Once we have paused, we are primed to Observe and then Empathize. But, just because we Pause, this does not ensure that we will move to Observe. Similarly, just because we Observe does not mean that we will Empathize. Each step provides the opportunity and the resources needed for the next step, but not the assurance that we will engage in the next step—it is a necessary, but not always sufficient, prerequisite. That’s why it is a practice. With practice, we become facile with utilizing the LovePOEM when it can help us most.

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