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In his book, “Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis,” Jeremy Rifkin argues that “…what is needed is a more transparent public debate around views of freedom, equality and democracy…a moratorium on the hyperbolic political rhetoric and incivility…and begin a civil conversation around our differing views on human nature. This would offer us a moment in time to listen to each other, share our feelings, thoughts, concerns and aspirations, with the goal of trying to better understand each other’s perspectives, and hopefully find some emotional and cognitive common ground…”

While Rifkin’s book provides a detailed explanation of how we arrived at our culture of incivility and how empathy is a “way out,” I think his conclusion falls short of a real solution. He equates “cognition” with “consciousness” and assumes we can talk ourselves into being empathetic. But love and empathy are matters of the heart, not the mind, and this is where Rifkin (and so many others who posit intellectual and cognitive solutions for social ills) comes up short.

Cognition vs. consciousness

Cognition and consciousness are poles apart. They are not synonyms, but rather polar ends of a continuum. Here’s my take.

We live in challenging times – socially, politically, economically and in our everyday lives. Incivility, disrespect, and out-and-out personal attacks are a consequence of a prevailing sense of unease, resentment and fear. So, can I just “think” myself into being empathic with those who push my buttons? I think not.

The challenge of empathy

Empathy is the ability and willingness to relate – not just cognitively or emotionally, but psychologically and spiritually – to what someone else is feeling. Being empathic, we choose to “walk in another’s shoes” without needing to “fix,” advise, sympathize, interrogate, explain or “set them straight.”  It is a heart-felt choice to engage intimately with others, providing a safe container for another to be vulnerable in our presence and to be valued and heard.

But why is empathy so hard? Underneath the hood of surface-level anger, distrust and disrespect there’s an element that sources our incivility: fear – in particular, fear of losing control, losing our “identity,” losing recognition, i.e., our need to feel like a “somebody,” and losing a sense of security – mentally, physically, emotionally or psychologically.

When individuals or groups fear a loss of status, or worry about losing their jobs, their homes, their health care, their educational opportunities, their families and sense of self, they fear being relegated to the ranks of “nobodies.” And nobody wants to be a “nobody.”

So how do you deal with these marginalized, fearful individuals? Do you push them away? Do you see them as a threat to your identity, to your feelings of being “somebody?” Do your feelings of status and “somebody-ness” depend on doing, being and having more than them – a “zero-sum” approach to life where you feel that “if you get yours, then I won’t get mine?”

In other words, is your life a “me vs. you” proposition? Do you see others merely as a means to end? If you do, this is where empathy comes into play.

I am you

One tenet of many spiritual traditions is the notion that “I am you” – a metaphysical (far from cognitive) concept that points to the interconnection of all of life. An “I/Thou” approach to others is not based on the other’s packaging (their looks, net worth, education or the quality and quantity of their material possessions). Instead, it focuses on a heart-felt “we” rather than “me vs. you,” on how we are more alike than different. I/Thou assumes a higher level of “consciousness” in how you orient to the planet and the people on it.

There are four levels of consciousness:

  • Unconscious – instinctual, follower
  • Subconscious – habitual, robotic, drone-like, reactive
  • Conscious – aware, intelligent, conceptual
  • Higher Consciousness – intuitive, guiding, truthful, loving, universal, heart-driven

Empathy reflects a state wherein which you interact with others at a higher level of consciousness. It’s heart-felt, resulting from asking ourselves whether our unconscious, subconscious, or conscious “stories” about others are honest and authentic or are really defense mechanisms designed to protect our “ego” selves. From a place of real empathy, the energy of love and warmth fill the space between two people, not the coldness and resentment of a “me vs. you” perspective.

Empathy allows equality between and among individuals. And higher consciousness, not cognition, is also the “secret sauce” of cooperation, collaboration, compassion and connection with others. It allows me to “feel your pain” – to feel that I am you.

Einstein said: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” My take here is that “thinking” is not the problem, but consciousness. You may be thinking differently, but that’s not the same as moving to a higher level of consciousness. And that’s the problem: old wine, new wine skins. That’s why the solutions to our challenges won’t be found in new (cognitive or intellectual) flavors of democracy, or freedom, or social panaceas, or economics; instead, they lie in co-relating and co-creating on a spiritual level.

Our mean-spiritedness, anger, mistrust and intolerance will not be eliminated by cognitive understanding because true empathy is not a matter of cognition. The common ground we need to find is not in the real estate of the brain, but in the fertile fields of our hearts.

The Indian Philosopher Krishnamurti described thoughts as being “like furniture in a room with the windows and doors closed.” Sadly, many of the well-meaning individuals who seek “solutions” to incivility issues are in this same room. They suggest plenty of solutions, but they are all the same old furniture, only with different covers, or textures or shapes, etc. The problem is that discussions are mostly intellectual and cognitive. Only the heart allows fresh air to circulate and brings true transformation, new “furniture.”

Empathy is not thinking

So, what we need is a shift in consciousness, not cognition – one that puts under the microscope our emotional, psychological and spiritual orientation to the planet and those inhabiting it. This internal exploration is quiet, slow, continuous and intentional. It’s not “thinking about,” it’s not intellectual. Here we look into and listen to our hearts, not our minds.

This higher consciousness also allows us to enter into communication and harmony with others from a place where we relate to others as “brothers and sisters.”

Some questions for self-reflection:

  • Have you engaged in uncivil or disrespectful behavior recently? Did you justify it?
  • How do you generally interact with those who think differently from you?
  • Do you live life from an “I need to be right” perspective? If so, why?
  • Do you ever view compromise as a weakness? How about being empathetic?
  • Do you ever justify another’s uncivil behavior?
  • Do you ever use “passion” as an excuse to behave inappropriately?
  • Have others ever accused you of behaving in an uncivil manner? If so, how did you respond?
  • How did you, your family, deal with disagreement as you were growing up?
  • What do you notice if/when you think others on the planet are your brothers and sisters?
  • Can you envision a world where it’s possible to respond to disagreement without being uncivil, angry or otherwise disrespectful?


(c) 2015, Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D. and True North Partnering. All rights in all media reserved.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this reading with you and I hope you find it insightful and useful. Perhaps you’ll share this with others, post it on a bulletin board, and use it to generate rich and rewarding discussion.

What is the one thing that is keeping you from feeling successful, happy, confident, in control or at peace as you live your life – at work, at home, at play or in relationship? Maybe you know what that thing is…maybe you don’t. You just have a feeling that something has to change, whether or not you embrace that change. And how would that change support you to show up as a “better you?”

I’m available to guide you to create relationships that reflect honesty, integrity, authenticity, trust, and respect whether at work or outside of work. I support you to focus on the interpersonal skills that enable you to relate to others with a high level of personal and professional satisfaction – unhampered by personal inconsistencies, beliefs, “stories,” and behaviors that create barriers to a harmonious, pleasant, conscious, compatible, healthy and productive relationship.

I coach by phone, Skype and in person. For more information, 770-804-9125, www.truenorthpartnering.com or pvajda(at)truenorthpartnering.com

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