The Empathic Dogma

Nolde_Masks1911(Part 2 of Against Empathy.)

Empathy—what a beautiful surrogate for the disempowered. –Jan Slaby

Western x-buddhism prides itself on being an exemplary supplier of a supposedly much-needed salve to contemporary social and interpersonal conflict: empathy. But according to Jan Slaby anything approaching a robust sense of empathy–literally feeling another’s pain–would require an untenable concept of personhood. It would require, for instance, objectification of the other person through an imagined, egoistically-informed pretense to experiential correspondence. Such an imposition is nothing short of an usurpation of agency. That the prevailing x-buddhist view of empathy mimics this popular view is particularly pernicious since it requires the inclusion of an (ostensibly) impermissible metaphysical feature: an atman. In contemporary western x-buddhism, empathy is understood as an encounter or “resonance” between discrete minds. Ironically, x-buddhists may abandon this absurdity by insisting on a notion of agency that is more consistent with classical-buddhist teaching in the first place. Such a notion will require, for instance, a revaluation of the currently anathema concept of reactivity, whereby the presumed certitude of “empathic resonance” is replaced by the non-presumptuous interaction with other people, of reacting, that is, with incertitude, to, for instance, gesture, facial expression, and language. But to do so, western x-buddhists will have to forgo their celebration of the currently fashionable theory of Human Nature 2.0.

Concerning the topic of empathy, what is most in need of analysis is the remarkably swift change in style, direction and normative tendency within both social brain research and science-inspired accounts of human nature in the past thirty or so years. (21; for references and links, see “Against Empathy” post.)

In short, according to Slaby, this shift concerns the recent scuttling of Human Nature 1.0 for Human Nature 2.0.  This topic is central to a critique of contemporary x-buddhism because Human Nature 2.0 has, like the belief in empathy that is embedded within it, become yet another ingrained–and poorly considered–western x-buddhist dogma.* Continue reading “The Empathic Dogma”

Against Empathy

masksThe possibility of empathy is a western-buddhist dogma. Empathy, together with its near relative, compassion, may even be considered a necessary axiom of contemporary x-buddhist belief, whether in a secular, crypto, or traditional inflection. For, without the possibility of empathy and compassion, x-buddhism loses its ethical footing, its prime rationale for practice, and its very impetus toward the pro-social utopian. In this post, I’d like to present a paper that challenges the possibility of an activity that resembles our folk notions of “empathy.” The article, by the German thinker Jan Slaby, is aptly title “Against Empathy” (links below).

Before I do, I want to set the stage a bit by giving an indication of how these terms function in contemporary x-buddhist discourse. We can glean the axiomatic/dogmatic nature of the x-buddhist belief in empathy-compassion from the Tricycle article entitled “Empathy or Compassion? Reflections on the Compassion Meditation Conference.” This article is a report on a now familiar scene, where, “scholars and researchers in psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience congregated alongside His Holiness the Dalai Lama for,” in this case, Emory University’s 2010 conference on “compassion meditation.” The question at hand was not “what do we mean by ‘empathy’ and ‘compassion’?” The conference presupposed folk meanings for the terms; namely, that they refer to feeling or, as the report puts it, “resonating” with, another’s pain.

The issue at hand was thus how empathy and compassion might differ from and complement one another. Go-to x-buddhist compassion expert, Matthieu Ricard, “western monk, scientist, and author,” explained the importance of resolving this matter by:

considering how the experience of empathy without compassion would induce incredibly unpleasant, even crippling, states.  The following day, Matthieu explained the testing of this hypothesis in the lab, where seasoned meditators were instructed to resonate with others’ suffering without generating compassion or performing cognitive reappraisal until the practice became utterly unbearable—and it did.  When the meditators in the lab then generated compassion, their experience transformed completely.  These meditators had trained extensively in generating compassion in the face of suffering almost immediately, but teasing apart empathy and compassion in the lab proved to be extremely illuminating.

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson then “presented findings suggesting that empathy and compassion correlate to differing neural states:”

He found that the circuits engaged by compassion training partially overlap with those activated during empathy, but differ in that they also involve the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which he suggested might play a role in expressing and enacting aspiration.  Such would accord with the Buddhist definition of compassion—the aspiration that others be free from suffering.

So, one conclusion of the conference was that:

Empathy that resonates with another’s painful condition causes the empathizer to experience that same suffering, which can easily overwhelm. Training in compassion can transform the same empathy that in itself is debilitating into a helpful force.

Of course, we learn nothing about what empathy and compassion are from any of this. We are merely offered a circular argument: when certain subjects “resonated” with others’ “suffering,” thereby experiencing the “same” suffering, certain things occurred in the area of their brains that “might” have something to do with something called “aspiration” to “resonate” with and eliminate another’s pain. The burning question of just what these people were actually doing as they “resonated” is left unasked. Continue reading “Against Empathy”