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Empathy or Equanimity

Johan Holmberg -- Are you a feeler or a thinker? A quick overview of these two concepts makes you think that empathy is service to others while equanimity is service to self. But is it that black and white?

I was recently faced with yet another new challenge of battling two concepts against each other and introspectively seeking out an answer on which one is better, if both are good or if neither of them are. It seems that this is what I do and it goes to show by the articles I’ve written so far. So let’s break it down into details and see if we can find a reasonable answer.

Empathy is the ability to listen to a troubled individual and literally opening your mind up so that all the problems, worries, negative emotions, traumas and anxiety can flow into you. You literally feel the pain as you balance the garbage so that the other person starts to feel better when the weight gets transferred off their shoulders and onto yours. This is basically what therapy is about, or starts out as. Therapy Doc Linda Freedman posted a great analysis of it.

Equanimity is then exactly the opposite of empathy as it’s an inner state of total deflection from external negativity, misery and nuisances. This means that whatever inner emotional state you are in is very stable, completely of your own making and other people’s misfortunes or troubles don’t mean anything to you on a mental/emotional level. Comedy and Humor blogger Andrew Brunelle wrote a morein-depth post about this state on his blog.

A quick overview of these two concepts makes you think that empathy is service to others while equanimity is service to self. But is it that black and white?

The pros of empathy is that people will love to seek you out and open their heart to you, if that’s what you want through mastering this skill. Moreover, empathy doesn’t necessarily mean that you only use it to acquire negative feelings, but you might use it to gather some positivism and greatness for yourself when you surround yourself with uplifting people. The con is that it might be hard to turn off that connection in places where there’s little joy to go around. Additionally, it may take time to rid yourself of the miseries that you’ve taken upon yourself from a "session." Empathy is to improve the world through suffering (or easing suffrage).

The pros of equanimity is that you fully embrace the concept of your thoughts creating your circumstances. It is also the way of living in total emotional balance and harmony as opposed to the roller coaster of empathic living. Whatever you’re facing, it won’t paralyze, discourage or disappoint you, be it either things or people that affect your objectives. The con of it is that you may find it difficult to spontaneously rejoice over your own or others’ fortunate events. You might also become somewhat of a recluse as people don’t find much interest in spilling their guts over you, because they feel distant in your presence. Equanimity is to improve the world through leading by example (as in showing people that you are calm and unshakeable when facing otherwise stressful, terrifying or wretched events).

Equanimity shouldn’t be confused with indifference though. Or that a person becomes incapable of taking action. Or even that such a person is foolishly unafraid or unaffected by immediate danger. It could be described as total clarity of the present moment, but without having emotions influence your decision making or mind-set.

I believe each person is innately orientating toward one of these concepts more than to the other -- as with an MBTI preference. Even though one can’t experience both concepts simultaneously, the question is if one can master them both and use which ever state of mind suits a given situation. This would mean that you can have the pros of both and focus on lessening the impact of the cons of each that I mentioned.

Personally, I’ve always been following the discipline of equanimity very strongly. Empathy has naturally seemed to me as something I want to avoid as I feel I’m meant to orientate towards equanimity. My guess is that if I’d start to practise empathy with much effort, then my level of equanimity would suffer. But I’m not ruling out the possibility that a person can make such a mental shift as easily as pushing a button.

What I do suggest is that a person picks a side, any side. And moving from there it’s all about improving the chosen skill as far as possible to help balance society in the right direction. Both skills aim to reach a balance, either internally within each individual or then on the plane of interrelationships. So unless you happen to be a person who finds himself or herself capable of mastering both states whenever you want, my best bet is that you focus on the one that seems more right to you and that you practise it constantly to make it even better.

By constantly reading, learning, improving, questioning, and seeking new knowledge, Johan Holmberg has forced himself to attain higher levels of wisdom and consciousness. Investment, business, idea, and personal development orientated, he is more concerned about doing the right things than doing things right. His site, TheProbabilist.com, both a database and blog with a mission statement of "Improving Your Odds in Life," somehow links probability calculus with personal development. The information and insight provided on a wide range of topics are meant to open the mind, tickle the brain, leave food for thought, and challenge perceived certainties in order to make the impossible or unthinkable plausible.

© 2009 Johan Holmberg

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