Empathy Without Overflow
2 min –
HOW TO BE IN A MESS WITHOUT BEING A MESS
To resonate is to vibrate with. One of the first things people get a feel for, when coming through the Resonate course is that the quality of their relationships – from friends and family to clients, colleagues, and customers – is based in resonance. Phrases like “getting on the same wavelength” or “catching a vibe” are more than mere metaphors. The more relaxed and sensitive we are, the better we read people – i.e., literally vibrate with them – and the more attuned we are in how we engage with them.
On the one hand, this feels wonderful when resonance results in a super-connected conversation, successful influencing, or winning new customers. But it can feel not so wonderful when we feel pulled into another person’s suffering. A question I’m often asked is how can we be around people who are conflicted, traumatized or suffering without taking on negative energy ourselves? This is an especially potent question for people who face suffering daily as they teach, coach, counsel and care for people who are struggling or even dying.
One approach sometimes advocated is to protect ourselves from negative energy by putting up emotional shutters. While shutters can be temporarily useful when the emotional winds are too strong, resonance shows us the downside of this advice; namely, that we become less sentient, less alive. When we protect ourselves, our bodies tense up, we feel more separate, and our actions become more superficial and vacant.
There is another way — and that is to be integrated and connected in such a way that we can conduct energy of all kinds through ourselves and bring it to ground. At its best, our body-mind and breath can function something like a clear rain gutter that conducts water from the eaves to the earth. To get a feel for how this works, try sending an exhale down through your body, through your big toes into the earth. This is a physical, practice-able skill that hones our resonance and allows us to weather emotional storms. While you’re not literally sending air down through your toes, you’ll get a sense of breath-guided energy that can drop through your entire body. You might only get a sense of breath dropping down a short distance, but going no further. Wherever breath-energy stops or gets stuck, it reveals a place of tension that, in our rain gutter analogy, is a kink or break in segments of the gutter. Practice can repair our flow.
To follow the metaphor further, even if we start out relaxed and can conduct negative energy to ground as it passes through us and we vibrate with it, it may well trigger some disturbance in us. So, a companion skill, equally physical and practice-able, is to learn how to face our own conflicts and sticking points so that they don’t clog up our rain gutter. A clogged rain gutter cannot handle heavy rains, and the water may back up and pour out every which way. But if we clear out what’s stuck, a rain gutter can handle a torrent.
And so it is with us. When we know we can handle difficult energy, we can be more alive and present to a greater range of people and situations. By physically working with our own breath and conflict triggers – practices shared in the Resonate course – we can more clearly ground the energy of emotional storms. Rather than shielding ourselves, we can remain resonant instruments, empathetic and connected. We feel more alive, and as others experience a resonant connection with us, they feel less alone, less afraid. We may well find it’s when we are facing trauma and suffering that we can do our most significant, healing work.
Ginny Whitelaw, Author & CEO, Institute for Zen Leadership
A biophysicist and former senior manager for integrating NASA’s International Space Station, Dr. Whitelaw has trained leaders on the path of making a difference for more than 25 years, working with mind, body, energy and resonance through the Institute for Zen Leadership.
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