Empathy Flows up Stream

Most of us feel we should be generous towards others less fortunate than us. But lacking spontaneous empathy with others, we can feel reluctant, insincere and inauthentic.

Perhaps we misunderstand the nature of positive engagement with the world? When we tell ourselves to behave according to some notion of virtue, we place ourselves outside the state of mind in which generosity arises naturally.

Bach’s two-part inventions are not like two players hitting a ball back and forth across a net strung between them. Invention–like exploration and engagement–is the creative celebration of an inherent harmony of nature.

The notion that we must act a certain way may miss the point. Feeling obligated to strive after an ideal, we may lack a sense of mutual engagement and find that our energy flows out of us until we feel depleted. The material world is full of such one-directional flows. Water flows down to the sea, rain falls from the sky upon the earth beneath, apples tumble to the ground—all pulled down by gravity. But nature is not constrained by such one-way gravitational forces. Cycles of replenishment are the norm. Water evaporates from the ocean and feeds the streams that flow back down to the sea. Positive feelings, such as generosity, empathy, and love naturally replenish those who feel them.

Just as ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ generosity nurtures anyone who opens their doors to friends and strangers. And empathy for the plight and feelings of others can help us to feel less isolated, our lives more meaningful.

We could call it the mystery of “the river whose water flows uphill”—like sap flowing uphill in a living tree, rising upwards from ground water, through roots and trunk to feed leaves blown by the morning breeze.

When we reach out in spontaneous empathy to another, we feel how easily our situations could be reversed. We glimpse a realm that extends far beyond our ordinary volleying back and forth–between me-and-them, self-and-other, giver-and-receiver, subject-and-object. When we widen our view to include the fields of being that make our individual lives possible, and appreciate the needs and perspectives of others alongside our own, then the terrible isolation–as a single point clinging to our foothold in meaningless emptiness–may dissolve, allowing us to feel at home at last.

2 comments to “Empathy Flows up Stream”
  1. Hayward,
    I would be delighted to have you distribute this to others. And may I say that I hope that your generosity will flow upstream to its source, since it has already reached me downstream.
    Michael

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