In recent years, there has been a rise in religious, political and racial intolerance across the globe. However, despite all of these differences, there is one point on which almost all world religions unanimously agree, and that is following the Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule appears prominently in the teachings of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Sikhism. The rule has been expressed in various ways by different religions, but at its core involves being empathetic to our fellow beings. Given below are a few examples.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” – The Bible (Christianity)
“This is the sum of duty: Do nothing to others that, if done to you, could cause you pain.” –The Mahabharata (Hinduism)
“None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” – An-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith (Islam)
“I will act towards others exactly as I would act towards myself.” – The Siglo-Vada Sutta (Buddhism)
“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation….” – The Babylonian Talmud (Judaism)
Now, while the Golden Rule may sound pretty easy and self-explanatory, taking the effort to apply this advice in our lives is anything but easy. For example, I’m sure everyone will agree that they don’t like being judged by others and find it hurtful. But most of us never think twice before passing judgement on others.
While the Golden Rule is something many of us may have already heard growing up, most of us are have never been taught how to apply this in our own lives. Therefore, this rule gets reduced to clichéd advice that everybody knows about, but almost nobody lives by. So in this post, I’d like to go deeper and explain how we can practice being empathetic in our lives, especially when it is challenging.
“Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.” – Carl Jung
Our minds may not always be able to conceive what prompts people to do certain things. However, we may never reach a place of understanding if we are adamant about viewing people’s actions solely from our point of view — which is our usual tendency. Empathy begins with seeing things from others’ points of view. This is summed up beautifully by Atticus Finch in his 1960 book To Kill A Mockingbird when he explains to his daughter,
“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Putting yourself in another person’s shoes requires patience and thoughtfulness. However, our default human tendency is to judge others. But as author Richard Carlson rightly says, “When we judge or criticise another person, it says nothing about that person; it merely says something about our own need to be critical.”
When I look back at my own life, I have never gained anything from judging anyone. On the contrary, it has only had a negative impact on my relationship with others. To make space for empathy in our lives, we must be willing to let go of our judgements towards others since it can be difficult for both to coexist at the same time.
Showing empathy and understanding towards another may be the last thing on our minds in the middle of a heated exchange or an argument with someone. The same can be said when we encounter people who push our buttons or even when someone cuts across us in traffic.
In such situations, it’s easier to react and get carried away by the force of our emotions like anger or frustration. Instead, pause and take a few deep breaths so that you become present and don’t automatically get carried away to react or lash out. Or as Thomas Jefferson suggested:
“When angry, count to ten, before you speak; if very angry, a hundred [before responding].”
Just like how you cannot trust your mental faculties when you are intoxicated by alcohol or drugs, you can’t expect to think clearly, much less with empathy, when you feel triggered or you are in a highly emotional state. Once your mind is more relaxed, you can respond with a better understanding of where they are coming from (deep breathing activates the relaxation response in your body).
For most of us, how we behave towards others is often determined by how they treat us. In our interactions with people, we operate with the underlying and unconscious belief that if you treat me well, I will treat you well. If you treat me bad, don’t expect me to treat you any better.
One of the keys to being empathetic towards others lies in realising that being loving and kind to others is a decision that we can make and it need not be dependent on what other people say or do. To practically apply this into your life, take 3-5 people in your life who push your buttons and decide ahead of time how you will respond to them the next time you feel triggered.
Ultimately, being empathetic is not merely a reaction but something that we can choose under any circumstance.
Our minds are wired to care more for our own thoughts, feelings and desires ahead of others. Being empathetic is about training yourself to be considerate about other people’s thoughts, feelings and desires. I believe that in its highest form, empathy does not merely stop at understanding the thoughts and feelings of another, but involves seeing ourselves in everyone and guiding our actions accordingly.
Doing this will not be easy and require conscious effort, but it is by no means beyond human capacity. When we let ourselves become guided by empathy, our lives are guaranteed to be more fulfilling and the world will be a better place because of it.
Note: A common criticism of the Golden Rule is that it assumes that other people would like to be treated exactly the way that you would like to be treated. Therefore, in some instances, applying the Platinum Rule that states “Treat others the way they would like to be treated” may perhaps be more suitable and the more empathetic course of action.
Note: This post was originally published here.