For 15 years the Dalai Lama—whose title means Ocean of Wisdom—has worked with neuroscientists in the West, encouraging them to study the effects of meditative disciplines on the brain. When I heard him speak last fall in Washington, D.C., I was intrigued when someone asked him—in the context of the Iraq war, the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Pakistan—how he deals with “compassion fatigue”? He is, after all, the incarnation of the Compassionate Buddha.
“Neurologically,” he replied, “we now understand that empathy is a spontaneous response in the immediate moment. When we see someone else’s suffering, for an instant we perceive—our brain reacts—as if what the other is experiencing we are experiencing too.”
“Empathy is really what we are describing when we talk about ‘compassion fatigue,’” he continued. “It is the simple compassion a person experiences when they want to see another person free from suffering.” Empathy is the autonomic human response to the pain of another—and yes, it can be physically exhausting when we experience too much stimuli without the spiritual wisdom to understand our experience.