The last few weeks, I’ve been going the long way around answering a question raised by a talented young therapist, “What is the role of empathy in AAIT?” NOW, I think I’m ready to more directly answer the question.
Empathy is essential in ANY therapeutic relationship. It is crucial to developing trust which is critical to establishing a collaborative relationship. Collaboration is central to creating a solid crucible for transformation and is one of the five phases of AAIT.
As you can see, there’s more to AAIT than empathy, yet empathy is essential.
Marie has been just SLAMMED by loss after loss. The physical and emotional toll alone leaves her feeling bereft and hopeless about anything changing. Loss litters the landscape of her life as far as she can see. AND, her perspective is not distorted. It’s based in objective reality. She is facing tremendous loss, more than any of us should bear. Yet bear it she must.
My father-in-law offered the wisdom of his years when our family faced tragic challenges. “We all have to play the hand we’re dealt. And this is the hand we’ve been dealt.”
Marie has faced each of these challenges with grace, doing what it takes to reclaim and restore her state. Nonetheless, some storms take up a lot of territory and we can get lost or feel like we are lost in the squall.
It’s easy to forget who we are in these times. Marie is no different. What is different is all the work that led to this point. Marie knows who she is, beyond being battered by the storm of her life, she KNOWS who she is.
This KNOWING makes it possible for Marie to shift her identification from the being who is suffering to the BEING she is. This shift, if even for a few moments is enough to open a flood of lovingkindness, empathy and compassion from her TRUE self. This empathy can be a solace. It does not solve the problem. It grants a bit of release.
This simple question – “Are you this (pain, sorrow, fear …) or are you feeling this (pain, sorrow, fear …)?” prompted Marie’s KNOWING and opened the gate to empathy. Empathy did NOT abate the storm. It did open a flow of love and understanding from Marie’s true self to her conditioned self, the part of her who is being battered by the tempest swirling through her current life experience. She was able to shift identification from the storm to the sky – from the part of her that was suffering to her TRUE self.
It’s a beautiful question, “Are you this ______, or are you feeling this ______.” I learned this question from my friend, Vladimir Stojakovic. Vladimir is a psychologist and fellow student of Zivorad’s. It leads us to glimpse that we are so much more than the current circumstances.
For those of us who have experienced who we are beyond the illusion of who we think we are, this question can guide us back to a steadier state. Empathy streaming from that larger part of us flowing towards the conditioned self who is going through various pains and challenges of being human can feel like a tender balm.
As I said, empathy, whether emanating from the true self to the conditioned self or from therapist to client can grant a release. This release, however, is rarely permanent. This is why we do not rely on empathy alone. We are going for the biggest release we can which involves more than empathetic understanding.
As an AAIT practitioner, I use empathy to ensure a safe and collaborative therapeutic environment as well as show clients the path for their true self to give empathy to their conditioned self. Another point where empathy in AAIT may differ from other models is from the practitioner point of view.
Most practitioners can readily empathize with our clients’ conditioned self. As an AAIT practitioner, I am also empathizing with the client’s true self. The true self is residing in a place of greater ease. Yet she is entangled in the suffering of the conditioned self. So, while a client suffers and we aim to empathetically understand that suffering, another part of us keeps our attention on the true self --- like seeing beautiful being trapped and tangled in a briar patch, we look for and find ways to free that being.