I’ve never been one to cry in public. I always felt embarrassed, as if showing signs of weakness. For me, the mere act of crying is not unlike vomiting. I cannot make myself do it. It just happens. And when that faucet turns on, I never know for how long it might be running. That, mixed with breaking down in front of others, would send me into protective retreat mode.
When I was younger, I would go off and cry in the privacy of my bedroom, hiding my self-expressive tears in the sound absorbency of my pillow. That way, no one would hear a thing. Yet somehow, my black standard poodle Mulligan always knew. He inevitably would come find me, letting me know that he was there. Perhaps he just needed more sodium in his diet, but this fluffy spirit would gently lick the tears from my face. It was soothing to be understood and supported with no exchange of words. No pity, no hampering, no judgment. My dog offered his silent presence and witnessed my vulnerability. This was my first taste of empathy.
Empathy is a gift. However, it is not something we learn to cultivate in our culture. Being empathic does not involve advice giving, comparing, fixing, one-upping, sympathizing, discounting, or analyzing. It’s a process of holding an empty space in which to foster connection and trust. It’s a practice of being present with another.
Imagine being attached to a large rubber band as you cross a bridge to visit another person’s world. This tether keeps you anchored in your own emotional realm while having the flexibility to venture afar. On this exploration, you also bring your passport to help to maintain your own identity, which can often go astray. The challenge is to not absorb yourself in the other person’s story, nor to insert your ego by taking charge. It is a tool to help you and others find empowered clarity outside the field of right and wrong. Empathy is simple, and yet it’s anything but easy. So why is it challenging to do?
In a society full of blame, shame, and moralistic judgment, it takes practice to carve out an exchange of empathy. You can master asana as well as the other limbs of yoga. But if your inner terrain and outer environs are not in alignment, then the physical practice is just another form of exercise.
When you need compassion, then you are in no position to offer it. Self-care is the oxygen mask analogy of first giving yourself support so that you can be supportive of others. If you feel heard and seen, then you can genuinely be present with what’s going on, rather than “shoulding” things to be a different way.
For me, “Operation Self-Care” has been in full swing this year. Over the past decade, inadvertently I lost a part of myself. In the name of generous service, I had been focusing on others’ needs at the expense of my own. I wore myself down. If this at all sounds familiar, I encourage you to pause and ask yourself: What can I do to take care of myself in order to set the stage for more empathic dialogue in my life? How might I foster more compassion in my conversations? How do I fit into my own narrative?
I’m happy to say that I am healthier on the empathy diet. I have re-tasted what Mulligan fed me long ago and of what my subsequent dogs continue to remind me along the way. Acknowledging my emotions, I savor every chance to connect inside and outside. Whether I am crying or observing another’s tears, I now consider any display of vulnerability as an indication of resilient strength. This intrinsic and extrinsic dialogue has created cellular shifts, which is the true benefit of yoga. You can do all the physical poses on your mat, but how you posture yourself in life determines your perspective. You choose, one lick at a time.
Cat McCarthy is a yoga teacher, film/television producer, writer… and model for Hyde. Learn more here.