Notes from the Field: Integral New York Explores Empathy

Robin Reinach

Robin Reinach

Robin Reinach

On the eve of winter, Integral New York examined empathy and “the miracle of we.” Gilles Herrada led twenty-four Ken Wilber Meet Up participants in exploring questions such as: How important is empathy to Integral theory? How does empathy look through the lens of the four quadrants? And how do we each experience and act (or not act) on empathy in our daily lives?

As New Yorkers, we began by acknowledging our ambivalent responses to homeless people and street beggars. Here the distinction between feeling empathy and acting on it emerged. We agreed that social activism needs to be empathically informed, but we remained uncertain what each of us—as individuals—could do when regularly confronted with fellow humans in distress on the street. The simple doling out of dollars to street beggars might temporarily assuage a conscience, but in the long run did that represent a truly intelligent and empathic response? Discernment, we agreed, was crucial to the success of empathic action.

It was posited that empathy is a developmental line, beginning with an instinct or innate gift. We recognized that empathy is widespread among mammals. Looking toward non-human primates for examples of empathy, we learned that apes have been observed offering altruistic help to their companions. For example, an alpha male was seen passing on a rock for use as a tool to smash a fruit to an older female who was unable to smash the fruit herself. This seemed a case of altruism as the male had nothing to gain from this interaction.

We further theorized that empathy might have its roots in maternal instinct, which is geared toward protection of offspring. Empathic behavior can be seen as an extension of that maternal caring which confers obvious advantages for survival, not just for a particular family, but for an entire species.

But this begs the question: Who are we willing to empathize with? Does that person’s experience need to be similar to our own for empathy to occur? Or can we find ways to empathize with people whose behavior and world view are extremely different or even contrary to our own? How far does our empathy extend?

The golden rule, which has been around for centuries, was cited as an example of the codification of empathy. However, it was noted that Kosmic address effects how the golden rule is interpreted. Therefore, an individual at BLUE/ amber or ethnocentric level of development may understand the golden rule as only applying to others in their own group.

We noted a pre/trans fallacy where the empathizer may over-identify with the emotions of the other and loses his or her self. Actions arising from this state may ultimately be counterproductive because the motivation is to relieve discomfort in the self, as opposed to altruistically helping another. Sometimes, a true act of empathy toward the other may even make us feel more uncomfortable; for me this occurs when I provide so-called masculine compassion.

From the pre/trans fallacy, a distinction emerged between acting on empathy and feeling empathy. It was acknowledged that it is possible to feel empathy and not take any particular action as a result. In fact, it was posited that sometimes empathy could accidentally lead to “idiot compassion,” which could even be harmful to the recipient of the empathy. Further. it was acknowledged that people sometimes manipulate others to evoke feelings of empathy in order to get their needs met. Therefore, we began to conclude that empathy was best acted upon in combination with discernment.

What stops us from empathizing or acting on our empathic feelings? Possible answers ranged from sheer distraction, over stimulation, and impatience, to fear or involvement, fear of enabling, and fear of being manipulated for gain or profit.

We then asked ourselves to whom are we willing to extend our empathy? Some people felt we could best empathize with those whose life experiences are similar to our own. Others suggested that it was important that we find a way to feel into the emotions of people whose values and actions are contrary to our own. We talked about feeling into the lived emotional experience of cheaters and criminals. We posited that there might be something healing about empathy itself, even if no specific action is taken.

“The miracle of we” emerges in the LL quadrant; we questioned whether empathy is the source of that miracle. We posited that empathy would show up as subtle energy resonance in the UR, and also as mirror neurons firing in the brain. In the UL empathy would appear as a constellation of thoughts and feelings that allow us to experience each other’s perspectives. Social activism movements might be a LR manifestation of empathy.

I personally think that empathy is central to Integral theory. As we develop in altitude from egocentric to ethnocentric to world centric to Kosmos centric, our ability to empathize expands to include more and more life forms. Further, the more perspectives we are willing to embrace, the wider and deeper our ability to empathize grows. With true empathy comes the unavoidable recognition of our responsibility to all sentient beings. As we each work our individual ILPs, our cognitive, moral, somatic and emotional development can empower us to feel more empathy—even if it hurts—and to tolerate that pain better even as we learn how to take effective action. Meditation, which is a great practice for establishing equanimity as well as empathy, may help us reach the experience Ken describes as, “hurts more, bothers less.”

About the Author

Robin Reinach is passionate about integral theory and its application. Her special areas of interest are Integral community building in New York City and across the globe, as well as Integral Life Practice. Robin has hosted events with Ken Wilber and other integral notables at her home, and she has helped co-sponsor many of the larger workshops and trainings that have been offered in and around NYC. She is also a writer whose memoirs and short fiction appear regularly in literary magazines. Robin lives in New York City with her daughter.


  1. Edwin Rutsch on October 30, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Keep up the good work on exploring and promoting the importance of empathy. It is inspiring for me to see this.

    May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    Also, I invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world