Growing up outside of Helena Montana, Buddhism was very much an “outsider” religion. And then in college, it seemed that even people who liked philosophy didn’t like Kant. I can empathize with them though, I didn’t like Kant either—at first. Having encountered Buddhism and Kant as outside of the norm, I was intrigued and slowly but surely dove deeper into their respective philosophies.

two people shaking hands

For my PhD, I did a comparison of the ethics of Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) and early Buddhism. The two forms of thought are worlds apart in many ways. Right off the bat, one can note that the Buddha (c.480 – 400 BCE) lived over 2000 years before Kant. He also lived in India and was influenced by the religious and philosophical ideas that would become Hinduism and Jainism. Meanwhile, Kant grew up in humble circumstances in German-speaking Prussia under the influence of Modern Western Philosophy and Christianity. There are so many aspects of the Buddha’s and Kant’s ethics that are just, well, different. And so, I decided to find the similarities.

Kant and Buddhism on Empathy

While not wishing to rehash decades of research in a short space, both Kant and early Buddhist thought offer interesting roads into empathy. For Kant, an ethical ideal was universality. One of his maxims is to never treat another person as merely a means to one’s own ends. Put more clearly, he wanted us to realize that other people are worthy of respect no matter what they think or do.

Early Buddhist thought can take us to a similar place. First, we all suffer. This realization is a foundation for Buddhist thought. It’s easiest to recognize and think about our own suffering, but countless Buddhist texts ask us to realize that other beings are just like us in both suffering and wishing to be free from suffering. Realizing this, the Dalai Lama tells us he is even compassionate toward mosquitos and will give them a little blood or gently try to get rid of them. In some Buddhist countries it has also become customary to become a vegetarian as one progresses in practice, as we realize that eating meat almost always requires suffering of animals.

In my thesis, I argued that both Kant and Buddhism lead us to a deep sense of duty toward ourselves and all other beings. As we focus on that part of us that is always worthy of respect and kindness, we necessarily see beyond the surface stuff that often keeps us apart.

Cultivating Empathy

Cultivating empathy is not always easy. It can be challenging to connect with people who are very different from us, or who are going through difficult times. But it’s important to remember that empathy is a skill that can be developed with practice.

In my experience, we are usually best served by beginning with cultivating loving-kindness, which I have written about at length in the past. Loving-kindness is a gentle way of tapping into our feelings and wishing ourselves and others wellness, happiness, and peace. Even before this, or alongside it, we are wise to develop mindfulness, the skill of simply coming back to the topic of meditation again and again.

Like anything that takes practice and perseverance, cultivating empathy will not be easy in the beginning. Having spent time on these other two meditations can help create helpful habits to keep you going in your work to cultivate empathy.

A Reflection on Empathy

As with any meditation practice, it is good to get comfortable. If you can (after reading the instructions), close your eyes. Take in a few slow, deep breaths.

Let go of any tension that might exist in your body and drop any narrative stories that might arise—like clouds floating by in the sky. Use your breath as an anchor, holding your mind in its place.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It’s a crucial skill that allows us to connect with other people, to feel their emotions, and to respond to their needs. Take a moment to recall the last time you responded to the needs of someone near you. Perhaps it was a stranger, or a family member, or a friend. Think about the impulse to help. What did it feel like?

Cultivating empathy in our daily lives is essential for building strong relationships, creating social harmony, and fostering a more compassionate world. Even if we have been unable to act at some time, perhaps as we read the news of suffering far away, or get a text from a friend while working, just noticing the impulse to help can be powerful.

In 2014, a study by Dr. Brian Clark of Ohio University found that people could improve their muscle mass simply by thinking about exercising. Granted, it’s not as good as actual exercise, and exercising our empathy is the same, but much of Buddhist and psychological theory rests on the knowledge that practicing certain thoughts and mental actions can help change our very way of being in the world.

Empathy begins with awareness. Perhaps, then, our first practice is to let go of some of the busy-ness of our lives. Being stressed-out and over-worked is a terrible foundation for cultivating empathy. Ultimately, we must first have empathy for ourselves if we are to cultivate it in a sustained and meaningful way toward others.

Furthermore, our own emotions are most immediate to us and most easily seen and addressed. So, as we begin the journey of cultivating empathy, let’s spend time looking at ourselves and our own life. What needs attention? Where are we pushing too hard? Where can we offer kindness so that we can be in better shape to tend to those around us?

Default Alt Tag for this pageJustin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. Justin is the official blog writer for Sunflower Counseling MT in Missoula, Butte, Kalispell, Billings, and surrounding areas. He lives in Missoula with his family.