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Co-Intelligent Perspectives on Empathy

The co-intelligence worldview embraces empathy as a fundamental principle, while noting its limitations when framed only as an individual feeling. Empathy plays a powerful role in the wise use of intelligence. Like intelligence, empathy can be exercised in narrow ways that result in undesirable outcomes or in enlightened ways that support wisdom. Also like intelligence, expanded forms of empathy can be embedded in cultures and social systems to generate wiser collective outcomes.

Tom Atlee's major essay Big Empathy proposes that we need to expand our empathy in three ways:
1. widen our "circle of care" to include more beings of more species over greater time periods;
2. become better practitioners of empathy; and
3. embed empathy in our cultures and social systems.

The essay is accompanied by an audio of Tom Atlee's hour-long Oct 2014 talk on Big Empathy: Creating a Wise Democracy and a Caring Economy.

Other co-Intelligence resources about empathy include the following:

Evolving Empathy, Personal and Systemic
Empathy starts out as a personal feeling of resonance with another’s pain or joy. It moves on to become the practice of stepping into another’s shoes – and having them feel heard and understood. We need our empathy to expand and evolve so that it embraces more people and living things, so that we are more competent with empathy as a life practice, and so that it shows up as part of our cultures and our social systems – not only helping us feel more empathy but also stimulating the products of empathy – bonding, partnership, and mutual aid – even when we are not personally feeling particularly empathetic.

Realizing Empathy as Part of Co-Intelligence
There are at least four important connectors between empathy and co-intelligence that are fundamental to the creation of a truly wise democracy. These are: (1) being heard and truly hearing each other; (2) random selection in politics so that we are governed by people more like ourselves; (3) effective deep understanding through quality information and conversation among diverse perspectives; (4) and resonant intelligence, our attunement to the deep and multifaceted common ground we share.

An Outline of Big Empathy

Six Paths to Greater Empathy
Big Empathy is about expanding our empathy to embrace the suffering and well-being of more of life, more deeply, more competently, and more seamlessly than we normally do. In this article we find six potentially complementary paths to developing greater empathy – not methods, but general approaches: listening, self-awareness, narrative arts, immersion, sciences, and responsive caring. Of course, in order to enhance empathy, they must be undertaken with a desire to truly connect with the Other.

Upshifting our limited empathy to face Big Issues*
Our built-in empathy comes with a kind of cognitive disconnect which can make it hard to usefully integrate our feelings with our reason. Our bodymind knows how to respond to what’s happening or could happen to individuals now – especially visible impacts on us and those we love or identify with. We have a much harder time responding to what’s happening or could happen to everyone or to all living things in the future - or to damage and suffering that is happening now in subtle, slow, or distant ways. This blind spot has profound implications for the climate crisis, the possibilities of nuclear war, and many other “extinction level” issues.

The co-intelligent satisfaction of needs
All the activities of life can be viewed as efforts to satisfy fundamental, universal needs. The co-intelligence worldview invites us to better understand the life-dynamcs of “needs” and find ways to empathically satisfy the needs of all involved at every level. This activity can look like compassion, like peacemaking, like democracy, like sustainability, like many good things many of us are already involved with. Practices like Nonviolent Communication and Human-scale Development are particularly co-intelligent because they help us do this especially well.

Moving Beyond Systemic Blocks to Caring
The social systems we live in – cultural, economic, political, and the rest – often make it difficult to effectively care. Understanding better the systemic realities that block our caring can help clarify how we need to change our lives and our societies. Here you can explore some of the dynamics involved with money, time, distraction, complexity, individualism, and public relations – and new directions being pioneered by many people among us, noting their common roots in caring.

Toward an era of wise caring
Reason and feeling each have gifts - and limitations. Each needs the gifts of the other to counter and balance its own limitations. When they are used well together, they generate a phenomenon more powerful and beneficial than either offers us separately: the rare gift of wise caring. There are examples of wise caring in earlier human societies - including the Native American sense of the living world as "all my relations" - and we have an opportunity today to build on these primal truths and enhance this remarkable capacity in our whole civilization.

Empathy versus rationality?
Like the article above, this challenges the notion that feeling and rationality are in any way fundamentally opposed. True, there are VERSIONS of each that negate the other, but those reductionist versions fail to adequately embrace the larger picture we can see when we honor each view for the gifts it brings. By failing to appreciate that larger picture, these reductionist versions of empathy and rationality therefore even fail by their own standards. But by taking seriously the critiques each side levels at the other, we can clarify what we need to address to combine these two human capacities into their most powerful manifestations.

For explorations of empathy in foreign policy, defense, and national security, see

Imagining Real National Security – Empathy versus Empire
Current approaches to “defense” and “security” often damage our actual well-being rather than enhancing it. The massive resources currently wasted on counterproductive strategies of “defense” and “security” can be invested to promote real security. National and global security regimes can get real by grounding their work in empathy and addressing universal human needs.

Reconceptualizing Security (on Interdependence Day)
As increasingly destructive capabilities become available to smaller and smaller groups, empathy and generosity are becoming increasingly precious and practical qualities in human relationship and in social policy.

For notes on the role of empathy and its lack in political culture, see

Any city could emulate Sweden’s transpartisan festival…

Many politicians feel as trapped by the system as we do

* For more on the issue of our need to lift empathy into systemic understanding, see:

Does compassion need to evolve?
and, for a very heartfelt, personal expression see:
What does it mean to be compassionate in a complex living system?
or, better yet, the video version
Storyfield Conference Closing Circle - Tom Atlee

For some video resources on empathy and caring, see:

Seven Journeys to Deeper Caring



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