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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
For notes on the role of empathy and its lack
in political culture, see
Any city could
emulate Sweden’s transpartisan festival…
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:
does it mean to be compassionate in a complex living system?
or, better yet, the video version
Conference Closing Circle - Tom Atlee
For some video resources on empathy and caring, see:
to Deeper Caring
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