Empathy is increasingly valued in fields such as design, management, education, social enterprise and global citizenship. This is a positive turn, as it opens individuals up to experience the ‘other’ as a fellow subject rather than an object or means to an end. However, as an isolated skill or capacity, empathy can be leveraged to achieve outcomes that do not contribute to cultures of ongoingness, but perpetuate unsustainable cultures of rivalry and consumption. This is exemplified in common contexts such as design focus groups, branding, product development and neuromarketing. With the current drive to equip students for emerging creative jobs, schools have begun to identify empathy as a valued capacity.
I believe empathy is part of a larger disposition we could call ‘other-orientedness’. This disposition integrates virtue capacities such as empathy, compassion, kindness and love as well as intellectual capacities such as systems thinking, ecological understanding and nondual awareness. It is only when developed within this larger disposition that empathy contributes to more integrated ways of being in the world together.
Other-orientedness is not concerned with the reinforcement of a separate ego-self, instead, it asks questions such as ‘who are you really’, ‘how are we connected’, and ‘who are we becoming in this interaction or relationship’. Ultimately, this disposition asks ‘how can we collaborate with the larger arc of life towards mutual thriving’. This other-orientation ascribes worth to others not only as distinct entities but as integral members of an interconnected whole with a unique capacity to contribute to the ongoingness of life.
A conscious educator does not necessarily teach this disposition, but models it in their interactions, worldview and lifestyle. From this integrated way of being they design lessons, environments, processes and systems that cultivate other-orientedness in learners.
In this way, it could be said that the development of other-orientedness cannot be learned but developed through transformative encounters with its embodied presence.
See Article Two for more on this topic.