Empathy is the faculty to resonate with the feelings of others. When we meet someone who is joyful, we smile. When we witness someone in pain, we suffer in resonance with his or her suffering. Neuroscience has proven that similar areas of the brain are activated both in the person who suffers and in the one who feels empathy. Thus empathic suffering is a true experience of suffering.
When some empathic caregivers are exposed to others' suffering day after day, their continuous partaking in this suffering might become overwhelming and can lead to burnout. Other caregivers may react by shutting down their empathic feeling and drawing an emotional curtain between themselves and their patients. Both these reactions are far from optimal.
Could mind training and meditation on altruistic love and compassion serve as an antidote to burnout? An example of this is the caregiver who naturally displays overflowing kindness and warmth toward his patients and does not experience any burnout.
Experienced Buddhist meditators have reported that when they focused for some time on what they called "stand-alone empathy" (visualizing intense suffering affecting someone else and resonating empathically with that suffering) without allowing compassion and altruistic love to grow in their minds, they soon experienced burnout.
However, when they added a powerful feeling of unconditional love and compassion, the negative, distressing aspects of empathy disappeared and were replaced by compassionate courage and a resolve to do whatever they could to soothe others' suffering. It would therefore seems that there is no such thing as "compassion fatigue," as burnout is often called, but only an "empathy fatigue" that can be remedied by cultivating compassion.
Neuroscientist Tania Singer, in collaboration with such meditators, is planning to train caregivers in cultivating loving-kindness in a secular way based on Buddhist techniques. This would to allow caregivers, nurses, and doctors to continue to offer altruistic services to those in pain without themselves suffering from empathic distress.
Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk who went from a scientific career as a molecular biologist in France to the study of Buddhism in the Himalayas 40 years ago. He has been the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama since 1989. Matthieu donates all proceeds from his work and much of his time to 30 humanitarian projects in Asia through Karuna-Shechen. You may learn more about him on his website, MatthieuRicard.org.