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The precursor to Empathy

What can make Empathy stronger? What lets us become more empathetic?


Last year around this time, I undertook a daunting trek in the Himalayas that spanned over 60 kms across 5 days. While not yet fully ready physically and mentally- I was able to complete the trek, albeit on the last day I couldn’t wait to get back to the material pleasures of a bed and a warm shower. And so were the rest of the members in my trek group. On the final day of the trek, all eyes were on the watch as we had to report to a particular place by 3 pm in order to take the taxi which would speed us back to the material world!

As we traversed through the now familiar Himalayas fauna, I saw my trek leader,Vermaji, stop abruptly and engage in a serious discussion with his assistant. It seemed like they were discussing routes. “Are we lost?” I asked concerned that we may have to retrace our path, adding to the kilometers already traversed. He smirked a little assuring me that we are just 3 kilometers away and indeed on the right track. Hurriedly he directed my attention across the roaring river on a rock at the edge of the river on the other side. I could see nothing despite rubbing my glasses clean a couple of times. Exasperated, I asked him again what the hold up was about. Stretching his hand as far as he could to pinpoint its exact location, he told me there was a small lamb on the other side of the river, standing scared and still on a rock. I peered harder now, knowing what to look for on the rocks. He was right, At our ‘2-o- clock’, there stood a tiny lamb screeching amidst gushing waters, clutching on to the rocks with her tiny feet. I shrieked capturing the attention of the others in the group who soon gathered around, some with even small binoculars trying to look at the lamb amidst the many rocks.

Just 4 days into mountains traversing rivers, I now knew that the water levels rise rapidly due to the melting snow in the sun as the day proceeds. The entire trek group sympathized with the plight of the lamb knowing that death was certain in a couple of hours or so. Some urged others to help, some began thinking of solutions aloud and some even tried to take the picture of the hapless lamb. I stood still witnessing the confusion around with my mind racing for the most optimum solution, but to no avail.

But the cacophony around seemed to not distract Vermaji who stood at the edge of the river and began crossing the river. The water was very rough,he retreated back in a few steps signalling that it isn’t possible to cross the river. We all collectively sighed and began picking up our bags. But Vermaji remembered we came across a wooden bridge an hour after we began our trek that morning which could lead him to the other side safely. He quickly gathered the group back and announced to the group that he would retrace his steps back to the bridge and told us to wait for him at the taxi pick up point, handing over the responsibility of the group to the assistant. He then looked at his watch and tightened his shoe laces and sprinted back on the same route we had begun walking earlier that morning.

He looked a pleased man when he joined us at the taxi pick up point. The detour took him over 90 minutes and 8 around kms of walking uphill and downhill. He said he had managed to reach the spot just in time to pull the lamb off that rock and placed her on the higher reaches where shepherds often come with their flocks. We clapped for him and commended his act. He smiled sheepishly and quickly switched over to focus back on the trek — apologizing for the delay he caused us, asking us individually if we were doing fine physically , assuring that we will back to the hotel room in no time now.

That evening after a refreshing shower and 3 cups of steaming hot tea, I reflected on the day gone by. We all walked the same path, seeing and experiencing the same things around us. But only one of us was truly present in the surroundings to even see the hapless lamb. The roar of the river subdued her cries for help. The greys of her tender wool laden skin merged with the greys of the rock. Was it mere chance that Vermaji could spot her? Or was it a function of him being truly present and mindful while on the path that made him aware of the suffering on the other side of the river. I bet on the latter. Being mindful on the ‘present’ he was able to reach out to a soul in need , act on time to help and came back swiftly to fulfill his other duties just as easily.

In our day to day rigmarole, how conciously aware are we of the unsaid in conversations, the subtle signs of discomfort and sometimes, even clear calls for help?

It is easy to say I am empathetic. But I do know now that to be truly empathetic, there is an area that needs more honing- more attention. To truly practice Empathy, one needs to be authentically present. The way I see it now, Mindfulness precedes Empathy.

Originally published at medium.com

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