Empath as Crucible

(previously posted at planetwaves.net)

So…there’s a lot going on these days, in the world and in people’s personal lives. How many times have I made that statement? Yet, it always seems to hit a deeper layer, and as the complexity merges with themes of letting go, life feels more and more surreal.
For the first time in a long time, the sense of urgency I feel doesn’t feed my inertia and paralysis, but instead seems to be motivating and grounding. I’m also increasingly aware of the need for communities to form, at the same time as I find resistance within myself. 

I’ve also been thinking a lot about what it means to be empathic, and I’m recognizing so many other empathic folks around me, and the ways we often struggle with being so attuned to the emotional energy of others. Perhaps that’s our normal or natural state of being as humans? It is all connected, after all.

I learned what the term “empath” means a few years ago, and several thousand light bulbs went off in my head. Yet some of what I read makes me cringe, be it out of recognition or disagreement. Once a concept is labeled and categorized, it seems to be pathologized, too. Or leaned on as a crutch. Or exploited.

My current working definition of the term is something like: An individual with an (often poorly understood) intuitive ability that allows them to feel the emotions of others. This can lead to the empath channeling the emotions themselves and internalizing them as their own. The empathic person is different from the empathetic person in that the latter is imagining what it is like to be in the other person’s shoes, whereas the empathic person is actually feeling the energy of the other person’s emotions — which can get pretty sticky, especially seeing as so much of it is unconscious. Empathic traits are also known as clairsentience.

The first time I recognized and got a conscious sense of my own empathic abilities in action, a friend I’d been intimately involved with for several years came over while in the middle of a personal crisis. There it was — the felt sense of all of his anxiety and grief and sadness careening towards me and into me. I flashed back to nights where he would call me at 2 am, in the middle of anxious insomniac attacks. He would fall asleep shortly after I arrived, while I stayed up all night. Talk about co-dependency.

As he sat in my living room that day, essentially dumping his words and emotions, I realized what was happening. I then made the conscious decision not to take the emotions in, and erected a kind of barrier. I could still sense what he was feeling, but kept it separate from my own emotions, which were being triggered due to the heartbreaking nature of his story. He was going through something intense that mirrored some of my own experience, and I felt my own sadness arising.

Whereas previously my exchanges with this person would end with him feeling much more calm and relieved and me feeling anxious and wrecked, my boundaries gave me space to think objectively. I was able to give him a few recommendations for what he might be able to do to take care of himself, along with some hugs. It was a pretty big moment for me.

Another example: the first time I witnessed a ‘play’ scene, in the kinky sense, a woman was being spanked for an extended period of time. As she writhed, and the intensity grew, I was aware that I could feel the pain she was feeling. I remember thinking to myself, “No way. This is so fucking weird — but of course!” It didn’t feel like my ass was being hit by a hand or cane or flogger exactly, but I could feel the energetic rippling: first of her anxiety, and then her pain through warmth that seemed to radiate out from my ass and thighs, and then her euphoria as the endorphins set in. The scene ended with both of us quite high, although for better or worse I didn’t have the bruises to show for it. It was a huge eye-opener for me.

Since then, as I have become more aware of energetic boundaries, I have gone through several different phases of coping with what is, at times, a seemingly involuntary ability to take on or channel other people’s emotions. Last fall, I began to go through the pissed-off phase, angry at what felt like unwanted invasions. I began to recognize just how much it felt like things were hurtling at me all the time. I amped up all of my protective boundaries out of a longing to keep my field as clear as possible, as some really difficult stuff had gotten in.

I write that, and I become aware of a particular framework or worldview, which is where I’ve been getting stuck when trying to process or write about the dynamics of energy and identifying as an empath. Do I really want to live as if I have to protect myself from negative energies? Is it naive to think I don’t have to? Is the very act of protecting myself from something out there the same act that invites it in, or creates it in my field?

In an energy session the other day, my healer dude asked me to describe a feeling of tension I was having around my abdomen. I could see or sense what felt like clear space directly around my body, extending a bit outward, but then a darker or denser energy outside of that. It felt like it was encroaching. It didn’t feel evil or harmful, just different. He asked what it would be like to just let that energy flow through me.

I had some resistance at first; a feeling in my gut that was tight and clenched, unwilling to let go. But I trust this healer dude quite a bit, and decided to give it a try. Healer dude subscribes to a worldview in which even if there are ‘negative’ or ‘heavier’ energies hanging out in a person’s field, it is because they resonate with something within them. Therefore, working with the energies can reveal something about the person and what they are working on or through. Everything in its right place.

As I began to let the energy flow through, I noticed a relaxation. I noticed a flow. I noticed…presence. Not in the sense of an entity being there, but in that I felt…present.

The healer dude and I had a conversation after that about some various Buddhist techniques, all of them involving this kind of presence, particularly with more dense or ‘negative’ energies. He spoke of feeding them with love, transmuting them. It reminded me of the kind of work I do with spirit attachments or earth-bound spirits, in which getting them to the light is the ultimate goal, rather than exorcising them or casting them out as fundamentally damned.

During the ‘anger’ phase of my empathic awakening, I struggled with feeling like some energies are parasitic. Like once they find the light within you, they feed and feed and feed. This experience is coming up against new worldviews I’m currently being exposed to, or old ones that are coming back to light. It should be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

There is also a masochistic dynamic I can recognize in the waltz of the empath. There is the potential for an ingrained belief that we become invaluable to people by merit of being able to take on all of their stuff, even if they’re not aware that’s what’s happening, and even if it hurts — by becoming the savior. That is a huge topic that I hope to cover in the very near future.

Bringing it back to the beginning, as I notice so many around me — myself included — embedded within some kind of crucible these days, I’m aware of two things. At the personal level, something is shifting in the way I meet other people’s crises, especially those I share physical intimacy with. I’m not hanging onto the emotions and locking them into my body, at least not as much as I used to. There is a difference between unconsciously taking it on, blocking it entirely, and allowing the energy in for a bit to alleviate some suffering.

At the collective level, I’m constantly compelled by an urgent sense that we need to be assisting and supporting the empathic among us. In light of the whole ‘it’s all connected’ thing, perhaps that’s just a call to help us all, and a more appropriate sentence would be: there’s a lot of feelings flying around out there — wouldn’t it be wonderful if we supported each other in developing those senses so they can be used for healing?