Empathy: Resonance or Entrainment ?
Updated: Oct 7, 2022
Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote: "There are two aspects of life: the first is that man is tuned by his surroundings and the second is that man can tune himself in spite of his surroundings. The latter is the work of the mystic."
In ancient wisdom traditions, it is stated that everything starts with vibration, the primordial pulse, the AUM of creation. Spanda in Sanskrit. Subsequently, everything within the awareness that is our true Self is 'Self in motion'. In other words, every living and non-living thing vibrates. Everything is made of sound and the entire creation is the musical symphony playing within the halls of your true nature that is God or the Absolute. Empaths are people who are highly tuned into the vibrations of those around them. This can go as far as picking up emotions or even physical sensations like pain.
Merriam-Webster defines empathy as; the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
Why empaths do this, or have developed this skill, can be the subject of an entire article in itself, but in the context of this one, it suffices to list a few reasons. Someone can become highly empathic at very young age due to a problematic childhood, maybe with an abusive family member or a home situation where conflict is avoided. It became quite beneficial for the child to tune in to the state of being of his guardians to avoid trouble. Bullying peers could be another reason, or positive acknowledgment and reinforcement of empathic behaviour where the empath is pleasing a narcissist in a romantic relationship. A romantic couple can be extremely tuned into each other to such a degree that it can be considered empathic. In spiritual circles, you often see people losing their sense of identity due to transformational processes they go through, during these times they often start 'picking up other people's energy' and they need to learn to 'set boundaries' and shield themselves energetically. The underlying principles of how empathy might actually work deserves some deeper thought. Vibration
Musical instruments and other objects are set to vibrate at their natural frequency when an external force disturbs the object. For example, a guitar string that is strummed, a piano string that is struck, or a tuning fork.
If the vibration amplitudes are large enough and if the natural frequency is in the human frequency range, then the object will produce sound that is audible.
If you took a guitar string and stretched it to a given length and a given tightness and strummed it, you would hear a sound; but the sound would be nowhere near the volume produced by an acoustic guitar. On the other hand, if the string is connected to the soundboard of the guitar, the vibrating string is able to force the soundboard to vibrate at the same natural frequency. The sound box in turn forces the air particles inside the box to vibrate at the same natural frequency as the string. The entire system (string, guitar and enclosed air) begins to vibrate and forces the surrounding air particles into motion. The tendency of one object to force another adjacent or connected object into vibrating motion is called forced vibration.
There's an experiment that's often shown to demonstrate resonance in physics classes. Two tuning forks are placed into baffles and on a desk. One fork is struck and when the legs of the fork are gripped, stopping their vibration, the sound is still heard. The first tuning fork caused the other tuning fork to vibrate at the same natural frequency and that one is still vibrating.
The energy transmitted by the sound wave through the air is tuned to the frequency of the second tuning fork. Because the incoming sound waves share the same natural frequency as the other tuning fork, the fork will easily begin to vibrate at its own frequency. This is an example of resonance, when one object vibrating at the same natural frequency as another object causes that other object to vibrate.
Resonance can occur through solid objects as well, such as water, wood or steel. It's now known that sound can even move through space; we just can't hear it.
A fellow Dutchman and scientist, Christiaan Huygens, invented the pendulum clock in 1666 and discovered that when two pendulum clocks were mounted side by side on a wall, they would eventually swing together in perfect harmony and maintain a beat so precise that they could never be matched mechanically. Entrainment in this context implies that any two vibrating bodies will try and synchronize with each other, whereby the body with the more powerful vibrations will eventually take over the weaker one. Another way entrainment is defined is: the alignment of an organism's circadian rhythm to that of an external rhythm in its environment. One more interesting example of entrainment is, when two people sitting in rocking chairs unconsciously synchronize their vibration frequencies. Or how theatre audiences tend to clap in unison after a while.
Empathy: resonance or entrainment? When we consider the principles discussed in this article, we can see that empathy follows the same rules as resonance and entrainment, where resonance has a more voluntary character and entrainment leans more towards giving into a stronger force outside of oneself. In the case of caring for another, developing sensitivity for the other and getting positive feedback in return, we can say the empath has learned to resonate. In the case of the narcissist forcing the empath to be sensitive to their needs or else, it is more a case of entrainment where a stronger force takes over the weaker one who needs to resonate at the same frequency to survive. The issue that often comes up, according to empaths, is the lack of control over their empathy. It's often said they 'pick up' negative energies (whilst not minding the positive). Another problem they often walk into is not knowing what their own feelings are and which belongs to others. Empathy often leads to not knowing what it is they really want in life because they are always tuned into others. This is where a lack of psychological insight, personal development or spiritual training becomes apparent. Imagining an egg of white light around the person might ease the mind and somehow provide some mental comfort for the empath. Setting firm boundaries might give a sense of control. But how does one set boundaries when they don't know who they are because they are always focused on the other? What is it that an empath truly wants? Is it really the other that needs to respect boundaries when it is the empath that has the antennas tuned to receive, to probe? Even in the case of entrainment, it does give the empath benefit of having it 'switched on'. Another advice often given in spiritual communities is to 'leave it with the other', casting it away as 'not mine'. This might help for a while when in a transitional period, but for the long-term empath it means throwing away their life line as well. After all, they benefit from their empathy in many cases. Setting boundaries means, in a sense, being selfish. Because one needs a strong sense of self to know where one ends and the other starts. A truly selfish person has no need for empathy; (a feigning of) sympathy suffices. In the beginning of this article, I quoted the Sufi mystic, Hazrat Inayat Khan. "There are two aspects of life: the first is that man is tuned by his surroundings and the second is that man can tune himself in spite of his surroundings. The latter is the work of the mystic."
In this lies an important answer to the 'problem' of empathy. The mystics are the ones who travel into the realms of their own subconscious. The ones who inquire into their true nature, their natural self and reach an understanding of how their psyche functions. They come to realise that their personality is a construct of beliefs and convictions. Ideas that have been programmed through generations that went before them. The mystics see themselves in the clarity of the Truth of their being. Their emotions and their feelings have no power over them. The mystics have true power over their psyche, mastery. There is no other that is different from the mystic, for all people are collectively veiled by the same belief of being separate beings, separate from creation, from God. Knowing yourself truly is knowing others for who they truly are. The mystic practices 'no resistance' to whatever appears, for the mystic knows it is but an apparition that does not have any power besides that which is given to it. This empowers the mystic to chose to freely descend into Maya, the world of appearances and enjoy both its joy and its misery, which inevitably flow from the endless river of potentiality that the mystic acknowledges as Creator. Or choose the power to transcend it and be the I AM-ness that the sages have talked about for centuries or longer.
Empathy becomes a free choice; sympathy becomes a state of being. The mystic is like an instrument that can tune itself to harmonize with whatever symphony of creation is playing in the present moment. In love & sound, Ingmar