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“Attachment constrains our vision so that we are not able to see things from a wider perspective.” ~ Dalai Lama ~

As a society, we understand the importance of practicing empathy and compassion toward people who are less fortunate than we are. Many of us, however, cannot differentiate between empathy and compassion. And for caregivers, this lack of clarity can often lead us to experience burnout.

Sensei Joshin Byrnes, dharma teacher, current President and Vice Abbot at Upaya Zen Center, and a guest speaker at the upcoming Naropa’s upcoming Conference on Compassionate Approaches to Aging and Dying, encourages caregivers to recognize how the crucial difference between empathy and compassion in our practice can significantly impact how we care for others.

Empathy is a valuable component of human nature. Many of us are first driven by a sense of empathy when we care for others. However, as Joshin points out, often we fail to understand that empathy is an over-identification of the suffering of others. When we empathize, we put ourselves in the suffering person’s position. We take on and feel their pain – we wear their suffering as our own. Our intention to help them becomes derailed because we are also dealing with our own issues around this suffering. As a result of not being able to separate ourselves from the suffering that we are bearing witness to, we burn out.


Through his work with the Upaya Zen Center, Joshin nurtures and supports us, as caregivers, to enact practices that prevent us from falling into a dangerous pattern of over-identifying with the suffering that we are observing. He guides us to recognize that, while empathy is important, it is not compassion.

Empathy primes compassion. Compassion is the ability to see the true essence of a person’s suffering but not lose yourself so much in the suffering that you cannot show up as a resource.

Joshin reminds us that compassion enables us to bear witness and open up to the suffering completely without being swept away or over-identifying with it. He counsels us to cultivate a sense of healthy detachment to suffering, although he warns that we must be careful not to let the detachment slip into a spiritual bypass. It is often too easy for us to feel empathy toward a person’s suffering but choose to turn away and focus on our own search for happiness. Joshin recommends that caregivers learn to walk a middle path that is deeply connected to suffering and yet remain detached enough in a healthy way so that we can provide the most effective care for others.

Joshin advocates that caregivers cultivate a practice that allows them to maintain an open, tender front while strengthening their back. He encourages caregivers to stop, take a breath, gather attention and remember intention. He guides us to be attuned to the quality of our own body, heart and mind so that we can then act and serve others – and ourselves – to the best of our abilities.

Sensei Joshin Byrnes is a dharma teacher at Upaya Zen Center as well as its current President and Vice Abbot. Joshin is a student of Upaya’s founder, abbot, and guiding teacher, Roshi Joan Halifax and is a lineage holder in the Maezumi Roshi and Bernie Glassman Roshi family of Soto Zen and the Zen Peacemaker Order. Joshin directs Upaya’s Chaplaincy Training program and Upaya’s resident program. He is also leads social justice initiatives and Upaya’s Street Ministry. Among his professional roles he has served as the President and CEO of the Vermont and Santa Fe Community Foundations, and as senior vice president of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Sensei Joshin Byrnes

Dharma Teacher, President and Vice Abbot, Upaya Zen Center

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