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Shoe-Shifting: Empathy for the Other

"Walk a mile in the other person's moccasins," is a saying you may have heard growing up in the United States. Though that quote is usually attributed to various Native American tribes it was written in a poem from 1895 by Mary T. Lathrap (included in this post, below).

Putting ourselves in another person's shoes, learning to empathize with the experiences of people we may otherwise judge, is a spiritual practice. It's not just a trite expression--it's a real exercise in refining perception and bestowing compassion. This practice is based in the Golden Rule, universal and timeless spiritual law.

We often find ourselves in disagreement with others, believing that others have wronged us. Sometimes we hurt others, and they hurt us. Conflict with others is one of our greatest causes of suffering. We waste countless moments of our life entangled in painful emotions and harmful actions resulting from our perceptions of being right when someone else is wrong. When we take some of that time and energy to examine ourselves and consider the position and needs of others, we begin to heal and transform our relationship patterns. 

In meditation, or in something less formal than meditation, simply taking a few minutes to concentrate on a conflict, we can imagine the perspective of our adversary, imagining we are that person or group, with their unique life experience and challenges. We can imagine why they want what they want and do what they do. We can imagine how it might feel to be in their situation. After imagining this, we can switch back to our perspective and bring new awareness into it. We can finally imagine the perspective of a loving parent who considers both parties equal and beloved, essentially imagining that our adversary is in fact our sibling. 

For a detailed meditation practice on seeing the other person as yourself, try the practice offered here.

Below is the original poem, Walk a Mile in His Moccasins. It was originally entitled, Judge Softly. 


Pray, don't find fault with the man that limps, 
Or stumbles along the road.
Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears, 
Or stumbled beneath the same load.

There may be tears in his soles that hurt
Though hidden away from view.
The burden he bears placed on your back
May cause you to stumble and fall, too.

Don't sneer at the man who is down today
Unless you have felt the same blow 
That caused his fall or felt the shame
That only the fallen know.

You may be strong, but still the blows
That were his, unknown to you in the same way,
May cause you to stagger and fall, too.

Don't be too harsh with the man that sins.
Or pelt him with words, or stone, or disdain.
Unless you are sure you have no sins of your own, 
And it's only wisdom and love that your heart contains.

For you know if the tempter's voice
Should whisper as soft to you,
As it did to him when he went astray,
It might cause you to falter, too.

Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.

I believe  you'd be surprised to see
That you've been blind and narrow minded, even unkind.
There are people on reservations and in the ghettos
Who have so little hope, and too much worry on their minds.

Brother, there but for the grace of God go you and I.
Just for a moment, slip into his mind and traditions
And see the world through his spirit and eyes
Before you cast a stone or falsely judge his conditions.

Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins
And remember the lessons of humanity taught to you by your elders.
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave
In other people's lives, our kindnesses and generosity.

Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.





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