The Empath’s Refuge

One of my favorite songs is “Listen with your heart” from the film Pocahontas. Years after  I watched the film, the imagery is still stuck in my mind – of a young and confused Pocahontas fleeing to the woods, rowing her boat deeper and deeper into the waters of a river to seek refuge in a tree that she calls Grandmother Willow. The tree with its soft sighing breezes, offers comfort in the form of this song.

Sometimes that is all it takes. Whether it is handling an intransigent child, a student who may not be opening up to their difficulty in a subject, whether it is facing challenging circumstances – if we can find that wood, that clear water, and preferably have a Grandmother Willow waiting with infinite patience and wisdom – there can be a small personal oasis of peace, far from the madding crowd.

Those of us who are Empaths need that solace. I seek mine in long hikes – just thinking of a walk in the woods energizes me. Today as I waited in a doctor’s office with a family member who was ill, I chanced upon a hiking magazine. Was so engrossed reading it that I finally asked the front desk if they will let me take it – seeing as it was at least a 3 month old edition. They let me, and I walked out with a smile, feeling like I had won a prize.


The Empaths among us are the classic rescuers, who can sense distress and pain in others, and immediately reach out to help. The distress is sensed without having to speak a word.

People are good at different things – some naturally good with their hands, who can build structures without even thinking….these are the people who can solve a complex 1000-piece puzzle with relative ease leaving the rest of us in the dust; some are artists with a photographic memory who can translate their mental images to canvas deftly and beautifully; some have exceptional athletic abilities that defy the laws of Physics. Sensing trouble and reaching out to help is the Empath’s special gift.

Regardless of whether they are good with speech, Empaths are oriented towards healing and bringing comfort to others. They feel like natural harbors to people in an uncertain world, and elicit confessions from people that they would normally not share with anyone else. Some even attract troubled or sick animals and give comfort. Their intuition is so finely tuned that they are able to help those who cannot express themselves in words. Someone I know has a special connection with children with mental and cognitive problems and a way to calm them down – she had this ability even as a very young child! Those around the Empath see them as someone to lean on, and come to them when they need solace from the problems of the world.

The Empaths  immediately jump in to take on the role of Grandmother Willow, but without her wisdom and without the ability to stay rooted to the spot, observing the changing currents in the river, gently bending to the harsh winds and bowing to the breezes but staying essentially unchanged even if slightly ruffled. Grandmother Willow is a true gnani … A lot can be learned by observation and detachment, but alas! such is not the way of most humans.

The currents push the Empath into a river of constant action and they lose themselves in it. They get into a problem-solving mode, drawing from the strength of their intuition that has helped them through the years, and try to tackle whatever problem there is to the best of their ability. Their focus is on finding a solution and all else blurs into the background. They own the feelings of the person they are trying to help, and help navigate them through these turbulent feelings. They become shock-absorbers and do all they can to protect those they are trying to help and do not stop until they find a solution. Once the problem is resolved, and the person with the problem goes away happy, the Empath’s job is done and they feel a sense of accomplishment. Now they can sit back with a happy smile and take a deep breath. Solving a problem is a win for both the Empath and those they choose to help. It serves their natural purpose in the world.

In time, more problems come their way and they drop everything and try to solve them again, forgetting their own needs. The last bit is the Empath’s undoing – because these healers and comforters rarely pause to find healing and comfort for themselves. They are absolutely terrible about asking for help, fearing that needing or asking for help will unnecessarily put others through trouble – which is the last thing they want to do! They hate to cause the slightest inconvenience to others while taking a lot of pummeling themselves. The reality is that, they need time and space to recharge before they go into problem-solving mode.

If this re-energizing happens on a regular basis, then they function quite well as they can find their intuition rather easily and they can navigate through some very involved situations. But if this doesn’t happen, more and more energy gets depleted, and the once smiling-face starts to snap at people. The sincerity of action and the desire to help is still there, but there is no more joy in it. There is also guilt associated with the irritability they have been feeling in their depleted state, and the anger turns inward; stress builds to unbearable levels and it starts to result in breathlessness, anxiety, fatigue and some odd aches and pains.  Extreme Empaths who also repress negative feelings to present a cool front and protect others, get afflicted by stress-induced illnesses including high blood pressure, heart issues, and even cancer.

The Empaths being the carers of others ironically often do not get care from others….the worse irony is that these creatures of feeling and intuition, who can pick up others’ needs and feelings wordlessly – get treated as if they were robots who have no feelings, needs or desires of their own! Those who function as boats for others to navigate some very choppy waters can get left behind with nary a look after one is done with the navigation. The world can be a very insensitive place indeed.

So, what is the way forward for an Empath? Tough to answer… Perhaps it is not just listening with their heart, it maybe listening to their heart and tending to themselves any way they could. Sometimes, it can be pretending ignorance of something: for, capability comes with a price…..people think you are capable, so you can handle it. They throw you more, you handle more. They throw you still more, and you try to fit it all in. At one point all of this swallows one whole and one has to find a way to burrow out of this pile and find oneself. Perhaps feigning ignorance is a way to prevent oneself from getting drained by users! But a true Empath cannot stay in this mode for long. Sooner or later, their desire to rescue will get in the way.

Another solution maybe to seek out other Empaths and get some self-care that way…. Having a steady and rock-solid network of friends who can serve as sounding boards to bounce off ideas and to keep one’s sanity. A kind word here, some appreciation there – with one taking the role of Grandmother Willow while the other talks, and then switching roles after a while.

I have been told that Pranayama and Yoga help a lot in restoring one’s balance. I have tried this, and it helps for a while – but my spirit is too restless for it. What helps is surrounding oneself with nature, and silence. Hiking in the woods on uneven terrain, focusing only on the next step one has to take so that one can – literally – keep one’s balance, allowing the gentle breezes to caress one’s body and soothe the mind feels like meditation to me. A single hike can give comfort for an entire week.

I have read that even spending a few hours in nature can spur one’s creativity, as the mind stills. Truly, there is very little a human being needs. Rishis knew something the average human doesn’t: that peace can be found in silence, and in the woods. In silence, the mind rests and recovers.

Perhaps Grandmother Willow was once a seedling that drifted along a river, being dashed against rocks and bouncing along the waves before finding firm ground to anchor herself in. To grow and branch out….and in time, flourish into an old growth tree sheltering several forms of life, providing respite and refuge to all who seek such, while standing firm in the face of wind, hail, and rain. Minimizing one’s wants, having the Earth fulfill all one’s needs, bending and swaying gently to the changing winds yet staying grounded and observing everything.

Is this even possible? The thought does feel comforting however, that such a state can be aimed for…..perhaps a start in this journey is to listen with your heart, and to your heart.

1 thought on “The Empath’s Refuge

  1. Part of being an Empath is the challenge of not wading into unhealthy cycles of co-dependence, compulsive/pathological need to care for others and just plain unhelpful Karpman drama triangles. Unless one is a tree or extremely mindful, being sucked into the cycles is a reality


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