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Give your heart an empathy workout

  • Story Highlights
  • Your heart needs empathy exercises for emotional fitness
  • Learn to listen without advising or protecting
  • Imitate someone's body language to understand their feelings
  • Imagine yourself in their shoes to understand their actions
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Martha Beck
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Oprah

(Oprah.com) -- I can't say I always enjoy cardiovascular exercise. I don't think anyone does. Oh, I've seen those infomercials featuring models whose granite abs and manic smiles become even more sharply defined at the very sight of workout equipment. But as we all know, these people are from Neptune.

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Being an Earth-human myself, I strongly resist abandoning my customary torpor to participate in perky physical activity of any kind. Nevertheless, I do cardio pretty regularly. I do it because I know my heart was designed to handle such challenges, because once I get started, I feel that it's doing me good, and because if I stop for very long, my health begins to atrophy.

There's another form of cardio that works much the same way, though it affects the emotional heart rather than the one made of auricles and ventricles. This workout consists of deliberately cultivating empathy. To empathize literally means "to suffer with," to share the pain of other beings so entirely that their agony becomes our own. I know this sounds like a terrific hobby for a masochistic moron, but hear me out.

The reason to develop a capacity for empathy, and then exercise it regularly, is that only a heart strengthened by this kind of understanding can effectively deliver the oxygen of the spirit: love.

Exercise One: Learning to listen

I know one wise old man who has been working at empathy every day since becoming a meditation master early in his life. He matter-of-factly describes a state of complete empathic fitness as a "continuous emotional orgasm." Who's with me now? Let's talk about your exciting new cardio workout!

If you want to feel that you belong in the world, a family or any relationship, you must tell your story. But if you want to see into the hearts of other beings, your first task is to hear their stories. Many people are gifted storytellers. Only the empathic are true story-hearers. To become one of these people, start with conversation. Once a day, ask a friend, "How are you?" in a way that says you mean it. If they give you a stock answer ("Fine"), repeat the question: "No, really. How are you?"

You'll soon realize that if your purpose is solely to understand, rather than to advise or protect, you can work a kind of magic: In the warmth of genuine caring, people open up like flowers. You'll be amazed by the stories you'll hear when you use this simple strategy with your children, your next-door neighbor, your aunt Flossie. You'll learn things you never knew you never knew. Even if you're not in the company of people, you can work to increase your story-hearing techniques.

Books, movies, songs -- stories told in any artistic medium can give you an empathy workout. To grow stronger, find stories that are unfamiliar. If you read, watch, or hear only things you know well, you're looking for validation, not an expansion of empathy. There's nothing wrong with that, but to achieve high levels of fitness, focus once a week on the story of someone who seems utterly different from you.

Exercise Two: Reverse engineering

Some mechanical engineers spend their time disassembling machines to see how they were originally put together. You can use a similar technique to develop empathy, by working backward from the observable effects of emotion to the emotion itself.

Think of someone you'd like to understand -- your enigmatic boss, your distant mother, the romantic interest who may or may not return your affections. Remember a recent interaction you had with this person -- especially one that left you baffled as to how they were really feeling.

Now imitate, as closely as you can, the physical posture, facial expression, exact words, and vocal inflection they used during that encounter. Notice what emotions arise within you. What you feel will probably be very close to whatever the other person was going through. For example, when I "reverse engineer" the behavior of people I experience as critical or aloof, I usually find myself flooded with feelings of shyness, shame, or fear. It's a lesson that has saved me no end of worry and defensiveness.

I train life coaches to use reverse engineering in real time by subtly matching clients' body language, vocal tone, even breathing rate. It's so effective that clients often think the coach must be psychic -- how else could anyone "get them" so quickly and completely? Elementary, my dear Watson. The body shapes itself in response to emotion, and shaping one's own body to match someone else's is a quick ticket to empathy.

Exercise Three: Shape-shifting

In folklore, shape-shifters are beings with the ability to become anyone or anything. As a child, I was fascinated by this concept and used to pretend that I could instantaneously switch places with other people, animals, even inanimate objects. What if I woke up one morning in the body -- and the life --of my best friend, or a bank robber, or the president? What if, like Kafka's fictional Gregor, I suddenly became a cockroach? (You could find people who think I've actually done this.) My point is, what would it feel like to be them? How would I cope? What would I do next?

I still play this game, especially in public places. I recommend you try it, soon. See that strange man in the orange polyester suit putting 37 packets of sweetener into his extra-grande mochaccino with soy milk? What if -- zap! -- you suddenly switched bodies with him? What would it be like to wear that suit, that face, that physique? What impulse would lead to sugaring a cup of coffee like that, let alone drinking it?

I can feel this shape-shifting developing my empathy. It gives my heart a stretch, makes me entertain unfamiliar thoughts and feelings, leaving me with the sensation that I've completed a stomp session on an emotional StairMaster. And if I want to ramp up my workout, it's just a short hop to some practices that work even better, and have been tested for centuries.

The thing about cardio is that once you get used to it, you can feel it making you stronger, calming you down improving your quality of life. Regular empathy practice keeps you on the edge of your emotional fitness, but the benefits are enormous: an awareness of union that banishes loneliness, a natural ability to connect and relate to others, protection from idiot compassion, a wider, deeper life. As your empathy grows, you'll find that it's infinite and that through it, you transcend your isolation and find yourself at home in the universe. I promise, it'll do your heart good.

By Martha Beck from "O, The Oprah Magazine," March 2006 E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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Martha Beck is the author of "Leaving the Saints," 'The Joy Diet," "Finding Your Own North Star" and "Expecting Adam."

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