Illustration: Sean McCabe
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. 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.
Love requires connection between lover and beloved, and empathy is the quiet miracle by which this connection is forged. When you share others' suffering, you also share their experience of receiving your gift—the gift of being accompanied into grief or anguish rather than bearing it alone. Naturally, almost involuntarily, people will love you for this. If you're in a state of empathy, you'll feel their love for you as your own emotion, thus coming to understand what it means to love yourself. This will make you love the other person even more, and of course you'll receive that love even as you give it, which makes it even deeper, and...well, you can see where this is going. Become an expert at it, and soon your life will be absolutely lousy with love.
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? All right, then. Let's talk about your exciting new cardio workout—but first, a crucial warning.
Many people, especially those of us who've had a little bit of therapy, fall into an emotional trap Buddhists call "idiot compassion." At first glance, this looks like empathy, but it's actually projection. It encourages us to condone harmful behavior by assuming that the perpetrator is acting out of pain and helplessness.
"I know he's just a hurting little boy inside," says Jeanie, whose boyfriend, Hank, has just beaten the living tar out of her for the umpteenth time. "He's so sensitive. His mama abandoned him. He even cries when he talks about it." Because Jeanie herself would become violent only in the grip of intolerable torment, she thinks she understands Hank's motivations—and so she excuses his behavior. Real empathy is not based on this kind of projection but on close observation. If she were a true empath, Jeanie would notice that Hank, while "so sensitive" to his own misery, never notices others' distress.
When Jeanie understands that no one who cares for her could act as he acts, she'll drop the idiot compassion and get the hell out of Dodge. At that point, she'll realize that real empathy doesn't put us in harm's way. It protects us. That's just another reason to implement one of the following exercises:
Exercise 1: Learning to Listen
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 storyhearers.
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 storyhearing techniques. Here's a snippet from English teacher Jane Juska's wonderful memoir, A Round-Heeled Woman, in which she describes teaching creative writing to prisoners in San Quentin:
Suddenly Steve, silent until now, speaks: "...when we used to have a really fine librarian here, he gave me this book. It was Les Misérables.... That book changed my life. It gave me feelings, gave me empathy...Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo." He is wrapping up this gift and holding it close. It is his forever.
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.