In Part II you learned how to let go and sink into soft awareness via relaxation exercise. The next steps to empathy will help you make an emotional connection with your partner through deep knowing. Previously you learned that the “feel” of heart knowing comes by sinking into soft awareness. Are you willing to behold your partner with grace – gently and non-judgmentally?

4. Coming to Ground

In soft awareness, we enter a realm of consciousness deeper than thought patterns. This realm of consciousness is a space deep in the heart. We access this deep realm of the self when we shift from head knowledge to heart knowledge. We let go of our conditioned way of looking at life and sink deep, still deeper into the heart and settle into a profound, creative, holy space. This ground is called the womb of the heart. In Part I, I discussed how you need, first, to be willing to make a shift to heart knowing. So, from where does this intent to be open and receptive to another come? There is no way of explaining that from the perspective of ordinary knowing, because such awareness comes only from the womb of the heart.

When we are at ground, the primary and profound experience is humility. Humility comes from the Latin, humus which means of the earth or ground. Humility best describes the quality of the holy ground I call the womb of the heart. We meet our true selves and our partner on a ground where the controls of ordinary operations are transcended and old meanings are transformed.

The womb of the heart is the deep part of the heart where soft awareness arises and deep knowing comes. It is the place of fecundity – the power to create and re-create meaning.  Fecundity empowers us to transform old images of our partner into a radically new way of looking at him/her thus far undreamt. We see with new eyes and hear with new ears so that we apprehend our partner as he/she truly is.  We listen with new ears to reframe the way we construe our partner’s words so that we can discern the deeper meaning of what he/she experiences. The transformation of meaning happens, to paraphrase Yeats, as we allow soft awareness to take the lead.  The mind bows to heart and lets the heart become the agent of change in all aspects of our life.

Being truly humble provides us with new eyes to know our truth and our place in the created order and to “know” we are connected with all. In the womb of our heart, we experience truth at a deep level, beyond mere information that comes from head knowing.  Here, we connect with our personal truth and create a new path resonant with our true self. We don’t usually think of God’s truth for us living quietly deep within. In the womb of the heart, truth lives and keeps in balance honest valuations of self and the other. Because we are so prone to being self-absorbed and self-deceiving, humility regulates these tendencies by letting us clearly and honestly see what is true for me and what is not; what is true about the other. In our humility, we maintain the integrity of who we are and what we need, while being tuned in to our partner’s feelings and issues.

This open, free and creative space lets you meet one another without bias, judgments, or the clutter from previous interactions. There are many hidden treasures waiting to be discovered as you dwell in the womb of the heart. You meet aliveness, fecundity, love, gentleness and caring, grace, and hope. From this matrix, radical change is generated; from this marrow, the true self emerges. Without humility, empathy cannot draw on any of these powers. Most people do not equate humility with power.  Yet, read Mary’s joyful song, called the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55) to understand its true meaning.

Imagination is linked to fecundity. Humility takes imagination in hand and leaps onto the new ground of the other person in order to have a new, richer and deeper understanding. When you seek to access the heart of your partner, you enter a foreign territory – a place you’ve never been before – and the other person is the only one with a map. So, you move slowly into the other person’s world of experience, letting him/her teach you and guide your understanding of his/her world of experience. You move slowly employing imagination and curiosity to guide you.

5. Exploring the lay of the land – the other’s inner experience

When we experience something significant, like being hurt by another’s words or action, there is an energy associated with the hurt. It is registered and signified as a felt-sense of that experience.  Each person will describe the felt-sense of the hurt in his/her own unique way. The import of his/her message embodies the quality and value or weight of the felt-sense of the experience. So, we listen to the whole message and focus on the import.  People will use phrases describing the import, such as: “What he said cut me deeply;” “I felt like trust was jerked out of me;” “His words pierced my soul;” or “I felt like I was pushed aside.”  In close relationships we all want to be heard and understood.  Empathy, generated from the womb of the heart, gives integrity of feeling and words so that you meet your partner at a deep level of understanding.

  • Discern the import. Grounded in the heart, the person being empathetic not only attends to certain words, but also to the other’s tone of voice and facial expressions to discern the meaning of the message. As you listen closely, you seek to uncover the import within the message or account of the partner. It’s like the import is the kernel or essential part that once you touch it – connect with it – the partner feels heard and appreciated.

    Let’s call your partner Person A. He/she describes the problem with you, Person B, as feeling criticized by you. As Person A talks more about this feeling, Person B begins to hear the nuance of the hurt to reflect a quality of condescension. That would be the “thorn” of Person B’s criticism. That’s the import. So, when you, Person B, are seeking to understand the meaning of his/her hurt – what is it that’s piercing the heart – then you search for how he/she might hold or sense the hurt, which is the import. An example of an empathetic response would be: “So, you felt belittled by my comment.”
  • Listen for feeling words. In the above response, Person B connected with the import of Person A. When that happens, this ends the transaction, because Person A will have felt heard and appreciated. However, it usually takes most people several attempts to hit the mark – make accurate contact with the partner’s hurt. Therefore, it’s helpful to learn how to listen for words that will guide you to the import of their message. Feeling words point to the import of what’s really bothering the partner. You listen for and attend to feeling words, because they will guide you to the felt-sense of the hurt. An example of Person B responding to feeling words may be: “So, you felt sad when I said …” There are four basic feelings – mad, sad, glad, scared. Listening for his/her feeling words takes time and practice. It’s like gently cracking open a nut to get to the kernel.

    The next reply to Person A would be to further focus on what you sense all this must be like for him/her: (above) “So, you felt belittled by my comment.” Sometimes the whole description is infused with emotions; other times, the feeling words are nuanced in the message. Imagination and curiosity can aid you.
  • Be Impacted. How do you know when you’ve connected with the import of what your partner is experiencing – other than the partner confirming that you hit the mark? The gauge you will come to trust will be the emotional affect shown by Person A ; that is, he/she will be touched by your empathetic connection. Person A will feel the congruence between your words and the emotional connection you made.  And your validation will come as Person A’s emotional response impresses itself upon you.  When that impact happens, you know you hit the bull’s eye. You connected with the actual felt-meaning or import of the other. Staying soft will ensure that you receive the impact.

    Earlier I said: “Humility takes imagination in hand and leaps onto the new ground of the other person.” It’s difficult to speak of profound experiences without using poetry. When you connect with the real experience of another, it’s like landing on, touching down on their ground. When that happens you will receive the impact from how it affected him/her. You feel the power of how the hurt affected him/her.
  • Use Imagination when necessary. When Person B connects with the import of Person A, the transaction is completed.  Because making true connection with our partner is so difficult, you may want to know how imagination and curiosity can help you get unstuck when you’re trying to connect. Obviously, you can’t be inside the skin of another. No one knows exactly what another is thinking and feeling; however, you can use your imagination to help you better connect with your partner’s feelings.

    At the beginning of your intent to be empathetic, you start with willingness and a commitment to engage your partner on a deep level. This takes effort, along with respect and caring, to stay long enough with your partner to make an emotional connection. And as you do this, your partner will recognize your effort and afford you grace. Together with your effort and his/her grace, you take the time to pull together background history and knowledge of present issues to construct an idea of he/she struggle. To help all these factors adhere together, you need the alchemy of imagination and intuition to make the leap from our ground to his/her ground.

    This may sound a little like magic; yet, so does the way a child uses imagination to pretend he/she is another person (like being Michael Jordan) or has that person’s special abilities. In imagination you can enter a temporary state where you pretend – like a child at play or in day dreaming.In this creative space you can build imaginary scenarios to learn new ways of acting. The old adage of “walk a mile in his shoes” is how we use imagination to act as though we were that person. Another way to engage imagination is in a counseling session where I would encourage a client facing a difficult issue to pretend she is me – pretend she has my skills to resolve it.

    Another way to use your imagination via pretending is to use your own experience as a reference point for how to get to an empathetic place with another. You refer back in your life to a time when you had a similar feeling. First, you ask yourself – “What did it feel like for me?” Then use your own experience as a stepping stone to get to what your partner might be feeling. When you select your feeling, don’t let it become abstract as from a distance and don’t linger in what it was like for you; otherwise you would be courting sympathy. Read More Empathy vs. Sympathy Keep your imagination soft so that you can identify the import and feel the impact of his/her experience.

Empathy is the path to graceful understanding

Being vulnerable is essential to practicing empathy, along with keeping your mouth shut when you want to defend, explain, justify, or judge. You know the amazing feeling of truly being heard by another, so keep practicing empathy. It is my hope that as you model empathy with your partner, he/she will pick it up and reciprocate it. I trust you have learned from these articles that empathy’s gift brings many benefits, including a closer and stronger relationship. Empathy is the true way of listening and understanding, and I believe this happens only through God’s grace. That’s why I call it graceful understanding. It’s through God’s grace that we can hold another’s feelings with compassion. When we allow the holy synapse to happen, grace flows back and forth between hearts, saturating both with true caring. Open your heart to your partner and let yourself be surprised by who this person really is standing before you!

Parting Note

The best way to practice empathy is through personal instruction received from a seminar I will present entitled: Re  Union: Reconnecting & Building a Relationship That Works. You also will learn a 2-step model of communication. Knowing how to be empathetic with your partner is critical to good communication and developing closeness with the other.Be on the lookout for date and location.

Until next time, go with God’s blessings