Master the Art of Empathy

In today’s episode on 30 DAYS OF INTENT, Iman and Natalie meet with Diana Castle for an acting lesson and empathy workshop. Diana teaches theater through her original method, THE IMAGINED LIFE™, which emphasizes the role of empathy in creating and portraying dramatic roles. We interviewed Diana on the importance of empathy, on stage and in the world.

The Chopra Well: You are an acting instructor and also teach empathy skills. How are empathy and acting related?

Diana Castle: Acting is all too often thought of and even encouraged to be a narcissistic profession – and yes, there are plenty of cultural narcissists today. However the truth in the art of acting is to be found in the heart of empathy. A great actor is that human being who is willing to exchange his or her personal interpretive framework for an alternative interpretive framework, or as Atticus Finch said in To Kill A Mockingbird, to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

We learn and experience more about ourselves from accepting other people’s stories as a possibility for us. Accepting the human story as our own, I call “living from the I AM.”  When we accept every part as a part of us, we learn to live a more integrated, whole-hearted life. The art of acting is living from imagined possibility and so is the art of empathy.

CW: Why is empathy so important – not just for acting, but for life in general?

DC: There would be less fighting with each other and more dialogue, education and cultural exchange. As we widen our empathetic embrace, we widen our experience of the world. That’s what happens when we go see a movie or a play or read a book that affects us emotionally.

The individual strings of our independent identity are only parts reflecting the whole.  If we lose our capacity to put ourselves into other peoples shoes, we lose our capacity to experience what is the truth of our inter-relatedness and interdependence. When we lose that, we lose our connection to the fact that if we try to destroy others we only destroy ourselves. This includes our environment which is a reflection of our empathetic embrace as well.

CW: Is it hard to practice empathy? As you say, the world would be a very different place if everyone lived intentionally and empathetically. What gets in our way?

DC: Our Ego. Our Ego is vital of course for discerning: “I’m in here and you’re out there.” However, neuroscience now teaches us that if you lose your arm and have phantom limb pain and someone sits in front of you, mirroring you, and gets their arm massaged, your phantom limb gets relief!

Shakespeare’s advice to the players in Hamlet when he encourages them to “hold the mirror up to nature” should now be thought of as holding the “mirror neurons” up to nature! This is the amazing truth of life. What happens to you actually is happening to me.

CW: Do you have any simple tips or strategies for practicing empathy that we can incorporate into our daily lives?

DC: When we experience a belief or behavior we don’t like or understand, a good reaction to practice is: “That’s me!” “Hello, myself!”

In the daily practice of seeing in others a reflection of our possible selves we start with: I ACCEPT this belief and behavior as a possibility for me. I don’t encourage asking “Why?” does he or she behave this way. I encourage accepting the beliefs and behaviors as a possibility for you.

My rule for actors when they are asked to believe and behave in ways they don’t understand is: Don’t ask why. Justify. We can always justify any behavior through conditions and circumstances. This is what allows for empathy with the human character as opposed to ideas of “other” and creating caricatures.

Try this exercise:

There is no “other”- there is only “I AM”

I AM is a state of pure possibility.

I AM… you finish that sentence. No one finishes it for you. It’s a state of pure creativity. It’s a state of acceptance and possibility.

It’s a pure IMAGINED LIFE™ moment.

When we stop trying to figure out why people believe and behave in the ways that they do with our left brain and use our right brain to imaginatively accept the I AM –  the beliefs and behaviors as possibilities of ourselves – then we come to understand people in very profound ways. We begin to recognize our many varied selves in the mirror. The mirror neurons, I should say.

CW: The story you share at the end of the episode from Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet is beautiful and so inspiring. What is your “I Must” and how has it helped shaped your intentions throughout your life?

DC: I must transform misunderstanding into understanding, suspicion into trust, division into unity.

This begins with transforming my own misunderstanding, my own suspicion and my own inner divisiveness. Because my father survived Hitler’s holocaust and I was raised in the deep south, I have been challenged to become a person who trusts humanity. This challenge became my benefit as I discovered the arts and found the great power of empathy that is housed in art. I deeply believe in arts education as the vital tool for developing empathy. This led me to formulating and teaching my IMAGINED LIFE™ philosophy and practical application.

I must, as Rilke says, “order my life” each day “according to the necessity.”

I must participate in the collective effort to build an empathetic civilization heart to heart, life to life, one person, one engagement at a time.


Watch the “Mastering Empathy” episode and then let us know your “I must” in the comments section below!

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