The Seven C’s of Empathy

Somatic Consensus Series

Care, Curiosity, Courage, Center, Confidence, Creativity and Commitment


  • Care- One Heart
  • Curiosity –Makes you Want to Learn About it
  • Courage– Willing to Feel what you Feel
  •  Center –Me, We
  •  Commitment –Dedicate Your Practice
  • Creativity– Imagination and all the Senses.
  • Confidence– Trust your Training

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On August 11th, 2006, president Barak Obama said this:  “You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this – when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers – it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.”

Our First Language

You might say that empathy is our first language. It’s how mother and child initially communicate. From early on, in our culture, we have been taught to value what we think over what we feel.  A general somatic understanding is “use it or lose it”. Our natural empathic abilities become atrophied if not used. After a lifetime of practicing otherwise, to reclaim and hone empathic skills requires purposeful, deliberate, rigorous practice over time and a personal commitment to do so. The 7 C’s make the practice of empathy more understandable. Empathy take us on an adventure where we are at the rudder, accountable and even though we might not know where things will end up, we have what is needed to navigate the journey.

Empathy connects us to our innate and unique gifts that we each bring to the table and opens possibilities for greater healing of self and the world.

Listening empathically requires taking responsibility for our own moods, emotions, thoughts and feelings to quiets the enemy images we project on to others and listen more intuitively.

When listening empathically, in the time between our asking the question and receiving the information, there is a state of openness and not knowing. This not knowing is where creativity and intuition arise. Most of us give ourselves grief for not knowing. Instead we can learn to tolerate this state and let our inner wisdom arise to answer.


“If you speak from the heart, there is never any waste”                                  Lucrica

“When someone truly sees us and in caring urges us into the warmth of a loving embrace, we leave the darkness in which we have taken refuge and come once more into the light.”                                                                      Stephen Harrod Buhner

To live a meaningful life it’s essential to know what you deeply care about. Touching in on our deeper motivations is not what many of us were taught growing up.  Were you ever asked in school, “What do you really care about?” or “What would you most love to learn today?  It’s sad to say, but in my workshops I find that it is about 1 out of 30 people who were ever asked such questions. Consequently we practice choosing from a narrow selection of classes being offered while motivated by grades and approval of others rather than an inner desire to learn inspired by what we care about.

IMG_0085 copyCare is the ground level of our being. It is what’s meaningful. We know what we care about through bodily sensation, the aliveness we feel as we are moved in one direction or another and find the ground we stand on by listening to our hearts. “Under-standing” the ground under our feet that we stand on is a metaphor for what we care about and the deeper needs we all share, our common ground. As illustrated in Tes’s “confrontation”, our common ground and connection can happen in a moment. Empathy is a quality of presence that values and tends to everyone’s needs.  My Aikido teacher, Sensei Koichi Barrish once said to me, “When someone attacks you, direct your attention surround them with kindness, a “Ki” field.”  The attacker’s whole being registers that there is nothing to resist and relaxes. This is a good beginning to harmonizing conflict.”

To be deeply listened to with care is one of the most lovely and healing things we can do for one another.  It is also one of the most disarming. My wife, Judith, once told me a story about a friend of hers who was hitchhiking and got picked up by a man, who proceeded to take her off the road and force her to take her clothes off.  When he climbed on top of her, she said she felt a deep love and compassion for him and what kind of pain he must be in to do such a thing.  She put her arms around him and looked him right in the eyes, with a profound care, telling him that he really didn’t want to do what he was doing—that he wouldn’t want to live with that weight in his heart.  He got up, helped her back to the car and took her where she wanted to go. This is an extreme example, and yet the principle is the same.  The better you can appreciate what you and another care about the more readily and deeply you can connect to what is needed in the moment.   Care is an expression of connection that recognizes that to harm another is to harm one self.


“In the place my wonder comes from, there, I find you”                  Bruce Cockburn

I once asked my 8 year-old neighbor, “What is curiosity?”  Her brilliant and concise answer was, “Curiosity, makes you want to learn about it.” In relationship, our curiosity is what makes us want to learn about each other.

Curiosity is that compelling, infectious quality that urges us to walk into the unknowns of life, love and relationship purely to “under-stand” and to find meaning. Curiosity is not forceful.  When it is associated with compassion it leaves us feeling connected and good about ourselves.


A grounded touch and a listening face

When I am lost, your smile I trace

Back to the source, to change my disposition,

Right on course, with my heart I listen


Listening to the Nature and the nature of me

Igniting my soul with curiosity,

It’s that and that alone, something that I yearn to learn,

burning to know what’s around the next turn.


 What we are most ashamed of is often what is most common.”  Carl Rogers”

Regardless of age, when someone is genuinely curious about who you are, it feels good and gently moves us to offer windows into our worlds to one another. One Friday night, when my youngest son, Sam, was in 2nd grade we were out on a drive together.  Sam and I have always had open conversations about most anything. We have always enjoyed a mutual curiosity about each other. This particular night, from the shadow of the cab of my pick up truck I heard his little voice ask a very different kind of question for us, “Dad, what is your deepest darkest secret?”

The question this surprised me and the earnest voice behind it conveyed seriousness. Pulling the truck over we sat quietly together as I thought about his question.  After a while, I took a deep breath and said,“ Sam, I don’t know what my deepest darkest secret is, but I’ll share something that is close to my heart and that I have truly never shared before.” I spoke vulnerability and honestly to him and in confidence revealed a deeper part of my self to him.  He listen and appreciated what I had said as a calmness grew between us.

I asked, with genuine curiosity and care, “Sam, what is your deepest darkest secret?” In that moment my whole being wanted to know this lovely person behind the fear. This is empathy.  My son gave me a window into his world.  A courageous little voice said hesitantly…… “Well…There’s is a girl in my class… that I like… and whenever we play or talk together the boys in the class, especially Lyle, makes fun of me”.

IMG_0682 copyQuestions are more powerful than answers sometimes. I shaped my questions to better understand his feelings and the situation. Empathic guessing is empty of judgment, conveys care and inspires connection.

With my help, Sam really heard himself, some of pieces started to fall into place. He guessed that the other boys must feel uncomfortable and afraid to talk to girls and that was probably why they made fun of him. He realized that girls are just people and that no matter what others said; he knew that there was nothing wrong with being friends with them. You could almost see a light bulb switch on.  All hesitancy left him. He said excitedly, “And dad, you’d like her too.  She’s got a great sense of humor and pretty eyes… and she has a hamster, just like mine…and on an on he went”.  His discomfort around girls shifted forever.

I think of divine curiosity as listening for that divine being that is beneath our actions and words within each of us that we all share.


“Think of fear as part of doing what we have to do. When I get scared and I am pushing out of my comfort zone, my heart is going crazy and pounding. Instead of thinking that you are going crazing say, “ Oh those are inner applause”.                                                                                                                             Alice Waters

“Courage is resistance to fear, acceptance of fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.”                                                                                                      Mark Twain

Courage is the act of mustering ourselves to face our fears and be present with them. Many of us learn at an early age to protect our hearts.  Whether a threat is real or imagined, there is emotional pain involved. Fear and pain are contracted states of being. Empathy is an expanded state. It is extremely difficult to offer genuine empathy to another when we are feeling contracted.

Often the more powerful the needs are, the more intensely the emotions are being expressed and this can make it very difficult to fully listen to them. How you naturally respond to others pain will tell you much about its nature just as it will tell you about your own. Courage is not so much about going off to fight dragons as it is about facing our own demons, tolerating our feelings and not reacting so quickly, in order to actually listen to what our emotions are trying to tell us.

Courage is a quality that, when connected to a heart felt caring, is ennobling.

IMG_0927_2The word, courage, comes from Old French, a noun-“corage” which means heart, innermost feelings and inner strength; and to temper,” The word “temper” fills it in nicely.  It comes from the late Old English word, “temprian”, which means to bring to a proper or suitable state or to modify some excessive quality. It is usually described as from “tempus”, as in a sense of proper time or season.

Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to quiet our minds in order to listen empathically. Courage is also the practice of speaking your mind with your heart. We are wired to tell our stories. The culture does not let us tell our stories of imperfections, and we have learned to be ashamed and afraid to show ourselves. Through the years in my workshops there is nothing more moving as when someone who is afraid, musters the courage to speak out for the sake of connecting and contributing to the others in the room.  When someone brings their whole self to the conversations, with all their imperfections, it opens the heart of all who listen and draws admiration and appreciation.

A Call to Courage                                                                                                     One day a young woman, Joanne, in her mid 20’s showed up at my home. She was strung out and wanted help to come down from her heroin addiction. My wife and I and the community around us knew her when she was a teen, friends with our son, Sam and an Aikido student of mine.  She had once been a very bright, capable and caring person.  A darkness had welled up and enveloped her life.  With her mind and body compromised by drugs; she was now fighting for her life.

With the help of our neighbors she spent the next month at our house coming down from the drugs while using methadone and marijuana to ease her detox. She was never completely clean and her ability to be honest with herself and commitment to stopping were patchy and tricky.

She had a lot of work to do and we had little experience with this sort of thing. A friend of mine, Peter Hassen, stepped in to help. Peter, an extraordinary 60ish year old, artist across many mediums and a former junkie, was familiar with what Jo was up against. He had given up drugs many years ago and since had poured out his heart many times trying to help people struggling to get off drugs.  Many beloved friends had died. You could see how difficult it was for him to enter yet another situation where he might lose someone he cared for. He sensed that the chances of Jo getting through this were marginal, at best.

Peter, having wrestled his own demons, gave her an ear that she could trust. He listened, suggested, asserted and supported her as best he could.  Then there was a moment, a call to courage.  That moment was moving for all, especially for Jo.

He offered to go to Narcotics Anonymous with her every day for the next 30 days if she committed to it. He was not a professional and it scared the hell out of him to open his heart, yet again, to this young woman because he knew that she could very easily fail to go clean, go back to the street and possibly die. He courageously kept his heart open willing to face the unknowns and the pain that the future might hold all for the sake of caring for this young woman.  He knew that he could not save her life.  That was up to her.  He did know within himself how important it is to care for one another. He did not help because he felt he “should”, he chose to step in to help because he was moved by her courage to fight for her life.

When I speak of courage I’m speaking about the willingness to trust your senses to listen and deeply feel what it is that you’re feeling with out cluttering the moment up with words, strategies and busyness. Often the more intense the emotions are, the more powerful the needs and the more difficult it is to fully listen to them.  It takes courage to listen to our emotions, to trust our senses, and to stay open and centered in the face of intense feelings.


“Center is the eye of the hurricane, it is the place where you are able to be calm in the midst of the spinning without spinning.                                         Karen Sella

“There is only one Heart “                                                                          William Blake

 Centering cultivates emotional stability, physical equilibrium and spiritual composure. It brings balance between body, mind and the world we live in. When centered, your mind is alert with a heightened awareness of surroundings and an uncanny ability to focus on essentials. Centering opens us to a mindset of discovery that is willing to embrace change and where there is no end to the learning.

The world’s shortest poem was by Mohammad Ali.  It goes like this: “Me, Whee!!”   

Listening empathically requires centering in order to separate our own stories, frameworks and perceptions from our listening. Sometimes the emotions stirred within us when we’re listening empathically to another can be triggering and overwhelming. How do we hold anxiousness, irritation, anxiety and loneliness?

It is important to fully feel these feelings and yet not indulge them. If we are not centered we are much more likely to get stuck in old and unwanted feelings. Our own reactions can be our worst enemy. Taking moments to let patience and stillness replace the anxiety and high pace activity in our lives is certainly good advice.

Somatic Consensus is essentially a plethora of centering techniques that synchronize the resources of our head, heart and belly with what brings meaning to our actions in the world. The intention of practice is not about being centered all the time, it is to learn to come back quicker when you notice your off. To be centered all the time would seriously overload our systems.  We are not built for that.

Centering practice helps us understand how our physical, emotional, and spiritual balance are inextricably linked. When you center yourself physically your mind and spirit come into balance too. If your body is off balance you can shift it almost as easily through a balanced state of mind.  Centering practices that include mind, body, emotions and meaning are potent.

Tapping deep into our center we can uncover both our core nature and the reality of our collectiveness. It is how we can recognize that as an individual, we are an integral part of the collective whole. Centering is a resource for addressing the challenges we face in our personal relationships and for finding solutions to global problems.



If you lost and riding in the dark, let the horse lead.

The more secure we become in our selves and our practices the more confidently we comport ourselves and share our gifts. The confidence that is embodied is reflected in a powerful yet calm resolve, skillful movement, an increased awareness and capacity to adapt and learn. Confidence is the presence we have when we trust where we stand and what we have come to know. You feel it and those around us feel it.

IMG_4905As a child, like most of us growing up in 20th century America, I developed strategies to keep others at a certain distance in order to protect myself. Sometimes being a kid is like being in a room with the doorknob only on the outside. Adults can access you, but you are limited in ways to access them. The strategies we learn when we are young were the best we could do at the time and hard to change as adults. Some of the old strategies for safety are like training wheels on a bike/ Once you have learned to ride, if you don’t take them off, they get in the way and slow you down.

From early on we learn to build emotional walls believing that we will be safer and more able to deal with people from behind them. Aikido offers a different approach, which at first might seem counter productive: inclusivity keeps us more aware of others intention, improves our timing and increases our resource-fullness. It actually keeps us safer. After 3 decades of Aikido training, I am confident about its validity.

Just the Basics

In 1997, I was teaching Aikido in a local community center as a Shodon, or first-degree black belt.  One day, one of the other Shodons, and at the time a student of mine, told me that he was preparing for his Nidon (second-degree black belt) test.

I felt an overwhelming, competitive urge well up in me and felt compelled to call my teacher, Sensei Koichi Barrish, to see about getting a promotion of my own!  When I called, I reminded him that it had been eleven years since my last promotion, and that I felt ready for my next.  I asked what was required that he would need to see from me.  His response was simply; “Just the basics… pause……… the way we do them now.”

My teacher is a master from the old school. Always creative, this gifted martial artist was the real deal. It had been several years since I had trained in his dojo.  As I watched the class I was both mesmerized and confounded by “the way the were doing it now”. I recognized the moves, but everything seemed altered.  It was like a classical musician walking into a jazz session. It was music, I could recognize and appreciate what I was seeing, but to do it myself was a whole other thing.

So, in earnest, I began to take all of the classes offered, beginner through advanced.  Although I already had a strong Aikido base, in many ways I was beginning my training anew. I had to come to it with a beginner’s mind, to continually stay open to learning new ways of improving. Imagine a swordsman, practicing a sword cut movement 500 times a day and what it takes to stay with it and strive to improve with each cut.  In a sense, I had to keep emptying my cup in order to allow more in. This open state required me to maintain a quality of commitment, humility, curiosity, determination, and purpose. This is the essence of what it takes to embody a practice over time.

It was about a year later that I started to notice something different and exciting.  I began to feel the interactions with others on the mat directly through my body.  When I was attacked, my movement was spontaneous, informed by what I felt intuitively rather than a calculated response coming from my head. In that same moment that I noticed this shift from “thinking” my way through an interaction to “feeling” and “sensing” my way, my teacher, noticed the shift as well and promoted me. I had gained a new level of confidence.

Relaxation is key.  The more relaxed we are the more aware we can be.  When we are tense we are less flexible in any given situation both mentally and physically. Relaxation does not mean limpness or collapse; using just the energy that is needed. Watch a cat lying on a sofa, its body is completely relaxed, but when startled it quickly organizes and is gone in a heartbeat.

Confidence is a physically expansive state.  Insecurity is a contracted state with elements of mistrust and fear.  It’s difficult if not impossible to be contracted and empathic simultaneously.  When we are tight and contracted, it is hard to feel the nuanced feelings that guide intuitive choice.  It is also hard for someone to relax and feel trust around some one who is contracted. Messiness and getting lost in relationships is unavoidable. Confidence that comes through deliberate practice and experience provides reference points and resources to navigate unchartered relationships.

In my early forties I participated in an 8-month initiatory rite of passage modeled after a Lakota tradition called Hanbleycha. It culminated in my leaving the “village” and spending 4 days and nights “on the hill”, alone without food. In the forest, I sat alone with Nature and with the commitment to face myself. I listened and re-membered something I had once found in my twenties after years of travel. That is, no matter what I may think or where I am, “I am loved”. This simple knowing has become a foundation for my personal practice and professional life. I continue to find my footing and draw confidence in this simple and profound knowing through the practice of this basic understanding.


Empathy is a presence that opens the way to seeing the world through another’s eyes. Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu stated that true empathy requires listening with the whole being. The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing.  The hearing of understanding is another.  But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear or to the mind. The whole being listens.  There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.”

Communication, done artfully, is felt in moments of connection. Empathy is the medium in which listening moves inspires and connects us. Around the world there are many names used to describe this creative medium:  Ki, Pranna, Élan Vital, Spirit, Life, our deepest Needs and within its field who we are is revealed.

Just before the stroke of the brush, the artist quiets and centers herself to listen to what is deeply felt. Imagination sparked, feelings grow, the skillful painter, divinely curious, musters the courage to step into the unknown. Her imagination connects what her mind perceives with what her body feels and knows.  Things that we touch, see and hear coalesce via the imagination. Imagination is essential for understanding what it might be like to walk in another’s shoes.

Albert Einstein said, “Imagination … is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

Webster’s Dictionary says: Imagination, different from fantasy helps provide meaning to experience and understanding to knowledge; it is a fundamental facility through which people make sense of the world, and plays a key role in the learning process.

IMG_5351We are each a story.  When we talk, our whole history, culture and unique personalities are communicated behind the words. When we listen empathically, what is said can move and excite our senses and imagination. We are touched by more than the words, we can taste, smell, see and imagine as we take it in.

Listening from our whole self is how we hear another’s whole self. Gathering all of our body’s faculties to listen, imagine and perceive is like discovering the part of an iceberg that is below the surface of the water.

Our bodies send and receive volumes and by incorporating our bodies into our listening we can hear nuances through gesture, tone, inflection, movement and shape that we can never hear through words alone.

After four decades as a goldsmith, I’ve narrowed my business down to what I truly enjoy: co-creating the symbols that are meaningful for my clients. Making someone’s wedding rings is a sacred and intimate process for me. Some clients come to me with elaborate ideas drawn out in detail of what they would like me to make, while others don’t know what they want at all. As we create together I listen with a deep curiosity and carefully questioning to see if I am getting what it is they are trying to convey. It is up to me to listen and translate what they would love into something visible. The medium is metal and stone. To listen fully in order to hear what is moving and meaningful to another and help make it visible is the essence of empathy

Listening empathically in any relationship is a sacred act that honors the creative life in each of us. Whether it’s a piece of jewelry or a mutual understanding we are creating, the 7 c’s describe the basics

I listen with care to what is meaningful. As I listen, I am curious who is in front of me and what is wanting to come forth. I muster the courage to fully enter into this new and unknown relationship. I center myself, to create a space to allow and listen to what is unfolding.

Resting in the confidence of my skills, I relax; open my attention and awareness without the worry of outcomes.  Staying present, feelings become known, common ground is sensed, a moment of connection approaches and presents itself. Synergy. Discovering the beauty of creating is at the heart of my commitment



Commitment is what transforms a promise into reality. It is the words that speak boldly of your intentions. And the actions, which speak louder than the words. It is making the time when there is none. Coming through time after time after time, year after year after year. Commitment is the stuff character is made of; the power to change the face of things. It is the daily triumph of integrity over skepticism.”

~ Abraham Lincoln

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.  Concerning all acts of initiative and creation there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.   All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.  A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in ones favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. 

What ever you can do or dream you can, begin it.

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”                      Goethe

IMG_4950 copyIn 1991 I helped start the intentional community where I raised my family and still live today. When I began, I had very little understanding about what it would really entail.  I did know how to work hard and what I cared about. That was a good starting place. A well crafted commitment creates the environment to fulfill on what you declare much like a compass helps to map a course and points towards our destination.  Without that compass, I doubt I would have weathered the intense conflict, relationship upheavals, overwhelms and disillusionment that are part of the natural cycle of Community building.  These days the community is thriving. It feeds me in ways that are far beyond what I imagined when I began!

My personal commitment has been to learn to live more fully within the bonds of community, to share resources where ever possible, to raise my children more collaboratively and, in the bigger picture, contribute to a more nurturing world for generations to come. This matters to me and has been worth working towards.


Our biological programing is wired, in part, to preserve a status quo. We gravitate to what is familiar. To create new ways of being, a commitment needs to emerge from a deep appetite and hunger. It must be powerful enough to inspire a shift towards new actions and through one’s own resistance to change.

New actions and practices can easily become lost in the bureaucracy of our historical habits. So it is the commitments that we come back to when we lose our ways. They remind us of the choices we have made and offer guideposts to refer to and come back to when we get lost. A well-crafted, meaningful commitment can light up a clear path.

Over the years, in my community, there have been those who have resisted or outright refused to make commitments. For them, commitments seemed to be obligatory structures imposed upon them that restricted their freedom. Follow-through on a commitment is difficult when there is a feeling of obligation or “should” rather than personal conviction and free choice. Too many rules and structures can hinder the creative process, while without structure it is easy to get distracted and lose sight of our goals.

The intentional practice of empathy begins and ends with commitment. To cultivate the qualities of Care, Curiosity, Courage, Center, Confidence, and Creativity the intention, practices and commitments need to be as clear and do-able as possible.

For example, one do-able task within my community commitment was to not talk about people in my community, negatively, behind their backs in ways that I would not speak directly to their face. Keeping to this commitment has served me well and it has cultivated more of the same with those around me. It is do-able and the results are viewable.

Another example was when I was an apprentice goldsmith, I asked Ted, an elder master goldsmith, what are the skills I need to master to become a goldsmith.  He said, “Learn the saw, the torch and files (he also added, don’t forget to pick up your pay check).  I committed to practicing the file, saw and torch. Those were do-able skills to learn and practice.  In time that became an embodied skill, the “known” as I went on to develop my creativity in that medium.

Until we articulate for clarity and power, through language a vision and shape our commitments it is unclear what we are moving towards. Declaring your commitments and living it, opens possibilities for new actions and draws others who might like to collaborate.  Life will go on and happens without this, of course. But articulating a possibility, choosing it, committing to it and being willing to take the consequences for the sake of a more enriching life sets a direction and galvanizes the resources within and around u.


*Conjures the question: What do I care about?  What do I want do bring forth in the world and why is that important? What are the actions I need?

**Specifics to Fulfill- Specific tasks for delivering on your commitment.  Note what it would look like if you were successful in completing each of these tasks.

***Regularly evaluate specific actions, progress and their completion


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