Opening the Male Heart: Imagination and the Growth of Empathy


If I were to use one word to describe the male behaviors women complain about in #MeToo it would be heartless. Trying to have sex when she doesn’t want it? Heartless. Shouting a woman down with one’s privilege? Heartless. Belief you are entitled to a woman’s body? Heartless. Toxic masculine behaviors? All of them are heartless at their core.

Perhaps, then, opening the male heart would be a good thing. But just how would one go about doing that? Let’s start by saying this: The only heart one can open is one’s own. No one can open someone else’s heart. Men have to do this themselves.

There is no doubt that a lot of conditioning occurs early in life regarding gender roles. It happens and it is all around us all the time. Parents I have known with egalitarian values find themselves struggling against these roles, only to find themselves losing to them far too often. No matter how strong the parents are in this regard, there are still grandparents, uncles and aunts, teachers, babysitters, and friends who perpetuate the old gender roles. As a result, many boys become young men within the confines of those modeled roles. The result is nearly always an incomplete man. In the worst cases, he takes on toxic behaviors and becomes abusive. But he may also be social and normal, excellent with concepts and math but utterly unable to express emotions. Or, he may have a beautiful, open heart which the world has dealt with harshly, and therefore know his wounds too intimately, and close down within. In all these cases, opening the heart is essential.

I was such a man early in my life. When I went to college, I fell in love with the intellectual stimulation I experienced there. But the intellect is abstract, and I was fortunate enough to discover that my ideas, as good and strong as they were, remained stuck in my head. How does one open the other parts of the self? How do you open your heart? That was my riddle.

Imagination is the primary tool of the heart, so if one is going to open the heart, he must cultivate the imagination. Why imagination? Because to empathize, you must be able to imagine the other person and their experience. The narcissist, the ego maniac, the entitled, and the arrogant have a diminished capacity in this regard. Unable to imagine the other, they center only on their own perceived interest, and that interest is largely conceptual and intellectual. The closed heart doesn’t feel much at all. To put oneself in someone else’s shoes, one must imagine how it is for that other person.

For myself, the awakening of the imagination happened in two ways. First, I recognized that my thinking had become too academic so I tried a class on creative writing. I started writing and reading fiction, both of which opened my imagination. Good fiction maintains what is known as the “fictional dream”, which is an ongoing stream of imagined images guided and directed by the story itself. Reading such fiction will force one to empathize with the characters. Writing it even more so. The craft of writing forces this engagement with an imagined character, and to write well, one must feel well — or at least imagine that one can feel along with them. The more I wrote, the more I cultivated my imagination.

Second, and just a few years later, my imagination blew open with depth psychology and poetry. Where fiction requires the imagination to engage empathically with the characters, poetry and psychology move the imagination into the area of metaphor, which cultivates emotion and the heart even further. In psychology, my guides were C.G. Jung and James Hillman, two pre-eminent depth psychologists who focused on dreams and myth as sources of metaphorical images. Such images are symbolic, they said, and my curious mind pursued it: What do those images mean? How do they make one feel? The strange images of Greek myth, for example, or the odd character of coyote in Native American tales, or the flat out bizarre images of dreams? Jung said these are symbolic of deeper forces within, and an awareness like that is key to opening the heart. It forces one beyond the intellect and into a different realm.

But this pointing to the symbolic was not enough. The real breakthrough to the heart, for me, came with poetry. Not just any poetry, but rather an image-rich poetry of certain masters. There’s a lot of bad poetry out there, none of which will help with this. It has to be the good stuff, and for that, one should turn to the masters. As my guide in poetry, I followed the direction of Robert Bly. Who did he point to? Rumi, Pablo Neruda, William Stafford, Antonio Machado, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mary Oliver, and many others. These are poets rich with imagery, and one can read carefully and let the images land on you. One of the great opportunities I had was to listen to Bly gives readings and lectures in which he used poetry from these people and commented on it. He helped provide a door into poetry for his listeners, and as one of those listeners, my heart began to open.

For me, the final step was to engage these practices further. Listening is passive. It is accepting. There is a practice with it, but I needed more. I needed to actually write poetry, even if I never showed it to anyone else, and I needed to actually work with my dreams — which was best done with a Jungian analyst. I remember someone asking Bly what a young man should do who wants to write poetry. His answer: “Memorize 500 lines of a master.” That’s also a good answer if you want to open your heart. Memorizing that much poetry will change you internally. I know because it happened to me.

Make no mistake — poetry, writing, and dream work were my way, but there are many other ways to engage the imagination and thereby open the heart. It won’t be watching football, and it won’t be on social media. You won’t find this answer at your job. My practices were in writing images and working with dreams; it is also done in art, music, active imagination, and even in meditation. Whatever the practice, the key is that it move from the intellect to the imagination in order to familiarize you with the way of the heart. The heart thinks in images, not concepts. The reward is a richer life and truer sense of self. Indeed, I cannot imagine what it would have been like to live a life of merely abstract conceptions. Doing the work has been its own reward, and I am a better man for it.

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Previously Published on medium

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