Bringing Compassion into Education: Recovery & Reading the World

The school year has begun for those of us with children, for those of us who are students, and for those of us who are teachers.  The relationships between children, teachers and parents are a central focus of my education research and the catalyst for transforming my career in education. This is partly the reason for my excitement when the new principal of my second grader held a Q&A conversation with second grade parents.  She was sending the message that connecting with parents is important to her, that relationships matter.  She also shared a piece of her philosophy of education when she started the conversation with a picture book entitled, Wait. In each picture, the mother is pulling her son behind her and saying “Hurry!” The next page is a beautiful picture of the boy observing something interesting to him and saying, “Wait.” The story goes on like this until it ends with the mother and son together observing the rainbow and saying, “Wait.”  It is a simple yet important reminder to slow down and be fully present. I have thought about this book and the significance of this new principal sharing it with us. I am left with the hope that she will help to balance the district’s intense focus on academics with the joy and beauty of learning, especially for these K-2 children, something many of us lose as we go through school and enter adulthood.

For many adults, like myself, we have internalized the notion that life must move quickly in order to feel or be accomplished. Children do not have this notion until we teach it to them.  In a recent interview with Tami Simon, founder of Sounds True publishing house, Tara Sophia Mohr described how she learned to manage her inner critic by having “to recover from education.”  She put words to my experience.  I realized that starting my mindfulness practice two years ago was when I started my recovery from education. Much of my struggle with my inner critic and self-acceptance stems from the false belief that the more education I received, the more tasks I took on, the higher level job titles I earned, the more worthy I was. This type of thinking is promoted in schools through the ways in which we are evaluated, labeled, grouped, and awarded or denounced. We are barraged with messages of our worthiness perpetuated by a society that cannot seem to move out of the industrial aged concept of education, or as Paulo Freire has termed the banking concept.  We still view students as passive receptacles in need of being filled with knowledge rather than creators or active participants of knowledge and ideas.  Sure, there has been reform and push back against this concept, but it is deeply ingrained in our history of education.  The institution of schools has changed very little in the past century.

I was one of those children striving to be the best receptacle, to belong and be accepted in a society that valued educational success. I thought achieving in education was my only path to significance.  It is sad to look back and see that I lived a life grasping for significance or worthiness.  It was not until I achieved a doctorate in education that I considered I may be intelligent.  After passing my dissertation hearing, I drove 3 hours from Boston University back home to New York crying like a hurt little child. I could not believe after 7 years of hard labor that I finally accomplished this strenuous goal. I repeatedly said in the midst of salty tears, “Maybe now I am smart.”  The cost of my schooling was a deep loss of self.  Who had I become besides a receptacle with many degrees?  Now, in recovery from education, I am deliberately practicing slowing down and being present, hoping to bring compassion to myself, my children and the field of education.

As I have shared in my previous posts, I have done a deep dive into self-compassion.  My hope is to bring compassion practice into schools and into homes. I do not want my children (and I see it already) questioning their worthiness because of our intense focus on academic achievement.  It’s a tough balance because I want them to feel school is meaningful and worth their effort, but I do not want them to deny their gifts if not nurtured in school.  I want them to wait and experience the beauties of life.  I understand gaining academic knowledge is incredibly important but the way in which we expose children to the experience of formal learning affects their sense of worthiness, their identity, their efficacy and ultimately their acceptance of self.  I believe in schools and the intent to support the literacy of our society.  However, I believe, as Paulo Freire has written extensively about, that we must not just read the word but read the world.  In a way, this is what that picture book was promoting: Parents, pause and let your child and yourself read the world in this moment. This is a deeply meaningful form of education, of gaining and creating knowledge.

Mindfulness practice has reminded me of my purpose for becoming a teacher–to help young people read the world and find the courage to share their perspectives.  While my grasping  led me to pursue more education and eventually leave teaching, my recovery has supported my slow re-entrance. I have become an advocate for balancing out the intense focus on academics, which now begins in kindergarten, with learning the skills of compassion for self and others.  It is time we create school environments that teach children how to accept themselves and others, flaws and all.  School promotes perfectionism, which can never be achieved. Let’s promote the reality of being humans who will inevitably make mistakes. We must help children (and adults) relate to their experiences with tenderness, kindness and an openness to learning from the experience. These day you can find many schools promoting a growth mindset (see Carol Dweck’s work), the belief that failure is a part of learning (a very simplified definition of growth mindset). This is wonderful, but if children do not know how to move past a fixed mindset (one in which children believe they are good or bad at something after the first try), nothing has changed.  Teaching children the skills of self-compassion can support children’s and adults’ ability to truly accept, investigate and learn from their mistakes.

My hope is to begin supporting this change by bringing compassion cultivation to teachers and administrators. We as adults, as parents, and as teachers can learn to relate to our experiences with compassion so that we may live a fuller life, one where we feel worthy and significant regardless of our education or employment status. We can then model for and teach our children and students these skills of compassion, so they may learn earlier to truly accept themselves.  And this is my recovery from education, my new journey of learning to wait and read the world.

Sitting with Ms. Perfect

I have heard from a few mindfulness teachers the story about the Buddha and Mara. (Click here for Tara Brach’s beautifully written post). Mara, for us laypeople, is the metaphor for our inner critic or that negative voice that tries to persuade us from friendly and kind awareness. He came to tempt the Buddha, but was unsuccessful. Supposedly the Buddha resisted temptation not by ignoring Mara, not by denying Mara’s existence, and not by pushing Mara away. Instead, the Buddha recognized Mara’s existence and he awoke the next day fully enlightened. Subsequently, each time Mara came to visit the Buddha, he would offer Mara a cushion and pour him some tea.

I enjoy hearing this story because it illustrates a key component of mindfulness practice: to recognize without judgement or attachment. It is in this recognition without judgement that the strength of negative thinking losses its power. Another insight from this story is that even though the Buddha attained enlightenment, Mara still visited him. In other words, our inner critic or negative thoughts will still arise as this is a part of our humanness; yet, each time we recognize without judgement or attachment, the critic becomes weaker.

Just this morning I read a brief teaching from Thich Nhat Hanh entitled Sit with Your Fear (305) from his book Your True Home.  He writes, “Sitting with your fear, instead of trying to push it away or bury it, can transform it…You don’t have to try and convince yourself not to be afraid. You don’t have to try to fight or overcome your fear. Over time you’ll find that when your fear comes up again, it will be a little bit weaker.” Over these past couple of years practicing mindfulness, I have found this insight to be true.  So how does one sit with their inner critic?

Sharon Salzberg tells a great story of how she came to name her inner critic “Lucy” after the Peanuts character.  In her book Real Love, she suggests giving your inner critic a persona (pp. 60-62).  This way, like the Buddha, we can invite our inner critic for tea.  It’s a simple tool to helping us acknowledge the negative voice with a loving and kind awareness. We can better see our critic for what she is, just a thought; and, ask her to be on her way.  Eventually, she will visit less or not be so brash.

My inner critic persona is Ms. Perfect. Ms. Perfect is shrouded in fear and doubt. She is cruel and reminds me of my unworthiness. I remember when I was very young and Ms. Perfect started to visit me. As I grew older, her voice became so loud that I took it as my own. This led to many years of self-destructive thinking and behavior. At a certain point, I tried to break free by silencing or rejecting her only to end up in a constant wrestling match. She exhausted me; hence, I turned to mindfulness and meditation to help me eradicate her. But as the teachings of Brach, Hanh, and Salzberg imply, aiming to eradicate our inner critic undermines our mindfulness practice. In fact, focusing on eradication plays directly into the critic’s powerful seduction of attachment and grasping.  It is when we practice acknowledging this critic with compassion that we free ourselves from our attachment to it. We are not our critic and do not have to be imprisoned by it.

Now that I have become more aware of the mind-body connection through meditation, I can sense Ms. Perfect’s presence. As I experience her presence physically, I employ a lot of self-compassion so that I may be able to say, “I see you, Ms. Perfect.” Some days I try to sit with her and drink tea, and other days I tell her to be on her way.  While sitting with her can be unpleasant and sometimes painful, I recognize that it is necessary to further my awareness and deepen my compassion.  May this practice serve awakening.

Meditation: Revealing Our Relationship to Experience

In her newly released book Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, Sharon Salzberg poignantly writes, “[M]editation does not eradicate mental and emotional turmoil. Rather, it cultivates the space and gentleness that allow us intimacy with our experiences so that we can relate quite differently to our cascade of emotions and thoughts. That different relationship is where freedom lies.”

It has taken me almost two years of practice to understand this about meditation. I remember when I first started to meditate I would get so frustrated. “I can’t do this,” I would yell at myself, “my mind keeps wandering.”  It took a while to realize that meditation is not about stopping thoughts as this is impossible. During meditation, the moment of mindfulness is when we realize that our mind is wandering and we bring it back to the moment, whether that be focusing on our breath or our lovingkindness statements, etc. Additionally, it also requires us to release ourselves from the death grip of judgement.  There is no “right” way to meditate.  Once I accepted that my mind will wander, some days more than others, I was able to try and practice for longer periods of time. For me, breath focus and lovingkindness/compassion meditation are my preferences.

My path has been to cultivate this relationship, and in the process, I have shed layers of covering only to become keenly aware of my deep sense of unworthiness. This may sound unpleasant, which it can be, but it has been a profound moment of awakening.  As I have become better able to respond to negative emotions with tenderness and care, I have learned that I struggle in receiving love from others and myself.  When a friend of mine told me bluntly that I am standoffish, I was offended because I have always seen myself as helpful, caring and loving. This is not what she was saying at all. She felt my wall, my inability to be open to receiving. I started to review my relationships with others and noticed often in the past when I’d get angry I tended to shut down, put up a wall and hide within a cocoon of anger, self-judgement, pity, etc.  I would fall into a spiral of unworthiness and it was too painful that separation seemed easier.  Separation from self and others is not easier, it is lonely and perpetuates the false perceptions of an unworthy self.

Due to my meditation practice, I am more skillful at recognizing feelings of anger without identifying with them.  I have begun to truly understand the practice of R.A.I.N (recognize, accept, investigate and nurture). In other words, I notice the physical sensations and the thoughts, but am less likely to cling to them and create a story around this emotional and physical response. What has been beautiful is now that I have a better handle on creating space and being kinder to myself, I have been able to take more layers off to notice how my identification with negative feelings has separated me from others. I unintentionally rejected others and even myself only to feed the beast of unworthiness. Acknowledging this has brought tears and sadness, a grief that I spent so much of my life yearning for connection and love yet rejecting it out of the belief that I was unworthy or simply not good enough. Kristen Neff’s work on self-compassion has taught me that this experience is so common. Most of us (read Brene Brown’s research for more on this too) have some degree of “not feeling good enough.” Therefore, it’s so important for us to show love and kindness to others regardless of their openness. I am grateful that my friend wanted to show me love, and she did through her honesty.

While I admit, sometimes someone else’s lack of openness can trigger my insecurity or someone’s need for more openness can trigger it too, I remind myself that we all want connection. Connecting is being human. Many of us have been conditioned through no fault of our own to reject ourselves. I did not even realize the extent to which I cut myself off from my wholeness, from living life fully.  Meditating, specifically compassion meditation, has supported my ability to accept my humanness, my flaws, without it defining my worthiness.  Mindfulness and meditation is about how we relate to experience. For me, it has uncovered my dysfunctional relationship with life and helped me enter a space of forgiveness and love so that I can change this relationship.  As Sharon Salzberg teaches, “The strength of mindfulness is that it enables us to hold difficult thoughts and feelings in a different way—with awareness, balance and love.” May you, the reader, find strength in meditation and in knowing that you are worthy and loved.

The Beauty of Self-Compassion

This is a short essay I wrote as part of an application to the Cultivation of Compassion Teacher Training program through the Compassion Institute. I am still awaiting notification of acceptance. (Update: I have completed the program on May 6, 2018!)

Tara Brach writes in her book Radical Acceptance, “Our suffering becomes a gateway to the compassion that frees our heart. When we become the holder of our own sorrows, our old roles as a judge, adversary or victim are no longer being fueled. In their place we find not a new role, but a courageous openness and a capacity for genuine tenderness, not only for ourselves but for others as well.”

These words echo a key aspect of my understanding of compassion, which broadened once I began to deliberately engage in self-compassion practice. My first experience with self-compassion was when I committed to no longer living in anger and resentment, to remain a victim of my own suffering. As I embarked on my personal journey to developing a mindfulness meditation practice, I was quickly drawn to lovingkindness practice.  Consequently, I dove into researching mindful compassion, which led me to the CCT course.

When I first started my practice, Kristen Neff’s book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself along with Sharon Salzburg’s book Lovingkindness provided a solid and critical introduction to identifying, listening to and shifting the way I experienced my inner voice, particularly my inner critic. One day, early on in my practice, I had an intense argument with my husband, an experience that happened often over our 20 years of being together. I left the situation to be alone as I typically had done as a means to calm down, but when alone my self-talk was different. In the past, I would get stuck in fight or flight mode telling myself stories about leaving or regretting certain decisions, judging myself and sometimes turning to aggressive or self-destructive behaviors. This time I hugged myself tightly and repeated quietly: I am in a moment of suffering. You are not alone in this suffering. I am here for you. As I gave myself these hugs and spoke these words throughout the next several months along with daily compassion meditation, I noticed a shift in how I responded to situations where I felt hurt or angry. I had integrated a powerful self-care tool into how I related to my experiences: the “self-compassion break,” as termed by Dr. Neff. Furthermore, offering myself compassion and accepting it without judgement nurtured a mindful awareness, in so much that I have become more skillful in responding to challenging situations. This has been liberating and has transformed how I engage in my relationships with others. It has freed my heart.

In Brach’s word, I have and continue to develop a “courageous openness and a capacity for genuine tenderness” for myself and others. An example of this truth is in another exchange with my husband. He returned home from a work trip and was focused immediately on talking out his work interactions. In an effort to listen mindfully, I noticed feelings of rejection intensifying in my body. Why doesn’t he ask about my week or about the kids, I said to myself as I clung to my unmet needs. I noticed his intensity about work come into how he responded to me and my actions. It would have been easy for me to get irritated and respond unskillfully making our first interaction in a week an unpleasant one. Because of my self-compassion practice, I could recognize the neediness I felt and question my expectations of my husband in this moment. I found that courageous tenderness and breathed through my initial negative sensations and thoughts so that I could be present and loving toward my husband’s needs.  This shift gave him the space to let out all his pent up thoughts, relax and then be there for me.  It turned into a moment of loving connection, which would not have happened had I not been developing the skills of compassion and love for myself and others.

While one can be compassionate towards others, it seems more difficult to sustain this way of being when self-compassion is lacking.  Since building a daily compassion and mindfulness practice, I understand compassion as a wholehearted cradling of suffering. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “I am here for you darling,” is said to both ourselves and to others.  To be present in a compassionate capacity is a commitment to the bodhisattva path, one that must include ourselves so that we can live a life that serves awakening.