Michele Rivers Murphy, CEI Associate Director of Heart Centered Learning
Love and suffering are closely related, most certainly in the mutual intensity of emotion they provoke. As we have all experienced so personally in this past year, as deeply as we love, we also feel the depth of suffering that is part of our shared human experience.
When we begin to peel back the layers to understand the enormity of human loss, suffering and tragedy during our world’s health pandemic, we also reflect on the unimaginable hatred, bigotry, and racism experienced by many.
As we seek to return safely to a new sense of normalcy, we are reminded that no one is immune from suffering. Yet, with this suffering and with so much grief can come a greater desire to lean in together, with heart and with compassion, helping each other and helping ourselves through this horrible time in our history. And, eventually, we are grateful. All the while, we are hopeful that we might ultimately land on the brighter side of humanity—filled with goodness and healing for all.
Two Wings of the Same Bird
Mindfulness (consciousness) and Compassion
“We cannot ignore our pain and have compassion for it at the same time” (Neff, n.d.).
What We Practice Becomes Stronger
When we practice mindfulness, we are practicing present moment awareness—a higher consciousness that allows us to open our hearts and lean in with compassion for ourselves and compassion for others.
As educators, when we lean into love, we take the risk of becoming just a little closer to our students, a little less detached, and usually somewhat more vulnerable. While we have often been cautioned to “leave our work at work”—impossible during the pandemic—when we lean in, we take time to feel more deeply the pain and suffering of others. When we teach our students to “lean in with love,” we encourage them to not walk away from those who are homeless, not to imagine that someone else will feed those who are hungry, and not to leave the welfare of others in our communities solely to social services. We take time to consider what we can do to support others, to acknowledge their presence, and to promote the health and well-being of others.
When we lean into loving ourselves, we also become more aware of who we are—of our own pain, history, and human fragility, and to accept ourselves, with our flaws and imperfections. Such a valuable life lesson!
Compassion Begins with Self
“With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend” (Neff, n.d.).
Mindfulness practice helps us to balance our negative emotions and thoughts so that our feelings are neither ignored nor inflated (equanimity). And with this open-mindedness, we become more fully present in this moment and more deeply connected as we seek to open our hearts to the pain and suffering that we experience and notice in others around us (shared human experience).
Exercise #1: Know Yourself.
Self-Compassion Insight: How self-compassionate are you?
Take Dr. Kristin Neff’s 5-minute questionnaire:
Exercise #2: Self-Compassion. Treat yourself like a friend, the way you would like to be treated
Sometimes being compassionate with ourselves is one of the most difficult things to do. Often, we spend time reliving what we could have done or should have done differently. Without self-compassion, we can find our self-esteem shrinking…Practicing self-compassion helps to avoid the slippery slope of self-judgment. (Mason et al., 2020, p. 69)
- Write about a situation or event that caused you pain, hurt or suffering.
- How did you respond? Write down what you did and what you said to yourself.
- Now, look at the situation again and reflect.
- Ask yourself the question, How would I treat my friend if this happened to them? What would I say? (Write it down.)
- Did you notice a difference between these answers? If so, ask yourself why.
- What factors or fears come into play that lead you to treat yourself and others so differently?
- How might you change how you respond to yourself to match the way you usually respond to a friend? (Mason et al., 2020, p. 69 & 70)
“Humans tend to exhibit higher levels of empathy for those who are most like themselves.” (Gilbert, 2010)
Because of this, tribalist mentalities can lead to bigotry and racism that, due to lack of empathy for those not quite like ourselves, sometimes results in violence. When people are kinder and gentler with themselves, it becomes more natural to be kinder and gentler with others. Exercise #2 helps to better foster compassion by understanding that we are more alike than different in our shared human experience called life.
Exercise #3: Cultivating Compassion.
“Just Like Me” (Compassion Practice by Mirabi Bush, 2018)
This exercise can be done by yourself, with a partner, or as a guided meditation for a whole group. It helps remind us that we are all part of the same human experience, and that despite our differences, we share human capacities for love… that we can share in supporting and caring for one another.
Health & Well-Being: Significance of Compassion in Life
Excerpts from Mindful School Communities (Mason et al., 2020):
Compassion is the underlying ingredient for developing an open heart and setting the right tone and environment for any classroom, school, district, or community (p. 59).
- “As British professor of clinical psychology Paul Gilbert (2010) explains, compassion is multi-textured—reflecting an awareness of suffering, empathy, and desire for healing and to alleviate pain and suffering, as well as aspects of altruism, prosocial behavior, and neurobiology elements that may draw us toward or away from opportunities to be kind and caring” (p. 60-61).
- “Compassion must involve evaluating and providing for needs that prevent suffering” (Gilbert, 2010, p. 10).
- “The more love and compassion we demonstrate for others, the greater our own sense of health, well-being, and joy. When we understand that human suffering is universal and cultivate a heartfelt feeling for others and our world, we naturally are better able to put our minds and bodies at ease, reduce our own fears and insecurities, and gain newfound strength to cope with whatever comes our way” (p.60).
- “Compassion is not experienced at simply a cognitive or emotional level. When we give or receive compassion, an invisible bond forms with people that includes a physiological component that can calm anxieties and strengthen a sense of well-being. For children who have experienced trauma and may have difficulty forming attachments, these bonding experiences can be critical” (p.61).
Exercise #4: Reflection and Journaling.
Cultivating Compassion by Modeling and Setting A Positive Tone
Whether you are at school or work with students or coworkers; at home with children, youth, spouse, friends, or family; or in the community, how often do you bring joy and compassion to others ?
Place a 1, 2, or 3 next to the gentle reminder: 1 (rarely), 2 (sometimes), 3 (most often)
- Smile at ____ to show that you’ve happy with them.
- Be an active listener by paying attention when ___ speaks to you.
- Cheer ___ on at sporting events, choir concerts, and other events where ___ performs a talent or does a good deed.
- Show concern for and ask about ___ and their families and other significant people in their lives.
- Ask ___ “What can I do to help?
- Verbally notice and encourage acts of kindness.
- Pay attention to signs that ___’s basic needs are being met and help __ meet those needs.
- Encourage ___ to succeed and assure them you want to help them achieve their dreams.
(Julia Thompson (2018), a public school teacher for 35 years. (Mason et al, 2020, p. 64-65)
Bush, M. (2018). Mindful. Healthy mind, healthy life. “Just like me” compassion practice.
Gilbert, P. (2010). Training our minds in, with and for compassion: An introduction to concepts and compassion-focused exercises.
Mason, C., Rivers Murphy, M., & Jackson, Y. (2019). Mindfulness practices: Cultivating heart centered communities where students thrive and flourish. Solution Tree.
Mason, C., Rivers Murphy, M., & Jackson, Y. (2020). Mindful school communities: The Five Cs of nurturing heart centered learning. Solution Tree Press.
Neff, K. (n.d.) Self- compassion.
Neff, K. (n.d.). The three elements self-compassion. Definition and three elements of self compassion.
Shapiro, S. (2014, January). How mindfulness cultivates compassion.
Thompson, J. G, (2018). The first-year teacher survival guide: Ready-to-use strategies, tools, and activities for meeting the challenges of each school day. (4th ed.), Jossey-Bass.