The Dalai Lama calls compassion ‘a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others with a deep with and commitment to relieve the suffering’ (as cited by Gilbert, 2010, p. 22). For many students suffering can come from school, whether it’s anxiety over an exam, disappointment about a bad grade, or stress from working with difficult material. Compassion is about more than just being nice, it involves skills and attributes that help us deal with the suffering of ourselves and others (Gilbert, 2010). Paul Gilbert, the developer of compassion focused therapy, talks about the skills of compassion and the role they play in relieving suffering (2010):
Compassionate Attention: ‘When something negative happens or you are unhappy with yourself, can you redirect your attention to something that is helpful?’ (p. 23)
Compassionate Reasoning or Thinking: ‘What is a helpful way for me to think about this problem, situation, or difficulty?’ (p. 23)
Compassionate Behavior: What can I do to help with this suffering, moving forward rather than avoiding something?
My freshman year of high school was difficult. In addition to the tough social transition from middle school, I was also stepping into a much more challenging academic environment. Accustomed to being a high achieving student, when I started getting lower grades and really struggling with material I was distressed. I was disappointed in myself, stressed about school, and felt dejected, as if I wasn’t as smart as the people around me. My first instinct was to report a contagious case of early onset ‘senioritis’ that I claimed I caught from my brother. I lived in denial and acceptance of my feelings for a while, deciding to act like I didn’t care.
Then, my parents started asking some of the most important questions of my life. When I brought home a grade I was disappointed in they would ask: ‘How did you prepare?’, ‘What worked and what didn’t work?’, and ‘What do you think you should do next time?’ These simple questions shifted my attention and changed my thinking and behavior. I concentrated on my preparation methods, rather than focusing on the disappointment that I felt. I thought about what study methods worked and didn’t work, rather than thinking that this grade made me a failure. I created a study plan, a plan of action, to move forward and address the issue, rather than avoiding the situation only to encounter it again later.
This process sometimes required tough reality checks and acts of courage to admit to myself, my parents, and my teachers that I was struggling, didn’t understand material, and needed help but that is where the compassion came from. With compassion we are able to acknowledge our struggles without allowing them to take over our self. Then, we can think about them in helpful ways and work to relieve them. Compassion helps us cope with difficulties in order ‘to create a sense of well-being and to flourish’ (Gilbert, 2010, p. 9).
Gilbert, P. (2010). Training our minds in, with and for compassion: An introduction to concepts and compassion-focused exercises.