The arising of compassion

Many of us enter education because we have a strong sense of compassion for the students and families that we would like to serve. It’s relatively easy to feel compassion for young people, especially young children. I often think of compassion as being a foundational element in teaching practice, so it was with some excitement that I went last week to hear a Tibetan monk named Lama Tashi speak about compassion at Vermont Insight Meditation Center in Brattleboro, VT.

He talked about the value of a meditation practice in the cultivation of compassion and took questions from the audience of more than 50 people. All the questions were some variation on ways to access compassion under difficult circumstances or with difficult people or groups

The last questioner asked Lama Tashi to talk about the difficultly of accessing or sitting in joy. He responded with immediate understanding and launched right away into a discussion of guilt. It was, in my view, a wonderful reframing of the dilemma that many of us feel. He pointed out that in our culture, guilt occupies a central place in our being, which he generally indicated by pointing to the center of his chest. In his experience here in the U.S., he said that he has noticed again and again that this underlying feeling of guilt or even shame, often prevents us from fully accessing or experiencing joy. The two get co-mingled so that joy can rarely arise without our mind shifting to guilt. “How can I be so happy when x, y or z is happening or has happened?” is the way our thinking often goes. Lama Tashi seemed to be saying that guilt can sometimes seem to literally occupy the space where joy would naturally live and abide within us.

For untangling this guilt/joy knot, Lama Tahsi suggested that meditation can be helpful, but that what needs to be cultivated is particularly compassion for ourselves. We are often so quick to feel pity for others, or to beg forgiveness for our own shortcomings that we don’t really experience either genuine compassion or genuine remorse. These require more time and more openness to feeling our own feelings deeply and experiencing our lives with more quiet acceptance.

I was reminded of a meditation retreat for educators that I attended last January. On Friday we were all filled with the excitement of talking about how we were offering mindfulness experiences to our students, but by Sunday morning we were softly admitting that we found it extremely difficult to find time for our own practice or even to nurture mindful habits in our own lives. Traditional mindfulness training is very clear on this point, we cannot achieve true compassion for our students or really anyone else, if we don’t have some deep experience of feeling compassion for ourselves. It can start as a felt experience inside us, and then flow outward organically, even easily from there. This feeling of compassion is understood to be a universal experience of contemplative practice in many traditions and seems to spontaneously co-arise as we improve our ability to be in the present moment.

In three days, on Nov. 12, 2009, an organization called the Council on Conscience will launch the Compassion Charter. They are part of a growing global consensus that humanity is at a crossroads and that, as they say, “there is an urgent need for a new focus on compassion.” I find this idea to be very moving and timely, but I also keep reminding myself that my capacity to be part of such a movement starts very simply with my ability to genuinely feel compassion for myself.

For more information on the 2010 Mindfulness for Educators retreat at the Barre Center for Buddhist studies, follow this link:

For more information on the Compassion Charter, follow this link:


Author: sdreyerleon

Susan Dreyer Leon, EdD is the Chair of the Education Department at Antioch University New England and the Director of the Mindfulness for Educators Program.

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