It is fairly easy to be kind and compassionate to those we care for. It is not too difficult to be kind to strangers or those we just met. To be kind to those we don’t like or actively hate feels like a contradiction. We often imagine that kindness is only for those we want to embrace, not those we want to yell at or never see again. But to be kind to those we dislike changes our whole way of responding to events in our life. When we allow ourselves to simply notice the feeling of “I don’t like this” or “I don’t like you,” without holding on to that feeling or automatically acting on it, then we can break conditioned behaviors. We can just recognize the thought or feeling and move on. We become flexible in our thinking and less burdened by hurtful feelings.
How do we share this with our students and ourselves? Here is one practice. The idea is to develop the ability to imagine, “feel with” and care about another person’s inner state. Alfie Kohn said that compassion is not just to imagine what its like to be in another person’s shoes but “what its like to have their feet.”
Start, as with other mindfulness practices, by calming and focusing the mind.
Sit up, near the edge of the chair, so your back is straight but not rigid. Close your eyes partly or fully. Then turn your attention inwards to your breath. Exhale, noticing how the diaphragm works to push out the air. Then notice the inhalation, how the diaphragm expands downwards on its own, and air comes in. Just notice this. Notice what it feels like to breathe in, to refresh yourself. And breathe out, focusing on the breath and letting go of thoughts or images.
Notice the quality of your awareness and attention. Is your mind clear or foggy? Focused or wandering? Awake or tired?
As you breathe in, let a friend or someone you get along with well come to mind. Just imagine him or her, or let descriptive words about the person come to you. Notice their face, mouth, hair, eyes. Notice how they look at you, their expression.
Then notice their whole body, how they stand, their shoulders, hands. Do they stand straight? Are they relaxed or stiff?
Then go inside. What do you think this person is feeling? What clues can you get from their expression and from their posture about what they are thinking or feeling?
In this subtle way, you can teach students about reading another person, reading their body language and facial expression, which is one form of empathy.
Now imagine giving a simple gift to this person. The gift is merely a wish for the person to feel kindness, peacefulness and joy. Just say it to yourself: I wish this person kindness, peacefulness and joy. Imagine the person filled with this kindness, inner peacefulness, and joy. Notice how it affects them.
Standard compassion practices start with someone you are comfortable with or close to. Then you go to someone neutral. Then to someone you don’t know. Finally, you imagine someone you dislike or are angry with. Then you give the gift to yourself.
Just sit for a moment with the sense of kindness, inner peacefulness and joy being all around you, filling you.
You could end right there or you might add this visualization:
Imagine a ball of light appearing above your head, a beautiful light, maybe white, or golden, like sunlight. The light begins to flow into your body, from the top of your head down to your feet. It fills your body with a warm, healing light. Then it flows out from your feet to the feet of the other person. It flows from you to the person you imagined, up her or his feet, through their body to their head and out to the ball of light above your body. Imagine the light filling both you and the other person, connecting you both in a circle of light. Enjoy the connection for a moment.
You can have the light flow from you, or from you and the imagined person, out to the whole class.
I usually use a singing bowl to end all practices. If you don’t use one, then end the visualization with:
Now, return your awareness to your breath. Breathe out—then allow yourself to inhale– and exhale again. As you inhale, return your attention fully to the classroom remembering the sense of kindness, peacefulness, joy and connection.
Singing bowls can also be used when the room gets too loud and you want to quiet everyone. Just listening to the bowl sing can focus attention and give people a sense of inner quiet.
Students often report that it is easier to imagine giving kindness, peacefulness, and joy to others than receiving it themselves. It is difficult to feel deserving of such gifts. I think it was the Dalai Lama who said that in the U. S. you must be courageous to be happy—or to allow yourself the gift. However, imagining the gift of joy for another bestows it on yourself. By giving it, you receive it. It is so easy to lose sight of the fact that the joy you imagine is in yourself. That’s one reason why, as I pointed out in my last blog, there are many psychological and health benefits to being compassionate.
Likewise, the more anyone can be kind and compassionate to themselves, the deeper their capacity for compassion for others. Being kind to yourself is something you can practice each moment. Whenever you realize your mind has drifted or when you become aware that a thought, judgment, or emotion has carried you off, in that moment, you can come awake. You hear your thoughts as just thoughts, emotions as just emotional energy. Instead of judging yourself negatively, you treat your thoughts and emotions kindly and as an experience to learn from.
I have so far talked about mindfulness and compassion in terms of what one teacher or student could do in or out of a classroom. There is a deeper question that needs to be asked: What can a whole school do to teach compassion? Ultimately, compassion works best when it is embedded in the structure and culture of the school community and curriculum. What can you do you to embed compassion in your community?
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Dalai Lama
Thank you for this teaching. I’ve practiced tonglen in many ways. When in the underworld of grief, I took on Pema Chodron’s approach to tonglen. I begin with compassion for my weeping self and then took it wider and wider, remembering all the others I love who grieve, those I don’t know who grief, and out to the whole earth. So good you are doing this in a practical way using simple and accessible language.
Ira, I see you don’t have a small notification box I can click at the end of your larger comment box (somewhere near “Post Comment”). This fosters dialogue because anyone who comments can click this and your response ends up in their email box. I’ve suggested this to other bloggers, too. It makes a big difference in reader involvement.
Thanks Elaine. I will figure out how to do that.
At one time myself and a few others organized a philosophy club at Trumansburg High School. Each session began with breathing and becoming present. It brought a wonderful shift in the group.
As for bringing compassion. One might ask, what is compassion? The Dalai lama comes from a system that defines it is the wish for all sentient beings (anything with a mind) to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. Then we have to ask what is suffering?
There are many flavors of it right?
But one that seems most critical is the one where we imagine that things have something they don’t.
We imagine they exist on their own. It’s out there, I see it, I use it, (and often sadly I trash it).
But they don’t exist on their own.
They exist in dependence on a whole lot of things. Not just themselves.
But we don’t seem to see it that way, and so consequently we want things and don’t want them and get in huge fights and wars over them.
It apparently causes us the deepest kind of suffering.
So , To answer your question, I think teaching about that in school would be a compassionate act.
And now I have to go and wander around your site.
We did a series of classes on just those questions–what is suffering? We had amazing talks together. I hope the book gets published so other people could read them and realize just how insightful kids can be.
Reading this reminds me that increasing awareness of the natural call to compassion feeds the compassion and spreads the warmth as fuel feeds a fire.