Saturday, March 7, 2009

Compassion starts with yourself

If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.
-- Jack Kornfield

Sometimes I write things here just to remind myself of what I know but have forgotten. Practicing loving kindness towards myself is a big one. I'm quite sure that babies don't lie there and say to themselves, "Oh no, I wet my pants again. I am a horrible person!" So when does all this negative self-talk start, and where does it come from?

Yesterday I taught a teacher training workshop on classroom management. If you talk to teachers about their problem students and the issues that come up in their classrooms again and again, the emotions that come up can be powerful. As a teacher, student after student, year after year, is pushing your buttons. That one cell phone user is carrying the baggage of all previous in-class cell phone users. No wonder it is a high burnout profession! We all need therapy.

I guess any job is the same though. As a manager, I catch myself reacting inappropriately and all out of proportion because of that proverbial last straw. Because over the years, I've heard the same thing again and again so many times that I've lost my ability to see it for what it is. The student standing in front of me has no idea that he is the 300th student to wait until after the deadline to ask to change classes, but I react as though this particular student has done this 300 times. And then, I beat myself up for it. I'm angry at this student, therefore I'm a horrible person. Thus begins the self-flagellation.

In the workshop, we discussed the myth that teachers are not human. Sometimes we complain about the lack of empathy others show towards us. Students often seem oblivious to the fact that we might have our own concerns. We might be sick or heartbroken, we might be waiting for the results of serious medical tests or have a family member who has just passed away. We may suffer from insomnia or have debts we can't pay. But if we don't deliver impeccable service at every moment, we become a Bad Teacher.

It's easy to blame the student for this state of affairs, but the fact of the matter is that things are rarely one person's fault. I think that we - teachers, managers, professionals - often perpetuate the myth that we are not human. We present the hardened, professional, infallible front. We hide our weakness, afraid to be culled from the herd and put out of our misery. Because of this, we might think we are the only ones having this particular problem. We might start to think that we are less than human!

The practice of yoga is very forgiving. We all suffer and we all contribute to the suffering of others - we are not perfect! However, we have a choice, something that can be learned: we can have compassion for the imperfections of ourselves and others. I'm not saying this is easy. There's a reason why it's called practice. Sometimes, when I am gentle with myself and open my heart to my own suffering, I learn that situations are not as bad as I imagined them to be!

I encouraged the teachers to try a practice that I myself have been working on. Whenever tension arises, stop and ask yourself why. Why does this student make me so angry? What are my issues surrounding this situation? And then Why is the student acting the way he is? What is really going on? Marshall Rosenberg's system of Non-Violent Communication has a lot to say about how this kind of thinking, considering universal needs and how they contribute to emotions, can remove tension and build peace.

When I remember this practice (which is only some of the time), I find that the tension in the situation usually goes away. At best, there are these moments of insight and connection that take the breath away. At worst, the problem simply becomes a non-issue. Either way, everybody wins. I don't think this practice is possible unless we can learn to see ourselves kindly and with great compassion. When I can fully experience my own suffering with tenderness, I am filled with compassion for all other beings who are also suffering.

To quote Saul David Raye's opening words in a workshop I took with him at the Ojai Yoga Crib in 2007:
It is not easy being a divine soul in a body on Planet Earth in the year 2007.

Have compassion for yourself. It is difficult exisiting the way we do. Open your heart, see yourself and let yourself be seen.

Namaste, friends. The divine in me sees the divine in you.

1 comment:

Marlene said...

You really are so good at finding the key issues that I have - this is a big one for me. I decided a few years ago that compassion is probably the key to everything in my life - the reminding myself to come to center and be forgiving and loving towards myself, the jerk that cut me off on the freeway, etc. - it helps me feel so much better about myself and everyone else around me, and it touches into all the other little areas that I personally work on: it helps me not to gossip, it helps me to be reasonable with goals for myself (weight issues, professional goals, life goals - you name it), it helps me relate to my family members who otherwise annoy the crap out of me, it helps me be patient and live in the moments that aren't the easiest. Compassion for myself allows me to acknowledge that, yes, the current situation/issue (whatever it may be) sucks and I wouldn't wish it on anyone else - but I'm glad it's happening to me because I can breathe through it and let it go and not let it ruin my day/life/whatever. Just saying or thinking the word 'compassion' instantly makes me put my big-girl pants on and cope with life from a kinder, lighter perspective with the reminder that my problems are so incredibly small and that I can, if I let myself, step outside of them. And on the frequent occasions when I fail to be reasonable, or when I am unkind, I eventually do come around again and am reminded of all the facets of Compassion, and my missteps and poor choices are thrown into relief, and it puts me back towards the path of peace with myself and the universe. I know exactly what you're talking about as a teacher; I come from a family of teachers, and I will one day be a teacher again myself (crossing fingers) - that facade of perfection comes at a very steep price sometimes, and I'm personally not sure how I will approach it when the day (hopefully!) comes when I will be maneuvering my way down that path again. May we both feel that inner peace that allows real heartfelt compassion come through!! I know I wish it for myself, and I definitely wish it for you!!