Taking that leap

Tara Mohr meets Chuck Sandy
Tara Mohr meets Chuck Sandy

I finally took the leap. I took the leap from playing small and took some steps towards playing big. (click here to tweet) You see, since I began training teachers, I’ve dreamed of facilitating sessions on the concept of compassionate communication, where I’d ask the teachers in our program to delve more deeply into empathy for the self and others. But instead of doing this, I listened to my inner critic. My inner critic’s favourite story has been that I am not qualified enough to do such a thing, and that the teachers probably wouldn’t want to participate. And, who am I to push this concept on them anyway? Then walks in Tara Mohr. I first heard her speak with Tami Simon on the Insights at the Edge podcast about how common it is for women to stay small mostly due to the voice of this inner critic. Playing big, as Tara explains in her book, is about:

“learning how to use your voice to change those systems. It’s not about “opting in” or “opting out” according to our society’s current thinking (…) It’s about turning away from those labels, refocusing your attention and longings and dreams, and playing big in going for them.”

One way she suggests doing this is by taking a leap. What she said got my psyched, so guess what I did? Below are six criteria that Tara suggests for taking a leap. I’ll explain my leap while looking back on what happened in relation to these six.

1. It gets you playing bigger now, according to what playing bigger means to you.

Playing big for me means helping teachers deal with teacher burnout via healing strategies such as of self-compassion, and empathic listening within a community.

2. It can be finished within one to two weeks.

The discussion group ended in less than five months. But to be fair, our meetings were quite spread out. We met a total of 5 times over 5 months.

3. It’s simple: an action that you could describe in a short phrase.

My phrase was – to facilitate a bi-weekly discussion group.

4. It gets your adrenaline flowing because a leap stretches you out of your comfort zone.

Yes! Although I was comfortable with facilitating a group of this nature, I was going out of my comfort zone offering this idea to the teachers in our program. I started out by giving an introduction to everyone in the course (16 in-service teachers) about the concept of compassionate communication — basically helping them develop their literacy of feelings and needs. I also lead a session where we read the article on teacher burnout and self-compassion. With this basic foundation, I felt comfortable about telling them about my ideas of starting a discussion group. 10 teachers volunteered, and about 8 stayed until the end. My adrenaline has definitely been flowing.

5. A leap puts you in contact with the audience you want to reach or influence.

I have learned so much from these teachers: about how my approach has influenced them and could also influence them in the future. I have recorded each session and I am currently waiting for individual feedback. But that being said, I already received the best feedback I could ever ask for during our last session. On the last day our group met (December 23, 2014), I asked the teachers to share what needs were fulfilled by their final discussion. I’ll save the details for another post, but let me just say I felt incredibly touched and connected. At the end session, I gave each teacher one of these magnets below, and encouraged them to use it as a reminder to not to give up on themselves. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. I feel pretty confident there’s no playing small anymore. don't give up #redthumbforlove *Cynthia Gray is the artist behind the “Don’t Give Up” magnet project. *I also want to thank Chuck Sandy who inspired me to take my first leap at the beginning of this year. Chuck inspired me in creating the #redthumbforlove Self-Compassion for Teachers project. This first leap gave me great strength to try this new leap.  This is what Chuck does. He inspires people into faith (a nod to the picture at the top of this post), and I am ever grateful to him for helping me find faith in myself. My inner critic will forever be annoyed with this little glitch in its storyline. ;)

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Interrupted Meridians: Korea in Mourning

For three weeks now I’ve been getting acupuncture for a wrist injury. As is standard in Eastern medicine, the doctor checked my tongue to learn more about my overall health. He discovered that my qi (natural energy) is very low. In order to balance my qi, he suggested that I “take it easy and eat a low fat diet. No fatty meats and no sweet bread.” That meant giving up one of my favourite Friday night traditions: barbecuing samgyeopsal 삼겹살 with Byongchan while listening to our favourite Korean radio host Bae Chul Soo play classic rock and the top American Billboard hits — his show is a little piece of home.

This diagnosis got me wondering about communication. In order to regulate my qi, the doctor stuck two needles at different points in my foot. In order to rework the enflamed ligaments in my right wrist, he put two needles in my left foot, three needles in my right hand, and one needle in my right arm. These points were all communicating to each other via the meridians in my body. The wrist is healing quite well, but it will take time and effort for my qi to restore itself.

acupuncture under a heat lamp
acupuncture under a heat lamp

Why will it take so much time?

Because my habits get in the way of the meridians. I like pies and pastries. I like beer and chicken. I like samgyeopsal. In order to heal my body, my mind has to get out of the way. I need to give up my bad habits to make room for those points in my body to communicate with each other and do their job. In essence, I need to listen to the messages that my body is sending me.

You may wonder how all this relates to Korea in mourning. As you have surely heard, a ferry full of high school students and their teachers has sunk and there is very little doubt as to the fate of the souls that remain on board. And why do they remain on board? Because the meridians of communication were interrupted. Interrupted by ego, by pride, by fear, by confusion, by upbringing, by habit. From one point to the other, messages were not transmitted. Whether it was the lack of a message from the captain, or whether it was not being able to listen to their own hearts, now we all mourn these students and grieve for the loss their families are suffering. Poor communication came at a high cost.

And last night, I did not stop our Friday night ritual. Once again, I interrupted the healing communication in my body. Interrupted by ego, by desire, by upbringing, by habit.

But last night Bae Chul Soo didn’t share his usual repertoire. No top ten hits and no classics to groove to. He only played melancholy songs. Korea is in mourning.

The Courage of Self-Compassion – Compassion Training 5

Straddling the line between light and dark
Straddling the line between light and dark

I feel compelled to write some kind of disclaimer here. (I think this will be the end of disclaimers for a while. And maybe my last “Compassion Training” post for a while also.) I’m writing about compassion (see other posts in my Compassion Training series) not because I’m any kind of expert, but because I’m trying to figure out what compassion is and how I can bring more of it into my life. It’s something I feel compelled to learn about, especially as a teacher. I figure that by writing about my experiences I may meet other teachers who feel the same, and together we can discover where compassion fits into the art of teaching.

The following post is about my messy path toward greater compassion.

One of the interesting, and sometimes disconcerting, side effects about my meditation practice so far is that the more I meditate, the more I recall moments in my life where I was far from being compassionate. Moments of selfishness, judgment, and mindless reaction. I recall awful (truly hurtful) things I said or did when I was a teenager, a young adult, and not so long ago. I am comforted by the fact that according to Mark Coleman (and apparently many holy people and mystics) this is normal, and actually maybe something to aim for. Mark shared this quote during one of his webcasts that helped me connect to this concept:

As the light increases, we see ourselves to be worse than we thought. We are amazed at our former blindness as we see issuing forth from the depths of our heart a whole swarm of shameful feelings, like filthy reptiles crawling from a hidden cave. We never could have believed that we had harbored such things, and we stand aghast as we watch them gradually appear. But while our faults diminish, the light by which we see them waxes brighter, and we are filled with horror. Bear in mind, for your comfort, that we only perceive our malady when the cure begins. – Francois Fénelon

And it’s true. I can feel a shift already. Those ugly thoughts don’t visit even half as often as they used to. It’s as if sitting down with them, and giving them the attention and care they needed helped them find relief. They seem to have moved along. This is the power of empathy and compassion. But it’s not easy.

It takes courage to be self-compassionate. – Mark Coleman

Do we usually choose to have dinner with a person who is selfish, judgmental, and reactionary? Maybe we do, but do we sit with that person with an open heart? It’s not easy, and most often, we probably want to avoid this scenario. It’s the same thing. Why would anyone want to take a hard look at all those messy moments from your past? The only answer I can come up with is: because I don’t want them to happen again. I don’t want to be that person. I also don’t want to encourage that behaviour in others. This is what I risk doing as a teacher. So for now, and probably for a long time to come, I’ll sit with the mess. I’ll muster up the courage to do so because I’d rather see the light than be kept away in a cave. If you connect to this topic, and would like to continue getting weekly inspirations, join the Facebook group Self Compassion for Teachers #redthumbforlove.

Self-Empathy & Self-Compassion – Compassion Training 4

Self-empathy. Self-compassion. What’s the difference between these terms? I’ve been curious about this, and so it’s time to explore.

I first heard of the concept of self-empathy when I went to my first Nonviolent Communication (NVC) workshop in Seoul. At that time, even the term empathy was foreign to me, let alone the concept of self-empathy. Sure, I had felt and offered empathy at points in my life, but I don’t think I had a word for it.

That’s the power of words. They can help you see things for the first time. That being said, words are also precarious things. When used as labels, they are limiting. They shade the truth and the essence of who and what things truly are. But as a language teacher and learner, I appreciate the depth of understanding a word provides. Interestingly, it seems that not too long ago, the English language went on a search for this word. English users had a sense of empathy, but didn’t have a word for it until 1909 when it was coined by the American psychologist, Robert Titchener. I wonder if the fact that the culture now has a word for empathy that we can start understanding and feeling it a bit more. Something to ponder.

But back to self-empathy. I was intrigued by this concept the moment I heard about it. The idea that I could be there for myself during hard times without needing the support of anyone else was a huge relief. The way I understood self-empathy through NVC was that when felt conflicted, all I had to do was acknowledge the feelings that were coming up, and connect them to needs that weren’t being met at the moment. This simple awareness was enough to remove a few bricks from my shoulders. Bricks I had been carrying for quite some time.

Giving up bricks #redthumbforlove
Giving up my bricks #redthumbforlove

As Mark Coleman describes self-empathy, it’s as if you are receiving empathy from someone, except you are that other person.

“Put yourself in their shoes offering that to you. Imagine you’re like a third person viewing yourself from that distance.”

These days, however, thanks to the work of Kristin Neff and other emotion researchers, the term self-compassion is being used in psychology literature and media. To understand the difference between self-empathy and self-compassion, it’s helpful to understand the contrast between their roots, and another close friend: sympathy. I’m only bringing him in because when I present the idea of compassionate communication to teachers, they often raise this question: what’s the difference between empathy, sympathy, and compassion? I love this question because the difference is very important to make. For clarity on compassion and empathy, I refer to the excellent reports by The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley:

Compassion – Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

Empathy – Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

To help clarify the difference between empathy and sympathy, I highly recommend this short piece by RSA Shorts and Brené Brown.

Considering these definitions, I think the difference is that self-empathy helps me tune in to what I am feeling, and if I extend it to NVC terms, what I am needing. These can be positive or *negative experiences. When in self-empathy, I am simply aware of what’s going on inside me.

Empathy is a component of compassion, but what differentiates compassion is the desire to do something about the suffering. When my empathy is extended into action, I’m now feeling compassion. This then would mean that when I’m in self-compassion, I’m taking active steps to relieve my suffering.

With all this in mind, I’m not sure how these two are different. I think the act of acknowledging ones feelings and needs is in itself an act of compassion. Maybe these terms aren’t different at all. Perhaps this whole exploration is simply a matter of semantics. Another example of why it’s important to look beyond words. Because when we really tune in, it’s the silence and stillness that truly connects. Words are no longer needed.

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  • If you are a teacher curious about self-compassion, or want to learn more about how self-compassion relates to you, please “like” our Self-Compassion for Teachers Facebook page for information and inspiration. You’ll also get an explanation about the red thumb you see holding the brick in the picture.
  • This post is a continuation of my blog Compassion Training blog series. Although this post doesn’t talk about the impact of compassion on teaching, the intention of the series is to make this connection.
  • For self-compassion practices online, please check out Kristin Neff’s exercises and guided meditations, as well as the resources offered at Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.

*  The more intimate we are with our emotions, the more adept we’ll be in both containing and expressing them, so that their presence serves rather than hinders us and those with whom we’re in contact. In this sense, there are no unwholesome or negative emotions—only unwholesome or negative things we do with them. Emotional intimacy allows us to make the best possible use of all our emotions—and it enhances relationship. – Robert Augustus Masters, Emotional Intimacy (scroll down to “Introduction: Into theHeart of Emotion”)

Teacher Self-Compassion #RedThumbForLove – Compassion Training 3

I want to propose an idea to all teachers: be kind to yourself no matter what happens. No matter what. If your lessons flops, it flops. If you couldn’t answer a student’s grammar question, it happened. If you couldn’t finish correcting homework on time, so be it. If that little voice in your head creeps up and says, “you’re stupid, incompetent, and lazy,” respond to it with love. How? I will propose a strategy, but first let me tell you how I discovered it.

(Feel free to scroll down to A Visual Reminder of Self-Compasssion – #RedThumbForLove if you’d rather learn the strategy right away.)

Lovingkindness Practice – Opening to Self-compassion

During the second week of Compassion Training with Mark Coleman (see my previous posts on this topic) we transitioned from mindfulness practice to loving-kindness practice. Sharon Salzberg defines loving-kindness as follows:

“Loving kindness is a form of love that truly is an ability, and, as research scientists have show, it can be learned. It is the ability to take some risks with our awareness – to look at ourselves and others with kindness instead of reflexive criticism; to include in our concern those to whom we normally pay no attention; to care for ourselves unconditionally instead of thinking, “I will love myself as long as I never make a mistake.” It is the ability to gather our attention and really listen to others, even those we’ve written off as not worth our time. It is the ability to see the humanity in people we don’t know and the pain in people we find difficult.” – from Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation

And how do we see this humanity, how can we look at others with kindness when we can’t do it for ourselves? Here’s an idea from Mark Coleman,

“The primary abandonment we do is with ourselves. The most healing thing we can do is to not leave ourselves; not to abandon ourselves. This practice of self-metta (self-lovingkindness) allows us to hold ourselves, to stay with ourselves, to befriend ourselves, to love ourselves.”

This practice of self-lovingkindness has a long history, and the premise is simple: send yourself loving thoughts and from here you will open yourself to loving others more easily. First, it starts with yourself. Then, you move on to people who are easy love, and from there you move on to more distant and challenging people. During my first week I found it hard to extend my thoughts to others. I would lose focus, and my mind would drift off towards more enticing ideas. After talking this through with Mark, I learned that maybe I just needed to focus on myself for a while. It seemed that I needed the most care at that moment. Trusting that this was not a selfish act ,but something that would actually help me connect more to others in the end, I kept sending myself thoughts of lovingkindness, or another way to look at it, self-compassion.

Loving myself - a work in progress
Loving myself – a work in progress

Lovingkindness starts at home and our relationship with ourselves. – Mark Coleman

But this isn’t the strategy I want to propose to teachers — though, I still recommend it. The strategy first came to me after Mark asked the question, “What are one or two ways that you could realistically and practically begin to practice more kindness towards yourself?”, and then after seeing Chuck Sandy‘s Facebook post where he shared:

How often do we poison our own spirit with negative thoughts about ourselves? That’s why I painted my thumb red today – to remind myself to push away unloving thoughts about myself & to practice love for others more.

A Visual Reminder of Self-Compasssion – #RedThumbForLove

From Chuck’s red thumb sprang more colourful pictures of teachers’ nails. And so this is what I propose to you: paint your thumbnail red or any colour of the rainbow so that each time you see it you are reminded to be kinder, gentler, and more compassionate with yourself.

Teaching can be a lonely profession. Often, we don’t have anyone to turn to who understands the challenges we face. Self-care may be the only strategy we can turn to when the job gets too hard. When you feel overwhelmed, this little self-compassion reminder may just be the thing to bring you a little ease. Each time you look at your coloured nail, check your state of mind to see if you’re in your old pattern of blame or shame, and remember that you are doing the best you can at that moment. Acknowledge what you are feeling: don’t push it away and don’t dwell in it. Just feel it.

A Community of Self-Compassionate Teachers

Post your picture, and a story of how your nail helped you, on the Self Compassion for Teachers #redthumbforlove Facebook page. You can also send the picture directly to me via Twitter @josettelb or tag me on Instagram @josettelb. If you use Tumblr use the #redthumbforlove hashtag and I’ll load it up on our blog redthumbforlove.tumblr.com.  Use the #redthumbforlove hashtag anytime you post a picture. By doing this, we can help each other stay motivated in being self-compassionate.

The more I teach and work with teachers, the more I realize how important self-compassion is. If you connect to this idea too, I look forward to seeing your loving colours shine.

For more about self-compassion, I recommend visiting:

For more about “whole” teaching, please visit:

And for more about Lovingkindness: