Opening Doors to Mindful Self-Compassion in Korea

Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls. ― Joseph Campbell

You’ve heard this before. It’s one of the most beloved quotes of our time. You may understand it on an intellectual level, and you’ve seen glimpses of its truth, but there’s only so much one can risk, right? I mean I shouldn’t risk security in order to follow an ambiguous dream, right?

I’m not so sure anymore because the doors have started to open… wide.

For the longest while now, I’ve been feeling an urge to take a different path in life. A voice from deep within has been asking me to start focusing more on healing and transformation work, namely around teaching self-compassion. As the years pass, the voice keeps getting louder. It seems the universe has been hearing this voice as well, and it’s done being subtle with it all.

In September 2015, when the voice was basically screaming at me, I emailed the Centre for Mindful Self-compassion asking where I’d need to go to receive training to become a Mindful Self-compassion (MSC) teacher. I was willing to go wherever I needed to go as long as it matched my schedule. I knew they offered courses in the US, Australia and Germany, but I was holding on to the hope that they’d offer a course somewhere in Asia.

The response I received back was an unexpected surprise. Apparently there was a trainer in Korea who could offer a course!

I quickly emailed this trainer, SeoGwang Snim, and after a few exchanges, I discovered how much I was really starting to align with the universe. She said that if I started the MSC learning process, I’d most likely be able to attend the teacher training course scheduled for August 2016, a week before my semester starts. Talk about excellent timing!

The first step toward applying for the August teacher training would be to do the eight-week introductory course. The only catch is that we’d need at least eight participants. I quickly wrote this message on my Facebook page.

September 24, 2015

Dear friends,
I am working on gathering people who would be interested taking an introductory course in Mindful Self-compassion (4 Saturdays in Seoul). This is a program based on the work of Christopher K. Germer, PhD — The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion and Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, Ph.D. The trainer who would deliver this course, SeoGwang Sunim,  http://www.centerformsc.org/user/434, said she would offer a program for English speakers if I can gather enough people. I am very excited about this and motivated to get this organized. If any of you are interested, or know anyone who might be, please contact me and/or pass this along. My intention in taking it is to move forward into becoming an MSC trainer (teacher). If this sounds like something you would be interested in as well, I would enjoy taking this journey with you. Here are details on MSC: http://www.centerformsc.org/Training Thank you for your time!

The response was overwhelming. I couldn’t have imagined how much interest was out there. Unfortunately, not everyone was able to attend, but we had ten beautiful souls to get started.

October 28, 2015

A month ago I put out a call for people interested in taking an introductory course in Mindful Self-compassion in Seoul. I’m excited to share that the course will start this Sunday (Nov. 1). For me, this has been an inspiring example of what we can accomplish when we follow our dreams (a.k.a. inner teacher <3 ). If anyone else would like to join, there is still time to sign up. Send me your email address and I’ll send you the details.

And so in November 2015 we embarked on the eight week journey (we combined the eight weeks into four) at the Institute of Korean Meditation and Psychotherapy in Seoul.

MSC November 2015 8 week

Last August, just a week ago, three of the ten pictured above joined forty-six new participants to finish the first MSC teacher training course in Asia. We are all now officially an MSC teachers (in training)!

Doors open!
Doors open!

And the doors keep opening.

When I emailed the MSC Centre last September, I was focused on getting this certificate, this training. But after accomplishing this goal, I realized the universe had something else in mind. This relates to one of the most important teachings I learned last week:

“Love reveals everything unlike itself.”

Our precious MSC sangha revealed so much more than I could have dreamed of. Together we revealed and healed. Through the kind, wise guidance of our teachers, Christopher Germer, Steven Hickman, SeoGwang Snim, and Gwon Seona, I gained a deeper understanding of how compassion truly works in this world, within me. And with the loving acceptance of my dear MSC sangha (see pictures below), I entered a safe space where I was able to stop intellectualizing compassion and instead resonate with the loving connected presence we all share.

In the end, what I truly learned is that when you love yourself, so much more is available to you. This is the true bliss. This is how the doors start opening.

* The next door to open includes the community Brian Somers, Nina Iscovitz, Tosca Braun and I are building where we will offer the 8-week MSC course in English in Korea. We have started the Mindful Self-compassion Korea Facebook Group and a MeetUp Group where you’ll be able to find out where our courses, either in English and Korean, will be held.

(from top center) Christopher Germer, Nina Iscovitz, Brian Somers, Seona Gwon, Steven Hickman, SeoGwang Snim, me, and Tosca Braun
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Dear people of the world who are scared

Dear people of the world who are scared of other people of the world,

I get it. It’s weird. It doesn’t make much sense. Why don’t they hold the door open for you? Why do they sit on the floor instead of on the couch? Why don’t they clean their homes the same way? Why don’t they laugh at your jokes? Why do they behave so differently? Why do they believe something you’ve never heard of? Why do they say this instead of that?

It’s weird. I get it.

I get how much you want to feel safe. I get how much you want to be part of a community that understands who you are and why you do the things you do. It’s understandable. It’s uncomfortable to have to do things differently.

You want to wake up in the morning, have your cup of coffee or tea – the way you like it – and enjoy the day as it unfolds. You hope people will hold the door open for you. You hope people will feel comfortable in your home. You hope people will laugh at your jokes. You hope people will behave the same way and share the same ideals.

I get it.

IMG_6200

The thing is, everyone in the world wants this. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in another country it’s that we all want to be understood.

I’ve also learned there are others who wonder why you hold the door open. They wonder why you can’t sit on the floor. They wonder why you clean your home the way you do. They wonder why you don’t laugh at their jokes. They wonder why you don’t believe what they believe. They wonder why you behave so differently. They wonder why you say that instead of this.

It’s weird. I get it.

We all want people to treat us in a way that’s normal. We all want to live in familiar surroundings. It just feels safer, and so much more comfortable. There’s no denying this. And there’s no shame in this either.

But here’s a question: how do you feel when you don’t think people get you? I’ll tell you what happens to me. When I feel like others don’t get me, I don’t feel safe. And when I don’t feel safe, I get defensive. And when I get defensive, I make bad decisions. I say and do things, that in hindsight, I’m not proud of.

You know what? I get why I react this way.

But you know what else? That doesn’t make it right.

We’re human. We make bad decisions everyday. But when we constantly judge someone for reacting exactly the same way we would, it’s time to check in with ourselves.

Because now I understand why we hold the door and they don’t. Now, I sometimes prefer to sit on the floor instead of on the couch. Now, I wonder why I used to clean my home the way I did. And now, I wonder why I used to laugh at those jokes.

But I still wonder about our collective beliefs. I still wonder about our collective behaviour. I still wonder why we both say this and that.

And now I almost get it: the “we” and the “they” are not so weird after all.

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like us, are We
And everyone else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by looking on We
As only a sort of They!

-Rudyard Kipling, “We and They”

We/They aren’t weird at all. In fact, we/they are all just living the life we/they know how to live, hoping that someone will understand us/them so that we/they can feel safe.


To read more on this topic, I highly recommend Tara Brach’s Trance of ‘Unreal Other’.

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. ;)

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”)