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.

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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, 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 English speaking cultures now have a word for empathy that they 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 I 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.

Maybe these terms aren’t different at all. I think the act of acknowledging one’s feelings and needs is in itself an act of compassion. 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 the relationship. – Robert Augustus Masters, Emotional Intimacy (scroll down to “Introduction: Into theHeart of Emotion”)

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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:

Compassion Training 2: Mindful or Mindless?

In my last post, Compassion Training: Trying not to fall in the hole, I described the eight-week online compassion/mindfulness course I’m taking. Each week we have meditative tasks to practice and reflect on. My hope is to write a bit about something from each week that has had an impact on me, and how it relates to teacher/learning. Below is something that struck me during week 1.

*Reflections

What causes you to lose contact with mindfulness in your day? What are the situations in your life / experience in which you find it most difficult to be mindful? What would support you in bringing mindfulness into these parts of your life?

As I was typing the question above, I felt a desire to click on Facebook and my hand reached out to click the new fitness app I downloaded on my iPhone. Clearly, social networks are external stimuli that keep me from being mindful. They chop up the moment, making it necessary for me to put pieces of that moment together again. It feels like I’m starting from the beginning every time. Not an easy task. I know paying attention to the moment creates satisfying results, but I just can’t resist the click!

Click!!!

*Practices

Continue to meditate every day, perhaps expanding the time from 20 to 30 minutes, cultivating mindfulness of the breath. Take time in the week, both in formal sitting practice and at other times, to notice when you are feeling uncomfortable, either in your mind, body or heart.

After writing the answer above, I had a strong urge to stop thinking about all this. I felt uncomfortable and I could hear myself thinking I needed to be doing something else, so I decided this might be the perfect moment to work on the following task:

Notice how you are relating to the uncomfortable experience – with care or reaction?

Reaction! Here were my thoughts at that moment:

I want to check Twitter; Byongchan is doing things in the kitchen so I should help him; my stomach is grumbling so I want to get a snack; I should bring Samsoon (our dog) for a walk so I need to get ready; my butt is asleep so I should get off it!

It was very hard not to do at least one of these things, but I sat with the discomfort. I just sat and allowed all my thoughts to happen: not judging, just watching. It took a while, but all those “shoulds” turned into curiosity. How could I worry about all those things at once? I wonder how often that happens during my day? How does it impact my ability to focus on what is happening around me?

Choosing this small moment of inner turmoil gave me a lot of insight into the power of patience and observation. By watching the feelings that were passing through me, they eventually moved along, and then I was able to make a decision that was more grounded. If I had chosen my regular pattern, reaction to any or all of those thoughts, I may have gone through the rest of the day in a frantic manner.

I know all the options I mentioned above weren’t decisions that were serious, but that is the power of that moment. It gave me something to weigh up against heavier moments. Like moments at school that require that extra bit of attention. The time when you have to plan a class, finish up paperwork, and your boss knocks on the door. That moment when a student tells you something he has been too afraid to tell anyone else. Those times when you wonder how your class could have taken such a wrong turn. All these moments might not be as intimidating from a mindful place. The only way I can test this is to keep aiming for mindfulness rather than my old mindless reactions.  Practice sitting rather than clicking. We’ll see how that goes. Six more weeks to go.

For more about mindfulness, I recommend visiting:

*The Reflection and Practices questions were provided by Mark Coleman, the teacher of the Compassion Training course.

Compassion Training: Trying not to fall in the hole

I think I’m between chapter  2 and 3. It all depends on the circumstances.

An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters
by Portia Nelson (excerpt from her book “There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery“)

Chapter 1
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in. I am lost….I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

walking down the sidewalk

Chapter 2
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the side walk.
I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I fall in….it’s a habit…but my eyes are open.
I know where I am. It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter 4
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5
I walk down a different street.

This is why I’ve decided to take this course: Compassion Training with Mark Coleman (you can listen to the podcasts here). I made this decision after recently noticing myself being less than compassionate with someone and myself. Something which should have been simple to deal with left me thinking, “Wow, I am really a bitch.” Now, that is not the type of language I want fermenting in my mind, and my behaviour is not the kind I want to continue cycling; because looking back, it is a reaction (both the action and the thought) that continually reemerges.

So why am I writing about this on my teaching blog and not my personal blog? Because as you’ll see from the tagline under my blog’s title, I am passionate about compassionate communication. I think the world needs a lot more compassion and as a teacher of language, I think I’m in a position to make this happen. As language teachers, we are all in this position. I’ve always thought that the first step in creating this change should come from me (see a post on this by my friend and fellow teacher: In Order to Change the World). But I didn’t truly understand what that meant.

I think I’m closer to understanding it. My understanding is I can’t teach kindness if I’m not kind with myself. I can’t be compassionate with students and other teachers if I’m not compassionate with myself. Once I do that for myself, I’ll be ready for the world.

Awareness is the foundation of kindness. Kindness is the expression of awareness. – Buddhist verse

So for now I’ll sit and do my best to be mindful of what arises because that is the kindest thing I can do.

*I’d also like to take this chance to let my dear readers know that I am starting the WordPress “Post a Week” blog challenge. The fancy new badge you see on the right makes this official. I took this challenge back in 2011 (check out my “Post a Week 2011” posts) and I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about myself, my teaching, and my learners. I hope to gain similar positive results. And it wouldn’t be a real challenge without challenge without challenging you too! Are you up for it?

Thank you for reading and your continued support,

Josette