It’s all about compassion

by tamarjacobson

Quote of the day:

Within two hours of welcoming students to a retreat on using food as a doorway to their inner lives, I ask them to list 10 criticisms they've hurled at themselves since they arrived. "Just 10?" someone usually asks. Then I introduce the concept of The Voice. I ask a few people to read their lists out loud (using the tone in which The Voice usually speaks to them). Some things I've heard: "I can't believe I came to another thing on weight." "What is wrong with me for thinking I could wear a sleeveless dress?" "My toenails are disgusting." "I'm wasting my time and I should go home." You probably wouldn't let anyone else talk to you the way you talk to yourself. You're inured to insults from this inner critic who sounds so much like you that you believe it is you. You think you're telling yourself the truth.

How do you free yourself from The Voice? You begin by becoming aware that it exists. One good way to do that is by listing the ways you've berated yourself and reading the insults out loud in the voice of The Voice, the way my students do. Next, you work on disengaging from The Voice – understanding that it isn't you. You can begin to separate from The Voice by remembering a time when you knew the delight of being happy for no reason, a moment when The Voice was silent and you were your essential self. 

When you stop believing The Voice, when you know it isn't you, when you talk back to it, you are free. You have access to yourself and every thing The Voice pretends to offer, but doesn't: clarity, intelligence, strength, joy, compassion, curiosity, love. When you stop responding to the continual comments on your thighs, your value, your very existence, then you can ask yourself if you are comfortable at this weight; if you feel healthy, energetic, awake. And if the answer is no, you can ask yourself what you could do about it that would fit into your day-to-day life. What you can live with, what you can maintain. What feels good, what stirs your heart. And you can give that answer in your own voice. Geneen Roth, February 22, 2015.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about compassion. In the new book I am writing, I have been describing my pedagogical principles, and compassion features strongly. It leads me to wonder how I can get teachers of young children to understand this. Most of us growing up have not experienced much validation or respect for our emotions, so how do we know what it feels like to do that for children?

And then about a week ago, I watched Alive Inside, and was made to wonder about compassion even more. How do we help people understand about empathy and compassion when they have never experienced it themselves? Or, are some people born with a compassion gene, and others not? There are skills that can be taught: like listening without judgment, for example. But how do I teach that skill when most of us know only what it feels like to be criticized or shamed? How do I help people feel what it is like not to be judged, and thus not to judge? 

Is it impossible?

I am not able to stop what Geneen Roth [above] calls, "the voice" inside my brain either. My inner critic is relentless! Therefore, I struggle to hold back my judgment of others too – just like any pre or in-service teacher I teach. I mean, I judge those who are critical of others, and who lack compassion, for goodness sake! 

For the past forty years I have observed teachers and families as they interact with children. Their expectations are too many to list … children are judged for being too much of everything:

  • noisy
  • quiet
  • fat
  • thin
  • strong
  • weak
  • whiny
  • needy for attention
  • slow
  • fast
  • good
  • bad …

Mostly we need people to be like us – within our own comfort zone. When they are different from us, we try and squeeze them into an obedience box of our making. We feel comfortable with those, who follow our orders, or do as they are told – forgetting that most of our expectations we learned from adults, who were critical of us when we were young. Sometimes, we reach for the opposite of what we were taught, especially if it was painful. Either way, unless we become aware and reflect about how we were brainwashed as children, we will find it impossible to learn the skill of listening without judgment, develop empathy, and become compassionate. 

At the foundation of my pedagogical principles must be compassion, for it contains within it empathy, and, while we can never fully put ourselves in someone else's shoes, we can try to feel what it might be like for others. If we cannot feel what they are experiencing, at the very least we can learn to listen to them – really listen – without judgment – and hear the story as they experience it.

As I wonder out loud about all this, I can already hear caregivers and teachers wailing at me: "But there is not enough funding – we have no time to stop and listen to everyone. there is so much to be done, so much paperwork, so many expectations on us!" 

So – then – it follows that one of my pedagogical principles must be:

Building time into this institutional structure for practicing listening without judgment; validation of feelings; and respect for each individual voice.