Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Six Habits of Highly Compassionate People

Follow these steps to feel more compassionate toward others and toward yourself.

Would you describe yourself as a compassionate person?
Even if you don’t necessarily see yourself that way, I bet you’re compassionate at least some of the time (e.g., when you’re well-rested and not in a hurry), or with certain people in your life (e.g., with your closest friends). Compassion can be thought of as a mental state or an orientation towards suffering (your own or others’) that includes four components:
  • Bringing attention or awareness to recognizing that there is suffering (cognitive)
  • Feeling emotionally moved by that suffering (affective)
  • Wishing there to be relief from that suffering (intentional)
  • A readiness to take action to relieve that suffering (motivational)
Contrary to what many may believe, compassion is considered to be like a muscle that, as any other, can be strengthened with relevant exercises—or can deteriorate and atrophy. In other words, your capacity for compassion can expand, if you choose.
You likely never learned in school that you can intentionally strengthen inner skills such as compassion. The good news is that there are specific habits that you can practice in order to begin honing your abilities to expand compassion for yourself and for others.

Habit 1: Try the research-tested compassion practices

Preliminary research from a variety of randomized controlled trials suggests that compassion can in fact be enhanced through systematic training programs. For example, the eight-week compassion cultivation training (CCT) course that was developed by Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., and colleagues at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education suggests that adults can indeed improve compassion for themselves, and reduce fear of compassion for themselves and for others.
Even if you don’t or can’t take a research-validated training program, there are numerous ways to build your compassion muscle—many of which are described on Greater Good in Action (GGIA), the GGSC’s library of science-based practices. Some of these practices involve meditation, such as loving-kindness. Others are writing exercises, such as one that asks you to describe a time when you felt a strong bond with another person.
Many of the practices in both GGIA and the structured training programs range from 10-30 minutes in length. As with most exercises, the more you do them, the more you will likely reap the benefits. However, something is better than nothing. For example, if your physical exercise goal is to take 10,000 steps a day and you only take 3,000, that’s still better for your health than taking none.
Meditation is similar. While the intention may be 20-30 minutes of daily compassion meditation, some practice is better than no practice—and you are maintaining your intention and routine, which will only increase the likelihood of your continuing this intention and routine the next day. Notice if this “all-or-nothing” mentality with your compassion practice is hindering you and see if you can test the “something is better than nothing” theory.

Habit 2: And try informal compassion practices, too

While there’s lots of research supporting those kinds of compassion-cultivating practices, there’s also a place for informal, moment-to-moment practices throughout the day.
For example, you could notice when compassion comes easily or spontaneously for you throughout the day (e.g., watching the evening news). You could notice when you resist acknowledging or being with suffering (your own or others) throughout the day (e.g., when passing someone on the street who is asking for money or an extended family member who is challenging). Throughout the day, you could notice when you judge or minimize suffering (e.g., saying that it doesn’t count or is insignificant compared to someone else or something else going on in the world). We often notice suffering (our own and that of others) but quickly dismiss it and thus do not allow ourselves to be emotionally touched or moved by the suffering (the second component of compassion). This kind of awareness of the presence, or absence, of compassion can provide some valuable information to you.
So, the next time you’re standing in line at the grocery store, instead of looking down at your phone or watching how quickly the surrounding lines are moving (I’m guilty of both), take a moment to consider the common humanity of the people who made your grocery trip possible—the people who grew the food, transported the food, and stocked the shelves, or even the cashier who is about to help you. Perhaps you could take a moment of appreciation for each of them.
If you choose, this could be an opportunity to acknowledge the interdependence that surrounds us. Our lives, even simple trips to the grocery store, are supported by countless others.

Habit 3: Set an intention

Renowned meditation teacher Jack Kornfield once wrote that setting one’s intention is like setting the compass for one’s heart. Our intention helps guide our efforts to be compassionate and helps remind us why we are choosing to set time aside for compassion-cultivating practices. When I teach compassion, I pose questions for my students, such as these:
  • What is bringing you to the practice today?
  • What do you want for yourself?
  • What do you want for your life?
  • What do you have to offer the world?
While these are indeed “big” questions, asking them allows us to ponder our intentions of why we are trying to strengthen our inner skill of compassion.
For a week, try setting an intention before you start your compassion meditation practice and notice whether this intention helps clarify your purpose. At times, this intention can come up again throughout the day as a means of renewing your commitment to practice compassion, even when you are living life “off the cushion.”

Habit 4: Collect your own data

Research is probabilistic. Just because something works for most people (or people in research studies) does not mean that it will work for you. As I always tell my students, in order to get the most convincing data, “Be your own laboratory.”
Run a short experiment (e.g., a couple weeks or a couple months) and collect your own data. Do you feel more compassionate (towards yourself, loved ones, strangers, difficult people) when utilizing formal (e.g., sitting meditation) and informal (e.g., silently reciting loving-kindness phrases to yourself while waiting in line at Trader Joe’s) compassion practices?
Students in my compassion training classes receive a workbook, which contains a daily practice log and space for comments. Since the practice is different every day, it’s important that we spend time, even if just a few minutes, reflecting on what the practice was like for us: what came up, where did our attention wander to during the practice, how did our intention guide our practice, and so on. Without reflection, these practices can become another thing on a lengthy daily “to-do” list. It is only with reflection that we can get a sense of whether these practices are actually benefitting us (immediately or in the longer-term).
Additionally, I invite students even when they do not practice to still log a “0” for practice time for the day and to also write down what they did instead of doing the practice (e.g., caught up on emails, slept in, went to the gym, watched TV, etc.). This allows us to continue the routine of logging and reflecting and also allows us to examine patterns to the days where we are not practicing—perhaps what we are choosing to do instead of meditating is a higher priority, or perhaps what we are doing instead is not actually adding value to our lives.
Running this experiment does not require a workbook, purchasing a fancy meditation cushion, or buying trendy new yoga clothes. These practices, which are thousands of years old, can be done right in the comfort of your own home, at the office, in your car, or really anywhere, just as you are. Afterward, reflection can take many forms—and you should adopt one that works for you.

Habit 5: Get support

In my experience as a meditation student and as a meditation teacher, the practices are initially helpful when done with the guidance of an instructor. The instructor can answer questions, help troubleshoot and problem-solve, and, most importantly, help you stick with and come back to your practice.
One of my favorite things about teaching compassion courses is the supportive environment that gets created within the group—it’s a unique opportunity to participate in community-based practice. I find it also helps renew one’s optimism as it reminds us that we are not alone in these practices. Many others are choosing to acknowledge suffering (their own and others’) and wish to see the relief of suffering. This notion can get lost at times when doing these practices in solitude.
If you don’t have the time or money for a class, don’t despair. You might find support at a religious community or center in your area, if you have one. If you don’t, enlist a friend or relative to support your effort to make compassion more of a habit—someone who can encourage and remind you to stay on track and help you (non-judgmentally) troubleshoot the times when you just don’t feel very compassionate in the midst of suffering. 

Habit 6: Be open to possibilities—and compassionate toward yourself

There are lots of good reasons why sometimes we intend to do compassion meditation practices, and yet, for whatever reason, we drop the ball. Often, what people do when this happens is engage in “negative self-talk” by implicitly or explicitly saying things to themselves, such as “I never stick with anything”; “I’m a failure”; or “I can’t do this.” Interestingly, there’s no empirical evidence to suggest that beating ourselves up will actually help us change our behavior; in fact, some data suggests that this type of criticism can move us away from our goals rather than towards them.
Additionally, one of the interesting opportunities that arises when we do not do our compassion meditation practices is to see if, in that moment, we can practice compassion for ourselves. While a bit meta (compassion for missing the compassion practice), this is essentially one of the “tests” of our practice. When we’re tempted to be harsh, critical, and judgmental with ourselves, can we instead choose to have compassion: acknowledging our suffering, noting how this makes us human and that we are not alone, and trying to be gentle or kind with ourselves (or at least refrain from beating ourselves up—“if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”)?
Often the story that gets told about meditation is that it will be “relaxing,” “stress-relieving,” and “blissful.” While all of these experiences are possible, for many people the experience with meditation or compassion practices is the exact opposite of peaceful, relaxing, and positive. For some, depending on the practice, just focusing on one’s breath can bring about extreme anxiety or worry thoughts, bringing to mind a loved one can bring about grief and loss, imagining oneself as a young child can bring about sadness or pain, considering the suffering of all beings may bring about guilt or overwhelm.
It is important to notice whether we are bringing any expectations to the compassion practice. Often people will say that the compassion practices are not “working.” When we investigate what they mean by this, they are often referring to the experience of not feeling relaxed after the meditation. While relaxation and stress relief can be the goal of some meditations, in general this is not the case with compassion meditation. Compassion is ultimately about suffering, which can at times feel difficult to sit with.
Finally, people often bring the expectation that because a compassion practice generated a certain feeling or experience before (e.g., yesterday or last week), it “should” or will generate a similar feeling or experience today. As I often tell my students, reality is constantly changing (time is passing and the earth is rotating as you read this), and thus it is a bit of a fallacy to expect that we, and the practice, will be the same day in and day out. Because the practice is different every day, we have something “new” to reflect on after each practice.
It may simply be the case that the activities aren’t right for you. If loving-kindness doesn’t seem to be increasing your compassion, try something else, like writing about a time when you felt like someone showed compassion toward you, or a time when you felt spontaneous compassion for another. It is important to be open to another possibility: Perhaps compassion practices aren’t what you need right now. The good news is that there are many varieties of different contemplative practices available that can help you to become more present and non-judgmental.
Establishing new habits takes time. Be patient and keep trying. One day, you might find yourself more open to suffering—and more capable of addressing it—than you’ve ever been before.

Inspirational Quote – April 24, 2018

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind, ALWAYS.”

This is so true and something we all need to be more aware of. I firmly believe that everybody has their own story which has shaped and molded them into the person they are and that when we encounter each other we need to remember this. It’s so easy to respond angrily to another’s verbal attack, be impatient with their depressed mood or tendency to look on the dark side, when we are unaware of what they are going through. If we can, and I say “if”, look past their tendency to lash out or anger, and show patience, understanding and kindness, this may be all that is needed to help them feel better and able to deal with their problems, so wouldn’t it make more sense to make this effort?


Monday, April 23, 2018

Three Ways to Cultivate Gratitude at School

When fear and divisiveness cast a shadow over our schools, gratitude may help us see the good. Here are three gratitude practices you can share with students.

I have to admit that writing about gratitude right now feels trite to me. In the face of profound educational inequities, boiling political tensions, racial conflicts, gun violence, and loss of life, should schools really ask kids and teachers to learn to say, “Thanks”?
Yet the simplicity of gratitude belies how powerfully it seems to function. Recent studies indicate that gratitude practices like counting your blessings or writing about things you are grateful for can actually improve your physical and mental health—and enhance your willingness to trust others.
If you take a look at the gratitude research conducted in schools and colleges to date, you will see evidence that gratitude may contribute to a greater sense of social supportschool belonging, and satisfaction with the school experience, while lessening students’ stress and depression.
Sometimes it may feel like a struggle to find something positive to note—particularly for kids in your class who might be facing genuine threats to their well-being (like chronic abuse, neglect, or systemic inequality). Rather than blindly encouraging them to “look on the bright side,” researchers Jeffrey Froh and Giacomo Bono suggest listening deeply, empathizing, and acknowledging their feelings. This can help them cultivate resilience, which—along with other qualities like self-compassion and hope—could help plant the seeds for gratefulness.
We should also bear in mind that culture, race, socioeconomic status, and religious background may influence the way students and colleagues express and practice gratitude. If you don’t know how and for whom the students in your class typically express gratitude, why not ask, as a first step toward cultivating gratitude in your class?
You could even have your students go home and interview their families about the ways they like to express gratitude, what they feel grateful for, and times when they think gratitude is appropriate. Then have them return to class and report on their interviews. This activity encourages curiosity while opening the door to a wider discussion of cultural differences. It also provides an opportunity for students to share practices or rituals that everyone could try.
We recently added three research-based gratitude practices for students to our Greater Good in Action site. They might be used to help your students build their gratitude skills.

1. Three Good Things

Are you witnessing more restless energy and frustration in your classroom this spring? You may be struggling for your students’ attention and wondering how you can set a more positive tone over the last few months of school.
Three Good Things for Students asks kids to record positive things that happen to them each day. The key to this activity is not just identifying rewarding experiences, but also considering how or why they happened.
For example, a student begins by acknowledging how hard she worked on her math homework (the good thing), but she also digs deeper to answer the questions, “How did I accomplish that? What exactly did I do?” (the explanation). If time allows, students can also share at least one good thing with each other to reinforce positive thinking.
In a study of around 600 students ages 8 to 11, the group who wrote about Three Good Things for a week reported being happier afterward and three months later, compared to the group who just journaled about their daily experiences.

2. Gratitude Letter

This exercise provides prompts for writing a letter of thanks to someone and giving it directly to that person. Ask your students to think of all the people at school who have been kind to them this year, choosing one particular person to recognize (e.g., another student, a custodian, a teacher).
One study followed children and adolescents as they wrote and delivered a Gratitude Letter. Compared to writing about daily events, the Gratitude Letter worked well for students who had started out low in positive emotions; they felt better afterward and even two months later.
You might also consider the power of students sharing notes of thanks with each other in the classroom setting or publicly acknowledging school staff in an assembly. These are more powerful than simple thank you notes, because all writers share them in person and have the opportunity to surprise their benefactor by reading their letter aloud.

3. Gratitude Journal

Of course, a letter-writing activity or brief exercise may not have the same power as a more sustained practice. It’s easy for kids (and us!) to focus on the negative. In fact, we’re wired with a negativity bias that serves as a form of self-protection. We look out for both real and perceived threats to our emotional or physical safety (a shove, an insult, even a smirk from a peer).
If you are hoping for a more sustained shift in perspective among students and staff at your school, consider using gratitude journals. The Gratitude Journal for Students provides a simple structure for slowly shifting one’s perspective toward the positive. Students regularly track good things that happen in their lives, like finishing all of their homework or getting extra time to spend with a good friend.
In a recent study, students in sixth and seventh grade who completed Gratitude Journals daily (for only two weeks) ended up being more satisfied with their school—even three weeks afterward—than students who didn’t do any journaling. Compared to students who journaled about their hassles, these students also felt less negative emotion, greater satisfaction with their home, and more optimism.
Of course, teachers and staff can benefit from gratitude practices, too. Check out this article on building trust among staff; it features two gratitude activities you might use during a staff meeting. You can also learn about “gratitude boards” and a “behind your back” activity where teachers (or students) celebrate each other’s strengths.
I know a fourth-grade teacher who took time each day to have students write down things they were grateful for throughout her school year. The students found themselves more aware of good things over time—and actually looking out for them. “Is this going to be one of our gratitudes for the day?” students asked, as a member of their group celebrated a success or they spotted one student helping another.
“When you are grateful, your heart is open—open towards others, open for surprise,” says David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who spent his teen years under the Nazi occupation. “Because gratitude expresses courage, it spreads calm.” It takes courage to admit that you depend on other people, which is one of the things that can happen when we thank someone. Gratitude is an alternative to fear of other people. It can help us to feel less alone with the problems we face.

Inspirational Quote – April 23, 2018

“The way people treat you is a statement about who they are as a human being. It is not a statement about you.”

Personally, it took me a long time to realize the truth of this. As a Pisces and therefore a Water sign I am very much ruled by my emotions and other people’s perceptions of me impacted deeply. Their actions and words could, even unintentionally, make me doubt myself and my abilities and also cause my feelings to be hurt. A big softy really! However, I have come to the realization that everybody has their own story and their own personal dramas in their life, and that sometimes I was just “in the line of fire.” Now, as well as being a lot more confident in who I am, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt in that they are not presently in a good place, so choose to deflect the “fire” and let it go.


The Third Self: Mary Oliver on the Artist's Task

In "Of Power and Time" found in "Upstream: Selected Essays," poet Mary Oliver delves deep into the psyche of the artist and explores the external and internal factors affecting creativity. In it she describes three parts of herself -- two ordinary ones, and one third self "where the wellspring of creative energy resides." This third self cannot be controlled, and is often its worst enemy. "What does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley's birthday is two weeks hence. . . . Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist." Here, Brainpickings' Maria Popova masterfully weaves a discourse on creativity's friends and foes using Oliver's brilliant insights as well as quotes and concepts from other artists. Read on for more.