Compassion is a word that seems to be everywhere at the moment so I thought I’d kick off the first blog of the academic year with some reflections about it. I am reading about compassion, researching compassion, attempting to teach compassion…and it’s not just me! It is something of a buzzword. But amidst all the hype, it is easy to think that the intellectual understanding of something automatically results in the practice of it, that because I can explain the complexities of defining compassion or the importance of compassion for our wellbeing that I, by default, become a compassionate person. This is something that needs serious reflection on our part as educators.
Initally, when I was first introduced to the idea of actively developing compassion the through Loving Kindness meditation it did not sit well with me. I thought that compassion for others emerged based on a particular emotion arising in me and then me feeling as though I needed to act upon it. Within my understanding compassion could not be actively developed – it was simply present at times and not at others.
It has taken many years for me to fully embrace the idea of the deliberate cultivation of love as a worthwhile endeavour and to recognise that this should not just be done sat on the cushions but had to woven into the fabric of my life. I think part of my reticence was that admitting to myself that I needed to actively develop love and connection with others touched into some deep vulnerability in me. It meant having to look at how I disconnected, pushed people away and ignored their suffering (as well as my own). I have found this deepening sensitivity to my own experience has fuelled the development of compassion within me because in recognising my vulnerability I have come to see it in others too.
Why is this relevant to teaching? For those of us engaged in teaching students explicitly about compassion, we need to encourage a non-judgemental exploration of where we all fall short of our expectations with regards to the way we treat others and ourselves. Being compassionate is not just a tick box exercise and our capacity to be compassionate is not just dependent on going on a training course or whether or not we were born a ‘compassionate person’. We also need to encourage students to see that compassion is not just about our individual capacity to care, it is also a manifestation of the conditions in which we work and how we work together.
More broadly we need to find a language to start exploring compassion within higher education. Not as a solution for all its ills, not as a way of individualising the difficulties of particular staff or students but as a way to increase awareness of our shared humanity and the vulnerability and frailty inherent therein. The prevalence of mental illness amongst academics and students suggests that our culture may not be a healthy one. I suspect competition, pressure and isolation contribute significantly to this and I know that connecting with people who also seek to create meaningful connection through compassionate, constructive dialogue is transforming my experience of my working life.
So, we can read all we like on compassion, we can learn poems about love and theorise about what compassionate care might look like, but it is in developing awareness of how we treat people, and ourselves, day to day, rejoicing in our generosity and learning from our meanness’s, that we can develop compassion for each other from which our students will inevitably learn.
Would love to know your thoughts and experiences about this.