Creating the time and space to learn together

In the midst of this rather hectic end to the term it is a real joy to take a few moments out to let you know that our plans for a summer school type event have come together. This is the blurb for the event:

Coming to our senses: embedding contemplative pedagogy in higher education

This four-day event at Emerson College will bring together educators working in higher education to explore, experience and study contemplative pedagogy. It will be a valuable opportunity to connect with like-minded people, learn from what others are doing in their classrooms and reflect on our own contemplative practice and how this impacts our teaching and conduct.

2pm 27 August 2018 – 2pm 30 August 2018
Please visit the events page for more details and information on how to book.


For me personally this event seems to have emerged out of the efforts and enthusiasms of many different people over the last few years. The fact that we are even attempting such an ambitious event, for such a long period of time (taking four days out of work to attend a training event is a big ask), reflects the belief amongst the organising team (myself, Iddo Oberski, Siobhan Lynch and Steven Stanley) that there is growing interest in contemplative pedagogy. In particular that people are keen to learn relevant skills, explore their understanding of this approach and think about how they can embed it within their work with students and each other.

The event will embody what it is hopes to teach. We will be creating community, taking space, being quiet, exploring our internal experience as well as considering how our ideas and desires connect with the external world and asking how we move these ideas forward and enable ourselves, our teaching, our students and our institutions to be transformed by the deep learning that emerges from contemplation.

There is no quick way to do this. No short cuts to understanding. What I hope is that over those four days we start to feel less alone in our struggles, that we find the confidence together to wade around in the mud of not-knowing, share the embarrassment of our mistakes and the deep vulnerability that comes with risking being wrong and revealing ourselves in the pursuit of knowing something more deeply.

We will be doing this in good company, in a wonderful setting, in which we can get close to nature, eat nurturing and lovingly prepared food, laugh and have fun and learn from the unique offerings that we will all bring.

Please come, you are most welcome 🙂






Resilience, narrative and common humanity in self-care

This blog has generously been contributed by my colleague in the School of Health and Social Care at the University of Essex, Ness Woodcock-Dennis. Thanks Ness!

I have just returned from International Health and Wellbeing week at Turku University of applied sciences in Finland after giving a workshop to Finnish nursing students based on the theme of health promotion. My clinical experience delivering health promotion as a public health nurse taught me that as professional care givers, nurses are poor at self-care and promoting their own health.

Nursing literature considers this from the viewpoint of how resilience can serve the service and service users; but what does resilience mean to the individual? To understand this, an individual must first understand their own vulnerabilities, and to acquire an authentic understanding of this, must be able and motivated in understanding their own inner curriculum, which Ergas (2016) attributes to factors such as how we are influenced by our worries, bodily sensations and our ability to interact and respond to the world.

Narrative is widely used in nursing as the patient story is intrinsic to care, just as listening skills are if these stories are to be interpreted and accurately understood as a means of utilising a genuine person-centred approach. As educators we understand the importance of role modelling professional behaviours and compassion, but what about role modelling self-care?

The use of narrative in the classroom is a powerful tool for developing compassionate nursing practice and a staple of contemplative pedagogy, enabling students to realise their own proximity to a greater narrative through understanding their own story (Barbezat & Bush 2014). This interplay is the common humanity described by Neff (2003), and is the interconnection between things central in Buddhist ethics; it is also the kinship that is fragmented and missing from caring relationships between nurses (Ballat & Campling 2015). I think it is the glue that holds the wider concepts of compassion together.

When I was asked to speak to the Finnish students about health promotion, I reflected on the importance of narrative, even more so on how important it is to listen to our own, particularly if we are to understand the barriers to communication and care imposed by ourselves when we are overwhelmed. My own experience of burn-out as a clinician has enabled me to create a narrative which demonstrates my experience of vulnerability in an authentic way.

Communicating beyond ourselves and our immediate audiences is essential if we are to strengthen our sense of common humanity. Sharing my experiences enabled me to connect with others on a deeper level which was energising and humbling. Despite differences in health infrastructure and culture, common humanity was found through sharing my narrative. By telling my story, colleagues were motivated to approach me and share their experiences, enabling common humanity that I believe was cultivated by having the courage to be authentic and accept my vulnerabilities as a clinician and human being.


Ballatt J & Campling P (2015) Intelligent Kindness: reforming the culture of healthcare, RPsych Publications

Barbezat D & Bush B (2014) Contemplative Practices in Higher Education, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco

Ergas O (2016) Reconstructing Education through Mindful Attention: Positioning the mind at the centre of curriculum and pedagogy, Palgrave Macmillan: London

Neff K (2003) Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualisation of a healthy attitude toward oneself, Self and Identity, 2, p85-101

The deliberate cultivation of love

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.


Labyrinths, lads & letting go of how ‘learning’ looks

Earlier this month, I was asked by Dr Amy Armstrong to deliver teaching on self-compassion to her undergraduate business students at Ashridge Executive Education as part of a module on ethics and care, which had embedded contemplative practice from the outset. I am hoping that Amy might agree to share some more details about the course as a whole in a future blog. My intention here is to reflect on what I learnt with particular emphaisis on my first labyrinth facilitation experience.

We initally talked a little about the theory of self-compassion, using Kristen Neff’s model as well as a little of Paul Gilberts work.  I was particularly moved by how engaged students became when we discussed how our uncompassionate and critical selves can show up in our lives. Their list was far better than the one I had prepared:


Class discussion on our uncompassionate selves…

In terms of practical exercises, I used a common humanity practice in which the students are placed in pairs and then, having closed their eyes and become still, reflect on phrases such as ‘this person gets ill, as I do’; ‘this person wants to be happy, as I do’; ‘this person suffers, as I do’. We also did a compassionate breath practice in which the students were asked to close their eyes, focus on the breath and imagine breathing in compassion for themselves and breathing out compassion for the person they had been paired with.

On the day I noticed that I felt very unprepared to teach a group of 24, largely male, 19-21 year olds about things I would normally assume they would not be interested in. I am used to small groups of predominately female professionals who appear relatively unthreatening to teach. Here, there was a playfulness, directness and boisterousness that I was unused to. Just to be clear  – they were a great bunch of students, who really engaged, but the energy was just incredibly different to what I am used to.


The beautiful labyrinth at Ashridge

This difference became most apparent when it came to leading the labyrinth walk which took place after lunch. I had imagined that the students would be so captivated by my introduction to labyrinths, so thrilled by the opportunity to engage in such a deep and historic practice that we would walk to the labyrinth in awed silence. The students however did not get the brief! There was lots of good-humoured banter, the throwing of the odd pine cone, skipping, jumping – not the solemn atmosphere I had envisaged!!

I realised very quickly that I had to let go of what I wanted to this to look like, that I risked alienating them if I tried to make this ‘my’ labyrinth walk. When we reached the labyrinth however, I did say that while they were waiting to enter, it was important to be quiet in order to respect the experience of the other students. I also emphasised that it was optional to walk and one student decided not to take part. To my surprise (and, if I’m honest, relief!) they were very respectful once the walking started. Some also asked to take their shoes off – something I took as an encouraging sign of willing engagement.

Although I had walked the labyrinth several times the night before, waiting for the first student to reach the centre was a nerve-wracking business. I had a very real sense of not wanting to look stupid in front of the students, so when the leading student passed another on the way out of the centre for the first time and they high-fived each other, my feeling was not annoyance that they were not taking it seriously but a humourous recognition of how much their gesture reflected my own internal sense of relief! Some students walked in silence, others shared a few words, there was skipping, shared smiles and raised eyebrows. The sense of community was palpable from the ways they interacted as well as the way they did not interrupt each other without invitation. I realised that I was there to witness how they would walk and support them in that, rather than make them do it ‘right’.

After the walk we discussed what had made them feel vulnerable or what they had found difficult on their walk. They identified that it was different from what they usually do, that the couldn’t make any choices about where to go once they started, that they didn’t know where the centre was or how long it would take to get there and several experienced bordem. I had also asked them to leave their phones the classroom which had, I think, contributed to a sense of insecurity. Then we discussed what they had enjoyed or found pleasurable, interestingly many reported liking the fact that there were no choices to make, someone said their mind became quieter, another reflected on how going first made him feel like the leader and that this had evoked a sense of care in him for the others but also a self-consciousness about whether he was doing it right.

One of  the most pertinent student comments, was that the experience had been paradoxical, that although he had no choices as to where to go within the labyrinth and that to some extent he had been disempowered, he found the decision to walk, and the experience of doing so, empowering.

I came away with a stronger awareness of the importance of giving up my preconceptions about what learning looks like, because only then can I really meet students where they are. I noticed how vulnerable I feel when it doesn’t look like I think it should. We are of course responsible for setting up the conditions for learning (and in some cases assessing that learning) but we also need to allow space for the learning process to emerge from within each student and to actively welcome that difference and diversity. The labyrinth proved to be a powerful teaching tool. I found it challenging because I was aware of how little control I had over what the students learnt from it. I was then forced to consider whether we ever have the power to determine what students learn from what we teach?

Any thoughts welcome!





Becoming a contemplation activist

A huge thank you to Mariana Funes for writing this thought provoking blog, that really gets to the heart of what contemplative pedagogy is about.

I have been reading the beautifully titled article by Sandra Braman ‘When nightingales break the law: silence and the construction of reality’ and it has made a big impact on me. I teach online insight dialogue at the Mindfulness Studies Masters at Lesley University. Contemplative Pedagogy is integral to my work and what makes it interesting and challenging is that all my teaching is online inside a Learning Management System; designing and delivering a course that enacts contemplative dialogue on this kind of system is a non-trivial task.

At times I feel very alone, against a tide that privileges the social over the contemplative.
Sandra’s paper speaks beautifully to the need for a balance between these two different ways of meaning making,

“Strikingly, theorizing about digital technologies has led us to recognize many habitual subjects of research as figures against fields that are also worthy of study. Communication, for example, becomes visible only against the field of silence. Silence is critically important for the construction of reality – and the social construction of reality has a complement, the also necessary contemplative construction of reality.”

Yet, we do not act in the world as if these two realms where equally valuable. Instead, we seek ways to distract ourselves when a rare moment of contemplation becomes available in a busy day. We are born to distraction and must cultivate attention. So Sandra encourages us all to protect our moments of silence,

“Finding ways to protect silence as an arena of personal and social choice is particularly poignant […] at this frontier moment for the human species.”

This put me in mind of the idea that attention and how we use it is a moral and a political act. Iain McGilchrist synthesises this well when he tells us that “Attention is a moral act: it creates, brings aspects of things into being, but in doing so makes other recede.” Attentional choices often requires us to work against habit and ease, we need to become contemplation activists. Fighting to ‘protect silence as a personal and social choice’ often means taking the inconvenient course of action. Why bother?

We bother because we are losing the battle with mind chatter. We are being weighed down by too much information and too few inconvenient choices. Our mind chatter has become an inner landfill and unless we cultivate attention, distraction will win and our cognition will (is already?) suffer. We want permanence and yet all we have is a reality that is dialectical in nature; oppositional constructs that are held in tension and, paradoxically, only temporarily permanent. Silence and conversation. Stillness and movement. The social and the contemplative. And we see this flow over time only if we cultivate our attention and stop being seduced by distraction.

So I am now calling myself a contemplation activist. I remind myself daily that:

  • I need to cultivate fluidity to see background and foreground beyond motivated reasoning
  • I should ask: What is not being attended to?
  • Remember to pause to see the world as it presents itself to the eye not just seek to impose a shape on it
  • Mind chatter is the boundary of conscious and unconscious, I train the mind to access it when I cultivate silence and pause
  • Else, fast will always win

These ideas are summed up from the work of David Levy who I also have to thank for the term Contemplation Activist. I highly recommend that you read his work as well as Sandra’s article if these ideas appeal to you.

This is not about picking ‘the right way’; it is about living with ambiguity and impermanence,

Dialectically, social and contemplative practices can oscillate, feeding into each other, as a cycle of activity and respite; a pulse for everyday life. Mara Adelman

We need silence to hear the pulse of everyday life oscillating moment to moment. So how do we bring contemplation (back) to the fore?

  • Know we embody the obsolete in mind chatter – train the mind
  • Protect silence as a personal and social choice – inconvenient choices
  • Anthropomorphising the clock to blame it for our lack of time, brings only temporary relief
  • Every decision excludes (or should) as much as it includes

David Levy talks about how he tackles distraction one student at a time. I say that is a worthy goal not just for my teaching but also the rest of my life – tackle distraction one moment at a time by privileging the pause a little more often each day.

By Mariana Funes, May 2017
Braman, S. (2007). When nightingales break the law: Silence and the construction of reality. Ethics and Information Technology, 9(4), 281-295.
Funes, M (2017) The contemplative construction of reality. Haiku Deck created for my students. You can find it here:
Funes, M. (2017) The contemplative construction of reality.

The importance of community for balancing self-doubt and omnipotence

When we are at our strongest and most resilient our sense of needing others diminishes. It feels, rather deceptively I have found out, as though we are the masters of our own destiny. As both an academic, and in the past as a student, I have had times when things just feel under my control, that I am behind the steering wheel  and I can make things go my way. Whilst this can feel wonderful at times, I have come to see that without awareness it can have negative side effects. Firstly, I no longer have a sense of how much others contribute to my life, I lose sense of their contributions, whether personally or professionally, rendering me unseeing and ungrateful (not completely perhaps but it certainly reduces my capacity to be so).

More recently, I have noticed that this sense of personal power also significantly diminishes my capacity for compassion for others – I can sort my life out so why can’t they? The last sixth months have taught me much but how this sense of control and self-determination is deeply illusory and that I can be good and generous and kind and work really hard but that this does not make me immune from that which I fear.

This got me thinking about higher education and how as both teachers (and increasingly for students) there is considerable pressure to build up a personal ‘brand’ to prove our ‘expertise’ and I worry that this pressure leads to us having to appear more sure about what we know and what our skills are than we perhaps actually are. I am concerned that the creation of personal brands over values our strengths and forces us to move too quickly from unknowing, that place of exploration and openness, to ‘expert’.

There is a balance here though. When I feel vulnerable I look at my staff profile, research gate, blog, whatever it is, and feel like a complete fraud – trying to work alongside people who I revere and feeling unworthy of doing so. Whilst when feeling powerful and in control I am perhaps a little more seduced than I should be, by the sense of knowing exactly where I am going and believing it is completely within my power to ensure my ‘success’. I don’t expect that this dance between deep doubt and naïve certainty will end anytime soon, but I have noticed how community can help me navigate the choreography rather more skilfully.

I have particularly noticed this in recent months, how friendly conversations with colleagues can make me feel valued even if I am struggling to see my own self-worth. How reaching out to help someone else can help break unhelpful thought patterns. One thing that has stood out however, about the contemplative pedagogy community in particular, is that it helps me manage not only vulnerability and insecurity, through its warmth and generosity, but it also helps me to notice and be mindful of when I get a bit too sure and confident. The depth of open questioning and exploration and the value given to others’ contributions is a healthy counterbalance to the need for a personal brand that puts forward a successful, coherent account of ourselves as self-made individuals.

I am therefore hugely looking forward to the upcoming contemplative pedagogy event at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh organised by Iddo Oberski. It will be a rare opportunity for emails, phone calls and skype meetings to be swapped for hugely valuable face to face interaction. A time to explore my uncertainty and questions, help others do the same and as such come to know myself in connection with others, as part of a community, rather than as a lonely individual trying to shout louder than everyone else on twitter!

Looking forward to seeing some of you there.

Best wishes Caroline




Confused? Bewildered? Teach!

To be honest I have struggled to know what to write on this blog for a few weeks now. I am still waiting for some inspiring bolt of lightning. When I consider all the things I could write about, and look at the burgeoning resources on contemplative education, I just feel a bit bewildered and lost at the moment.

But I think that is the overarching theme of 2016 – bewilderment. A sense of deep vulnerability and groundlessness – waking up after the Brexit vote, and again after the US election, dealing with challenging discussions about changes in my department as well as interesting changes in my home life.

This morning I have got to thinking that this sense of bewilderment has an interesting quality to it – it is accompanied by a sense of impotence, a ‘not knowing’. In effect I am stopped in my tracks and can no longer carry on with the illusion that I know exactly what I am doing and how to make everything better. As a teacher I think this is profoundly valuable experience. It is humbling and reminds us of what it is like to be perplexed and to not understand what is in front of us. Furthermore, if we can find within ourselves the patience and skills necessary to sit with that impotence, frustration and bewilderment then we can start to open up the space of not knowing for our students, enabling deep  understanding to emerge. This is what contemplative practice is really for.

Beware then the teacher with all the answers! I think bewilderment is an important formative experience in the life of a teacher. I have just remembered that almost exactly two years ago I wrote a blog in which I mentioned bewilderment using this quote:

“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.”
― Rumi, Masnavi i Man’avi, the spiritual couplets of Maula

Clearly this sunk in for me to return to it now!

One thing to consider however is how we can use the experience of bewilderment to serve us, as a creative process rather than it sinking us and leading us into despair. For me my meditation practice has been central to creating a space to sit with the ‘not knowing’. It has supported my ability to sit quietly with discomfort and to resist the temptation for constant distraction. However, equally important has been keeping in mind the values that guide my life, with compassion and generosity being upper most. The Pali word ‘Sati’ which is commonly translated as ‘mindfulness’ in English, is not only about being present in the moment it also encapsulates bearing in mind our intentions. I have found this ‘bearing in mind’ very helpful, particularly when  I do not know what I should do and everything feels quite hopeless, if I can bring my intention to mind it is always possible to find ways of acting with kindness and compassion. I think this stops me from throwing in the towel and just giving up. It helps me avoid the ‘everything is such a mess so what’s the point’ mentality. It also keeps open lines of communication and creates space for creative ways forward.

That is not to say there is often a fairy tale ending (even at Christmas!) but it does mean I can stay (relatively) sane and hopefully help others along the way including my students. I am not sure there is much more I can do, bewildered or not!

Festive wishes





The ‘compassion gap’ in higher education and the role of contemplative pedagogy

This blog has been inspired by a paper by Kathryn Waddington called ‘The compassion gap in UK universities’ which was sent to me by my colleague Mary Kennedy. The paper was written in response to the author’s unexpected experience of anger when she publicly drew attention to the disjuncture between the focus on compassion in health professions training and the lack of compassion in the culture of the institutions that carry out that training. Having spent much time of the last few months organising our one day compassion conference the issue of compassion in HE has been very much on my mind too.

Waddington’s paper (2016: 5) identifies ‘a dissonance, discord and a dark side to life inside universities’ and highlights the features of higher education which inhibit the development  of a compassionate culture. For those of us engaged in the training of future health professionals this is particularly worrying  – are we asking students to model a way of being that is not embedded in their training? However, that we think this is  more relevant for health professions courses than others, is itself reflective of the increasingly instrumental and individualistic aims of modern education. Why is compassion and the idea of service to others in society not considered important throughout our education, in all that we are taught? Einstein stated (Cited in Shernoff 2013: 25):

“…The aim (of education) must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals, who, however, see in the service of the community their highest life problem.”

Wendell Berry (1987: 77 cited in Palmer and Zajonc (2010)) raised a similar point:

“The thing being made in a university is humanity…[W]hat universities…are mandated to make or to help to make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words – not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture”

If we are to take these aims seriously, creating a culture of compassion in higher education is imperative. We need to create a space for learning and teaching in which our responsibilities to ourselves, to each other and the world around us are central to our teaching, and more importantly, are central to how we teach and interact in HE institutions.

Waddington makes several suggestions in the paper about how to create more compassionate institutions. Like her, I too see other academics and colleagues who are incredibly compassionate in their work and this often comes through in the feedback from students about the teaching on our courses. I see colleagues supporting each other, rallying around in the face of difficult personal circumstances, offering to help out when it is not in their job description to do so. But then too I find myself in what I experience as the uncompassionate world of deadlines, work load, student numbers, performance, REF, TEF, publication etc.

And yet, paradoxically, despite my fear that compassion could be considered a pink and fluffy educational extra, I  believe that without the opportunity to explore compassion and our inherent interconnectivity, whether as a nurse or a physicist, there is something fundamentally missing from our ‘education’. Contemplative pedagogy has much to say about this in terms of how we teach this to students but equally emphasises the importance of embodying what it is that we wish to teach.

Whilst, as Waddington suggests,  we do need leaders who value compassion and are able to act compassionately we also need to recognise that everyday we individually contribute to the culture that we work in. Waddington describes how we need new stories and I would add that we need to make those new stories manifest in change. I have noticed how some of the stories I tell myself about work can omit the positive aspects of my experience. This is not to say we should all sit with our heads buried in the sand pretending we love our jobs and we love everyone we work with. But actually stories of how awful everything is can become habit,  neither accurately reflecting the challenges and difficulties of our work or portraying the positive aspects of our institutions either. This means that not only do we not see compassion and kindness but neither can we effectively challenge the status quo or respond skillfully and with compassion when challenges arise. We are rendered impotent (and often miserable too).

One of the dangers around some of the dialogue I have seen about positive psychology, that we have explored before  on this blog, is that of excessively individualising people’s experience of distress leading to failure to look at the contextual factors which contribute to it. Clearly there are contextual factors which contribute to the ‘compassion gap’ in UK universities that need to be addressed. But we can also take steps to explore how we relate to ourselves, our students and colleagues and identify the opportunities for new stories.

Warm wishes Caroline


Shernoff, D.J. (2013) Aims of Education Revisited (Einstein’s E = MC2 of Education). In Optimal Learning Environments to Promote Student Engagement. Advancing Responsible Adolescent Development. [Online]. Springer New York. pp. 25–45.
Berry, W. (1987) The Loss of the University. In Home Economics. [Online]. North Point Press. p.

The value of space in the development of compassion

Hello everyone

I have been working for several months now with a great group of colleagues on the organisation of a one day conference – Compassion, Organisational Change and the Future of Care that took place on Friday 2nd September at the University of Essex. Predominantly it was attended by employees of North Essex Partnership University NHS Trust and South Essex Partnership University NHS Trust, who had kindly funded the event, but we welcomed attendees from across the UK including an interesting range of practitioners, educators and researchers. For the full programme see here.

What really struck me on the day was the level of energy and commitment in the room. The number of questions and quality of discussion that arose throughout the day suggested that the event had created the space for conversations that were really needed, that hadn’t previously had sufficient space to emerge. In the group discussion that I facilitated it was evident that the presentations earlier in the day had provided new perspectives as well as giving voice to underlying issues, such as resource scarcity and the political nature of health care, which in turn gave attendees the confidence to explore them.  It was very difficult to take account of everyone’s views in the time allowed, but it was soon evident that each person was processing the day in their own unique way; coming to their own understanding of what the day meant to them and how this would emerge in terms of their own compassionate care.

The day of the conference has made me see the value of having conversations, of listening and being open about our experience. I can see how trying to  move too quickly towards ‘solutions’ on how to deliver compassionate care will inevitably silence certain voices, whilst constraining the capacity of individuals to engage in ways that are meaningful for them. To think and talk about compassion inevitably requires us to touch upon the more vulnerable aspects of our humanity – our wish for others to be compassionate towards us, how it feels when they are not and the difficult recognition that there are times that we too are uncompassionate. These are not abstract concepts that necessitate abstract intellectual exploration (although new theoretical perspectives can be valuable) they are unavoidable elements of the human experience that can be understood more fully through dialogue with each other. It may have only been me but I felt a sense of relief to engage in honest and open conversations about sensitive issues that often get overlooked in the busyness of professional life. By embodying what we are trying to create, these conversations could be of more value in the creation of a compassionate culture that any external initiative.

I am reminded of a recent blog by Omid Safi called ‘The disease of being busy’. He notes that being busy all the time ‘keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave’. He goes on:

‘Put your hand on my arm, look me in the eye, and connect with me for one second. Tell me something about your heart, and awaken my heart. Help me remember that I too am a full and complete human being, a human being who also craves a human touch.’

But this requires space – spatially, temporary, mentally. We created this during the day, especially in the Schwartz Round but in many other ways too –  over sandwiches and coffee on the grass, whilst meditating together in the lecture hall, in the quiet moments of reflection. Again I am reminded not to underestimate the value of space in learning, the need for authentic dialogue and discussion, particularly perhaps with something as ineffable yet fundamental as compassion.









Silence as a response

Hello everyone

I know that I don’t normally write two blogs so close together but I have been inspired by two things:

1) an interesting blog by Parker Palmer that addressed questions that I didn’t know I had about responding  to world events that leave me feeling perplexed and fearful.

2) whilst writing a commissioned article on mindfulness and self-compassion for nurses I found a great open access resource you might be interested in.


I guess I am not the only one who feels more and more perplexed by recent reports of violence, extremism and instability. I feel lost, fearful and completely without words. It feels that my response is one of silence and I often feel frustrated by this. Then I came across Parker Palmer’s column on Krista Tippett’s blog ‘On Being’ in which he talks about how, recently, rather than engaging in the ‘internet frenzy’ of responses to such events, his response has been silence:

‘If I want to find words and actions that might be life-giving and serve the common good, I need to reclaim my true self and recover my true voice. So I’ve been embracing the silence that has descended upon me’

It made me reflect on the importance of providing students with the opportunity to experience silence – to know that there is a spaciousness there that can be experienced. That we do not always have to make noise, to know the answer or to have an opinion. It has taken me a long time to find this – I wish someone had introduced me to it earlier! I also found solace in finding an expression of the vulnerability that can arise in response to world events.  This also came up recently, talking with colleagues about the EU referendum, which led to unexpected powerful, emotional reactions.


On a more practical note, while writing today, I have discovered a very interesting document by Shinzen Young called ‘What is mindfulness ?’. I have not yet read it in-depth but it addresses the complexity around mindfulness in a clear and direct way. It has also given me some ideas for new ways of expressing my thoughts about mindfulness as well as new ways to teach it. There is also a section on his conceptualisation of mindfulness which he discusses in relation to the scientific and spiritual domains.

Warm wishes Caroline