This month I begin a deep dive in Elena Aguilar’s Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators and the accompanying workbook. I hope to share some of my reflections as I build daily habits to strength my own resilience and support that growth in others. Aguilar outlines a habit and a disposition for each month of the year. Follow along as I reflect on each month’s key ideas.
January’s habit is to cultivate compassion and the disposition is perspective.
I appreciate that Aguilar begins this chapter by asking us to picture someone for whom we would like to have more compassion. She asks us to keep this person in mind as we read. This reminds me of the value of presuming positive intent. We are all doing the best we can with what we know right now. When we know more/better, we do more/better. The more we can remember this during our interactions, especially the more challenging ones, the better our relationships can be with others.
“Compassion is empathy in action” (Aguilar, p. 199)
This is an important reminder for me. I think I am pretty good at sympathizing and empathizing with people, but that doesn’t mean that I take action to be compassionate towards them, to ease their suffering. I do this with close friends and family members, but not nearly as much with work colleagues.
Some of the advice Aguilar offers in the workbook for January is to reflect on the past year and set resolutions or a word for 2019. I’ve already done that work and my word for the year is SHINE. Two simple exercises from the book and the workbook are a compassion practice and a loving kindness meditation. It is amazing to me that the simple act of closing my eyes and saying a few simple phrases (such as “May you be free from suffering” or “May I be at ease”) can relax my entire body and mind. I have been inconsistent with my mediation practice in the last few months, but this is a reminder that even a short minute or two can provide comfort. This month I set reminders in my calendar to do this throughout the work day. When the reminder popped up, I took a moment to repeat some of her recommended phrases. This really helped me keep compassion in my mind at work and throughout the day.
“Compassion for others must begin with self-compassion. You cannot have true compassion for others if you do not have it for yourself” (Aguilar, p. 206)
I don’t know about you, but this is something I struggle with a lot. I find it easier to have compassion for others than for myself. I would never talk to a friend or colleague the way I talk to myself when I am stressed out, angry, or upset. This is an area in which I truly want to build better habits. In the workbook Aguilar suggests writing a self-compassion letter, which I did. This exercise helped me put to words some areas where I have been less compassionate with myself than I would like. Moving from that into some journaling on cynicism allowed me to reflect on areas where I have been less compassionate with others than I would like.
Have you ever wondered how therapists live a normal life outside of their sessions, not taking on the stress of their clients? I love Aguilar’s perspective on empathic distress and compassion fatigue, that many servant leaders face. I remember this feeling, without knowing what to call it, as a new teacher, where I was so stressed out about my students’ home lives, lack of food, experience with violence, and other troubling situations, that I couldn’t sleep. I took this on again as a new administrator, constantly replaying conversations through my mind all night long, again making it hard to sleep. Now I realize I was suffering from compassion fatigue, taking on others’ suffering myself. In the workbook Aguilar recommends we draw a picture of our self in conversation with someone who consumes us with their suffering. When we are talking to this person, we are to picture our self in a bubble, and to picture the other person in their own separate bubble. We can still see and hear everything, but our bubble provides a kind of detachment that gives us emotional space.
When I think about cultivating compassion and perspective, I believe there is a lot I can do to be more compassionate with others. When I “zoom out” and look at an issue from a new perspective, I can go beyond sympathy or empathy and take action to show compassion. This is definitely a work in progress for me, and I will continue to reflect in my personal journal, going back to some of the activities provided by Aguilar in the book and the workbook for this month’s habit.
I’ll see you next month – February’s habit is to be a learner and the disposition is curiosity.
How are you cultivating compassion in your personal and professional life? If you read Chapter 8 this month, please share in the comments some of your reflections.