Compassion Training for Dark Times

“Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination…from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances.”

Hannah Arendt

The United States has long buried its distortions and cruelties under more attractive sounding images. But we live in a time when our capacity for degradation has been allowed to enter the light of day. We look toward difficult times.

Hannah Arendt, the brilliant philosopher and Jewish refugee from National Socialism, reminds us that compassion – the egalitarian warmth for sufferers which is directed also toward evildoers – manifests itself especially during dark times (Men in Dark Times, 12-13).

The very darkness of the times evokes a sense of compassion and humanity, at the very time humanity is most under threat. It is a time that invites us to seek spiritual friends to help us to magnify the capacity for unrestrained compassion.

Sources of Compassion

One place to turn is the ancient wisdom of religion. Religions embody the traits of their practitioners and therefore much of the cruelty compassion aims to defeat. But religions are also unique in their dedication to practices of wisdom and compassion. This dedication makes them good conversation partners as we seek wisdom in our own dark times.

Christianity was born in a dark time and place. A rapacious empire had conquered the Jewish people. The economy had been redirected toward Rome’s coffers, leaving many people destitute. The cross became a too frequent exemplar of Roman power. Christianity’s great teacher died on one of these crosses, as did many of his followers. Slavery awaited others.

But many were drawn to this impotent and shabby “way.” It offered a luminous counter-narrative to the religion of Rome. These early followers could not accept what passed for piety in Roman religion. The cruelty of its practices and emptiness of its theology were impossible to accept. In the first century small groups of practitioners were inflamed by a simple precept: “whoever does not love does not know God for God is love” (I John 4:8).

Ancient Christians seem to have understood what we have forgotten: this simple precept is extraordinarily difficult. If we are to renounce the fear, hostility, anger, violence, addiction to entertainment, indifference to beauty and to suffering that so characterizes the logic of empires it is necessary to train – like an athlete trains – or a musician or cabinet maker.

The Didache was a first century manual teaching the “way of life.” It seems to have arisen in an ecumenical community of Jews and non-Jews following the teachings of Jesus. “Didache” refers to the training that a master craftsperson would provide for an apprentice. To follow the “way” was to participate in a teaching community with the earnest dedication of an apprentice mastering their craft.

The “way of life” is extremely simple: love God and neighbor. Love of neighbor is specified negatively: what you do not want to happen to you do not do to someone else. That is it. That is the whole “way.” But as simple as this is, it is also enormously difficult. The little book marks a path, training the mind in the path of love. Without prelude or warm-up the first training dives deeply into the heart of loving kindness (metta) practice: “speak well of the ones speaking badly of you and pray for your enemies and fast for the ones persecuting you. For what is the merit if you love the ones loving you? Do not even the gentiles do the same thing? You on the other hand, love the ones hating you and you will not have an enemy” (1:3).

The foundational spiritual training is to love those who harm you. In order to do this, a second training is introduced: “Abstain from fleshly and bodily desires” (1:4). Being familiar with a certain kind of Christian morality, I assumed this would involve a repudiation of sex. But for the author of the Didache it means that if someone hits you in the face, you turn to receive another blow; if a Roman soldier demands you carry his pack one mile, you carry it two. Bodily and fleshly desires are the fears and anger that naturally arise when one is persecuted, humiliated, and oppressed. To awaken the heart it is necessary to pray for those who hate you and to pacify fear and anger. In this way one no longer has any enemies. Everyone becomes a neighbor.

The Sustaining Soul-Force

Praying for enemies is first century “satyagraha:” the “soul force” that Gandhi invoked as the source of non-violent resistance. When one is faced with humiliation, interpersonal conflict, or grinding oppression it is natural to feel overwhelmed and victimized just as when a bull is charging you, it is natural to feel terror. But if you are a bull-fighter, a great soul-force is released when a bull charges. You become beautiful and your slight figure skillfully eludes the charge of the monstrous bull. In this ancient compassion training, those who are weak and helpless become a great soul-force. They are not destroyed by harsh treatment but become agents of transformation, bodhisattvas, for those who intend harm.

Rosemarie Freeney Harding describes something like this in her memoir, Remnants. In 1962 she co-founded the first inter-racial Mennonite house as part of the civil rights campaign in Atlanta, GA. While she and a co-worker, Marion King, were both pregnant, Marion visited jailed civil rights workers. On one visit, a guard kicked her so hard she fell down and miscarried. Rosemarie and other friends were shocked and angered. But when Marion returned from the hospital, walking slowly because of the pain “there was something in her face. A kind of light. Like a victory, a resplendence. It’s hard to explain because it wasn’t prideful and it wasn’t false. It helped to quiet us – our anger, our judgment. And we recognized it…It was something transcendent – capable of transforming us, our adversaries, and our entire society. Marion’s countenance and her conversation reminded us of that quality of the Movement…What I am trying to emphasize to you in this example is how deeply and how seriously many people were grappling with the meaning of nonviolence during the Movement days and how Marion’s reaction had a context and the support of a community of people who understood, or at least were trying to understand, the potential of compassion and non-violence to transform individuals and societies” (158).

De-Colonizing Our Minds and Awakening Our Hearts

The Didache suggests that the primary obstacles to this kind of spiritual athleticism are the emotions that arise as naturally as breath when we are faced with difficulty. Strong emotions are more like bodily responses than moral choices.

When a beloved co-worker is so egregiously harmed, emotions arise as spontaneously as the sweat on one’s brow or the thumping of one’s heart. But as long as we are ruled by these bodily responses of fear and anger, neither we ourselves nor the people we encounter can appear in the full poignancy of their humanity.

The examples of the Didache community and the memories of Rosemarie Harding show us that we can practice in ways that decolonize our minds and awaken our hearts to the beauty and suffering of others – all others. From a Christian perspective, we do this by dropping into the great compassion of the Beloved and allowing it to circulate through us. But we can do this also with the help of secular or religious meditation practices. We can do it by remembering to walk in beauty. We can do it in silence and with music. We will find communities and spiritual friends that hold us up, as Marion was held up and held others up.

Practicing Together

In these difficult times, it is necessary to remember that we practice together because compassion is difficult but we practice also because it is possible – “that our joy may be complete.” Rosemarie Harding suggested this exercise: “Think of someone who does not look like you, someone you don’t know and perhaps have preconceived notions about. Or someone you have strong disagreements with. Get a picture of that person, or someone who represents such a person in your mind, and put it someplace where you can see it before you go to sleep at night…I do this. I will look at that picture, perhaps a Klan member and say, You are my brother. You are my father. You are my son. God be with you and bless you. Or if you are a Buddhist, chant on the person’s behalf. And go to sleep with those thoughts and prayers on your mind. You’ll be amazed at the transformation – in us.” (Remnants 261).

May it be so.

-by wendy farley, PhD

Recognizing the Full “truth” of the “other’s” Deep Spiritual Potential

One of my friends at work is a classically trained imam, a leader in the black and Muslim communities of Boston with whom I have coffee and conversation on a wide range of spiritual topics. Our talks are deep and life-giving, and center upon our respective traditions (Tibetan Buddhism and Sunni Islam) and the common realities between them. We open ourselves and share much, yet are careful not to fall into shallow perceptions of the other. In these times of heightened political and religious strife, such talks may seem impossible in certain contexts, yet training in learning to really see the other can help us to navigate the rich opportunities and possible obstacles of interfaith dialogue and deep mutual learning, leading from “I-it” relationships to “I-thou” relationships in Buberian terms.

True interfaith learning is built upon a foundation of receptivity and trust. Through radical openness to the fullness of each person in the eyes of her spiritual tradition, the spirit of the “I-thou” relationship can be established. In this deep recognition of the full humanity of others, one opens oneself to experiencing the deep truths that they hold and that may inform one’s own path of study. In the words of Pierre Claverie, the former archbishop of Oran and an inspirational figure for me, “I not only accept that the Other is Other, a distinct subject with freedom of conscience, but I accept that he or she may possess a part of the truth that I do not have, and without which my own search for the truth cannot be fully realized.”[1]  In this sense, communing across faiths can only be achieved in a mutualistic framework, and contemplative practice (in which one recognizes the full “truth” of the “other’s” deep spiritual potential) can further open our eyes to this possibility.

Within this process, obstacles may arise, particularly when practitioners fall out of “I-thou” and into “I-it” frames of thinking, states in which others are viewed (often subconsciously) as mere objects that reinforce one’s individual narrative. In my own experience, reducing others to one’s limited perceptions of their faith, rather than entering into authentic dialogue and learning based on deep exchange, can occur subtly and without much conscious thought. When other faith traditions are treated as curiosities or purely academic exercises rather than living, breathing paths, shallow illusions of understanding arise that can serve as roadblocks to communing with others in their full humanity. Careful attention to these implicit biases is critical in interfaith exchanges, and a compassionate sense of mindfulness of them in ourselves can be achieved through practice.

Through sustainable compassion practices in which we learn to commune with others, the openness of the “I-thou” will replace the tightness of the “I-it,” and a loving and honest interfaith community can be fostered in which communal action is possible. Now more than ever, such profound work is critical as we mobilize across groups for a kinder and clearer world.

-jonathan makransky

[1] Pierre Claverie, quoted in Jean Jacques Perennes, A Life Poured Out: Pierre Claverie of Algeria (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007), 148.

Our Shared World: Finding a New Way Forward

I often find myself lying next to my two-year-old son as he rests in sleep – my angel. I drink him in during these moments. I stare at his darling face, touch his smooth skin, glance at his soft eyes, and am in awe of his tiny, upward curved mouth. I snuggle close and feel his breath on me as I settle into the warmth that radiates from his little body.

Recently while attending an anti-racism conference a woman said, “I appreciate you because you seem to wear your motherhood on your sleeve.” This comment has stuck with me. I don’t know another way to be.

Since giving birth to my son, the world feels fragile, less solid, less stable, less permanent. I feel a sense of urgency and a quiet fear for the society in which he is slated to grow and become.

Recent national events have left me feeling all the more tender, raw and emotional in regards to our shared world. I’ve had to call on the strong men and women in whose legacy I reside to be my anchor to the earth. In many quiet moments I have found myself bringing to mind the fiercely compassionate in my life–taking in their love. I’ve had to rediscover a sense of worthiness.

In her wise and breathtaking book, The Way of Tenderness, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel writes, “unworthiness, invisibility, loss of intimacy, isolation, neglected intuition, and a loss of voice – all life threatening symptoms of the disease of systemic oppression” (Public Library)

I am suffering from this disease. We are all suffering. Systemic oppression dehumanizes us all and infects those of us who are marginalized as well as those in positions of privilege and power. This illness is not difficult to see. Look around. Our brothers and sisters are angry, grief stricken, searching for voice and validation. Our neighbors are afraid, isolated and distrustful, buying into narratives of bias and hate.

If we are truly going to heal this insidious disease of oppression, we are going to need love. In Love as the Practice of Freedom bell hooks writes, “it is in choosing love and beginning with love that we are best positioned to transform society in ways that enhance the collective good.” But love alone will not heal our wounds and transform our systems. It will also take courage. To truly address the inequity and oppression that dehumanizes us all, we must cultivate courage – the courage to turn towards our painful historical and present realties; the courage to address the internalized beliefs and outward behaviors that are the result of this reality; the courage to confront injustice and inequity. We will need to be courageous enough to abandon the status quo, to claim our power or to relinquish our privileges. It will take bravery to transform the familiar and for some the very comfortable.

If our children are going to come to be in a world where the quality of their education and their sense of self worth is not dependent on the color of their skin, it will not work to simply build a bridge to the other shore. We are going to have to link arms and walk together, fully present, into the deep waters of power, privilege and oppression. We are going to have to meet there, in the depths and agree to hold tightly to each other as we cut through the currents of resentment, hate and animosity. We will need to pick each other up when we stumble (and we will stumble) on the hidden boulders below the surface. We are going to have to forgive, allow, and welcome each other at the center and together navigate to a new shore.

A dear friend said recently that she felt as though a sleeping dragon had been awakened inside of her, and this feeling was both scary and liberating.

It is time for each of us to awaken our sleeping dragons. To call upon our sources of care, compassion and strength and find a new way forward. Our collective liberation depends on us all. The time is now. Our angels need us.


A Call for More Compassionate, Equitable Education

What’s Equity Got to Do With It?

Recently I presented at a workshop for educators interested in the science of social and emotional learning (SEL) and prosocial education. After leading a half-day session on cultivating compassion, in which I also highlighted common blocks and obstacles — like stereotype, bias, prejudice and racism — to cultivating compassion, I asked the group somewhat rhetorically to consider what this material had to do with educational equity. The largely white, upper middle-class audience fell silent. Some looked confused; others seemed hesitant or reluctant to speak. Others seemed mildly irritated, perhaps by me, or by the topic itself.

I admit I was somewhat surprised. Hadn’t this group of educators — many of whom had traveled from across the country to attend this workshop — signed up for this program because they were interested in learning how better to foster more caring, more successful and more connected students and school communities? What made it difficult for the group to see or speak about the connection between compassion — or lack thereof — and equity?

I asked the audience to consider the question in small groups. As I walked around the room, I overheard one teacher say that she couldn’t relate to the topic because her school wasn’t diverse and therefore she didn’t have to deal with “these issues.” Another teacher talked about the SEL program her school developed to help underserved students learn to “manage their feelings.” Others talked of ways “their faculty” were helping “those children” perform better in class through introducing a variety of SEL initiatives. Only a handful of teachers — out of a group of close to one hundred — were able to articulate the connection between structural racism and educational equity.

Many educators interested in SEL and the growing mindfulness-in-education movement are committed to helping our students flourish. Yet many of our students do not have access to some of the most fundamental elements of a quality education, including free pre-school, safe learning environments, and well-resourced schools. A study conducted by the Department of Education, for example, found that nearly half of high-poverty schools receive less funding than other schools in their district. Minority students are also subject to disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates, and children of low socio-economic status (SES) are more likely to be exposed to violence, traumatic experiences and toxic stressors that negatively impact their physical and mental health.

Structural inequities are plaguing our educational system. And many of us don’t see it, or at the very least don’t know what to do about it.

The Field of Prosocial Education

Many of our students are stressed out. Rates of depression and anxiety are on the rise.  Suicide epidemics are plaguing affluent school districts. Bullying and other forms of aggression are increasing.

Over the past several decades, educators have mobilized to address a number of these issues, as mounting evidence suggests that enhancing the social, emotional, cultural and ethical aspects of schooling improves student well-being. Educators, recognizing that relationships, not academic performance, are the greatest predictor of health and well-being have called for approaches that foster connection and positive school climate.

These calls have stirred a variety of prosocial education initiatives, including character education, moral development, service learning, SEL, civic education, cooperative learning, and positive youth development. Mindfulness-based programs have also become increasingly popular in educational settings. Research from a variety of studies suggests that these prosocial education programs are making a positive impact.

Although a number of prosocial programs have framed their approach in terms of enhancing well-being, reducing stress and improving academic performance, implicit in many of these programs is a vision for a more holistic education and a critique of the instrumentalization of teaching and learning. Yet without explicitly articulating their vision or their critique of the current economic-driven model of education, critics worry that prosocial programs are being instrumentalized by the very model of education they attempt to resist.

Even worse, some critics also worry that the SEL and mindfulness-in-education programs may actually reinforce inequity. As one scholar notes, while such programs often concentrate on schools with traditionally underserved populations, the content of such programs focuses on anger management and self-regulation, rather than critical pedagogical approaches that could empower students to question and challenge systemic racism and structural inequity.

What’s Compassion Got to Do With It?

We have a profound, natural capacity for care and compassion — a capacity not only to tolerate others, but to radically see, deeply accept and unconditionally love them.

This capacity for care is nurtured in the context of caring relationships and also through explicit training. Although generally speaking we find it easy to care for those who are close to and kind to us, we tend to find it more difficult to extend care to those in our so-called out-group, or worse, to those who have caused us harm.

One of the most pervasive and insidious blocks to care involves what we call “limiting impressions” — or the ways in which we often mistakenly reduce and relate to others as nothing more than our ideas or stereotypes of them. These “limiting impressions” have real-world effects that have been well-documented in the social psychological literature. We know, for example, that teachers’ perceptions of their students’ potential can impact their performance.

The art of becoming more caring, more compassionate, involves training a host of capacities, including attention, mindfulness, affection, love, empathy, insight and courage. Compassion is not a feeling or emotion. As Paul Gilbert explains, it’s a motivational stance, an ethically oriented way of being in and responding to the world.

Compassion requires that we learn to be with suffering and also that we develop the wisdom and courage to respond effectively to suffering. Responding effectively requires that we gain insight into the contexts and conditions — both psychological and social — that contribute to or exacerbate suffering. It also requires that we deepen our capacity to respond to injustices inflicted on all fellow beings, not just our so-called in-group.

Sustained compassion training has the potential to advance our collective work toward more holistic, equitable education. In 2012, the Mind & Life Institute launched its Ethics, Education, and Human Development (EEHD) Initiative in an effort to join the growing movement of educators, scientists, and contemplatives engaged in advancing the field of “prosocial” education. Mind & Life recruited an interdisciplinary team of educators, contemplatives and developmental psychologists to survey and assess the state of the field of SEL and contemplative education, and to develop an educational framework that would support educators in cultivating and sustaining more caring, compassionate relationships. The framework, entitled “A Call to Care,” included a comprehensive PreK-12 curriculum and pedagogy for students and teachers that integrates SEL with developmentally sensitive care- and compassion-based skills training and contemplative practices. Mind & Life’s team offered Call to Care trainings through June 2016. Trainings are now being carried forward by our team at the Courage of Care Coalition.

The basic underlying principle of Call to Care aligns with Nel Noddings ethic of care: to be one caring is to be one cared for. This approach — which was largely inspired by Sustainable Compassion Training — highlights the relational dimension of care by helping educators and students to recognize that one needs to learn to receive care — to be held in unconditional positive regard — in order to be empowered to extend this same caring attitude toward others. Thus strengthening compassion requires that we recognize our profound interdependence.

Compassion and Equity: Integrating Tools for Personal and Social Transformation

Although compassion training is promising, we still have a long way to go. As my colleague Diane Friedlander of Stanford’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) once said, “We are not doing compassion if we are not doing equity.” Gaining insight into the causes and conditions of suffering is essential; also critical is deepening our awareness of and ability to respond to perceived social injustices. Deep personal work must be coupled with capacity building for institutional and social transformation.

One of the biggest obstacles we face to addressing structural and systemic issues is our deep individualistic cultural conditioning. Various factors and influences of modernity have conditioned us to experience ourselves as autonomous, independent selves. Much of our educational and modern contemplative practices are shaped by and in response to this frame: we see education and other contemplative methods as self-help tools by which we learn to improve ourselves. This frame has limited our ability to see the complex ways in which our well-being is dependently linked to others and the institutions and structures within which we are embedded.

In her research on educational equity and racism, Stanford researcher Leah Gordon traced the ways in which this modern individualistic frame — what she termed “racial individualism” — shaped the direction of 20th century movements that sought to challenge racial injustice in schools.  Her work found that beliefs in racial individualism suggested that racial justice could be achieved through reducing prejudice among white individuals, or by “changing white minds.” Gordon showed how this movement neglected to attend to economic and political structures that undermined attempts at educational equity. This individual frame created unrealistic expectations for educational equality, and ultimately failed.

It is understandable that so many programs would approach change through methods focused on individual development — it is difficult to define, assess and respond to social systems. Yet critical compassionate pedagogy is essential to helping us understand the inequitable structures that inhibit our collective capacity for well-being and transformation.

As we become more aware of the systemic injustices that plague our educational systems, we increase our ability to help dismantle structural racism and oppression. Although systems are complex, it is not terribly difficult to deconstruct their flaws and failures. Many of us can do that. Yet to rebuild more compassionate, equitable systems will require a cadre of communities that are empowered and strengthened by a deep compassionate stance — one sustained by ongoing personal reflection. For many of us, this requires that we learn to recognize and address our own privilege.

The good news is that a number of groups are deeply engaged in this work. We at Courage of Care, like many others, are committed to developing and offering training programs that support those on the front lines of this work. Through collaboration, education, research and advocacy, and a staunch commitment to the greater good, the field has tremendous possibility, and offers much hope.

-Brooke D. Lavelle, Ph.D.

A previous version of this post was published by the Mind and Life Institute

Sustainable Compassion in Poetry

Here we share with you three poems that evoke the experience and purpose of Sustainable Compassion Training’s three modes of care: receiving care, deep self-care, and extending care. Enjoy!

-Collection and Commentary by ELIZABETH AESCHLIMANN





Receiving Care

I know the way you can get


I know the way you can get
When you have not had a drink of Love:

Your face hardens,
Your sweet muscles cramp.
Children become concerned
About a strange look that appears in your eyes
Which even begins to worry your own mirror
And nose.

Squirrels and birds sense your sadness
And call an important conference in a tall tree.
They decide which secret code to chant
To help your mind and soul.

Even angels fear that brand of madness
That arrays itself against the world
And throws sharp stones and spears into
The innocent
And into one's self.

O I know the way you can get
If you have not been drinking Love:

You might rip apart
Every sentence your friends and teachers say,
Looking for hidden clauses.

You might weigh every word on a scale
Like a dead fish.

You might pull out a ruler to measure
From every angle in your darkness
The beautiful dimensions of a heart you once

I know the way you can get
If you have not had a drink from Love's

That is why all the Great Ones speak of
The vital need
To keep remembering God,
So you will come to know and see Him
As being so Playful
And Wanting,
Just Wanting to help.

That is why Hafiz says:
Bring your cup near me.
For all I care about
Is quenching your thirst for freedom!

All a Sane man can ever care about
Is giving Love!

Once again, Hafiz says it all. That love-thirst is bodily, stingy, madness arraying itself against the world. But children, squirrels and birds, the Universe itself, notice—and care. Receiving Care is a drink of love that is always available.



Deep Self-Care

Theory: Synesthesia

Khadijah Queen

Published Fall 2014 in CURA: A Literary Magazine of Art and Action 

First, I was twenty-five with no sleep    (                        )

&          my body said    feel this                        And I didn't

want to            (                          )  then           It turned into a constant &                   (           )

burned to be felt                  I couldn't harden

away from it                 couldn't ease                 (                       )

or sleep or not-feel        my way away    because it was myself &

what my child could see     (                  )        & what             I was watching


What I love about Theory: Synesthesia is how Queen captures what we so often can’t put into words—the thoughts and feelings and knowings that break into our lives whether we like it or not.

Is (                  ) blank because we don’t want to look, or because it is somehow unseeable?

 Deep Self-Care brings us slowly into letting be the (                  ) we have failed to harden, ease, sleep and not-feel away from. It is compassionate presence to (                  )

Extending Care

A Small Needful Fact

Ross Gay 

Is that Eric Garner worked

for some time for the Parks and Rec.

Horticultural Department, which means,

perhaps, that with his very large hands,

perhaps, in all likelihood,

he put gently into the earth

some plants which, most likely,

some of them, in all likelihood,

continue to grow, continue

to do what such plants do, like house

and feed small and necessary creatures,

like being pleasant to touch and smell,

like converting sunlight

into food, like making it easier

for us to breathe. 

As we sink more deeply into our capacity to extend care and compassion, breaking down the barriers of our limiting impressions, I am inspired by this poem’s insistence that we look beyond the headlines. Here is a man easing a plant into the ground with his hands.

There is tragic irony that Eric Garner is helping us to breathe when his own breath was taken from him.

And there is the very “needful” fact that he was more than the man who said “I can’t breathe” as an NYPD officer held him in a fatal chokehold. He was a man who lived forty-four years of life, a life whose gifts extend to us even now.

If Daniel Pantaleo had been able to see this, Eric Garner would still be breathing.