mindfulness in schools

Is Compassion and Kindness the same thing?

One subject that we Mindfulness practitioners are often asked about is Compassion and Kindness. It is something that is often associated with spirituality and mindful living, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on the subject.

Compassion is best defined as having concern and sympathy for the suffering of others. It is very different from being kind, it requires a level of self awareness that enables you to see beyond your own pain. Kindness on the other hand is the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate.

The challenge for those of us who are in a “caring” role or that are practising Buddhists is that people expectation us to always be kind, caring and compassionate. Whilst that is our aspiration, it isn’t always possible to step out of the ordinary human habit to be kind and compassionate at all times, we are just ordinary beings after all.

Compassion requires Wisdom

“Idiot compassion” is a term that the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to describe the type of compassion that is absent of wisdom. Another great Tibetian Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron puts it this way:

Idiot compassion refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s what’s called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering.

Compassion is giving someone what they need not what they want.

I felt compelled to write this short post because after working in a school for a while, it suddenly hit me what we are doing wrong, it is idiot compassion. We are not preparing children for the real world, we are not giving them what they need, we are giving them what they want and this is harmful in the long term and certainly not preparing them for real life.

In today’s society we chase all the pleasures and luxuries, avoiding any discomfort and hardship, even though life is surely a mixture of good, bad and ugly. We spend much of our lives running away from the unavoidable, instead of preparing ourselves for real life, one that is constantly changing and full of the unexpected. Life is just moments of joy with a mix of disaster!

As parents and teachers, should we not be giving our children the tools to deal with all that life will throw at them? Doesn’t real compassion mean we have to sometimes let our children and loved ones experience pain? How else will they be able to live a healthy life if they are never given the space to fail, to pick themselves up and become resilient adults?

Pema Chodron goes on to say that often we use compassion in a way that is harmful to others.

“Instead of offering a friend medicine, bitter though it may be when ingested, you feed them more poison at the very least, you don’t take it away from them”

What Pema Chodron is illustrating here is when we don’t say the truth in case we hurt someone, we don’t offer them what they really need and so we are not helping, we are just making it worse. This she says is not compassion, it is selfishness as we are more concerned about our own feelings than our friends. Real compassion requires courage, it is not about being a doormat, sometimes compassion requires you to stand for what is right. Look at people such as Gandhi, Martin Luther Kind and Nelson Mandela, they are examples of compassion in action.

Compassion and Mindfulness - The Stable Mind

Buddhism is often called the middle way, we learn to live with what is at any given time as best we can because it is the only moment that truly exists. As Mindfulness has it’s roots in Buddhism, we could say that it is also the practice of living “the middle way”. In other words, we live moment to moment, we don’t chase distractions such as short term pleasures and we seek happiness through a stable mind.

A stable mind is one that is not easily stirred by external events, it is a mind that even if thrown out of balance for a while, it comes back to a peaceful state relatively quickly. A stable mind doesn’t get lost in stories, it let’s them go without a struggle.

Someone with a stable mind knows when to say no, when to walk away and when a hard truth needs to be said. A really compassionate person doesn’t mind losing a friend in order to help them because real compassion isn’t about how we feel, it’s about what the other person needs.

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A Day in the Life of a Secondary School Teacher

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This week I had the opportunity to spend a day in a local secondary school. It felt a little strange returning to the classroom after four years and to be honest I was dreading it!

My mind was buzzing over the weekend, worried that I’d lose control of the class and there would be mayhem. However, I guess teaching is like riding a bike, once you’re in that classroom, you just know what you have to do. So it went relatively well, the mind stories were wrong again.

The first two lessons were year 9 Maths, not my specialist subject or my strongest but you just have to get on with it. When I first saw my timetable for the day I was a little worried, I mean year 9’s? I’ve often said they are the most challenging year group, a kind of limbo year, not quite keystage 3 or 4, just there preparing for when things get really serious!

It’s interesting to watch young people as they walk into a class, notice their normal teacher isn’t there and then start working out how they should behave with this random stranger. This is when it’s absolutely crucial to make sure you as the teacher gain control because if you don’t have them in the first few moments, it’s very difficult to bring it back. Lesson learned from working in a special measures school for many years, nip it in the bud before it gets too hard to control. Both classes went well considering my freshness in the classroom or maybe the students didn’t notice, I’m guessing they didn’t otherwise I’d have been slaughtered!

In lesson three I had a year 10 group (ages 14 to 15 year olds). Now I felt there was a little heightened energy with this group. They just returned from their first break of the day, probably starting to tire after a couple of lessons and all the other dynamics that are in play for a teenager at school.

What’s Mindfulness Got to Do with It?

Here I was in a classroom full of hyped up teenagers, feeling slightly vulnerable when one of the young ladies asked me what I do when I’m not teaching. I explained that I teach Mindfulness and she asked if I would show them how to meditate. And that’s exactly what I did. I guided them through the posture process and asked them to close their eyes. Some were very up for it, others were a little self conscious. We only spent a couple of minutes doing a short breathing practice. I certainly needed it and from the comments, the students said it helped. Well the lesson was much calmer after, so it was worth doing.

I continued the day with year 7’s (11 to 12 year olds) who were a little lively but by that time I’d pretty much settled back into the familiar role.

By the end of the day I was absolutely exhausted, as I was driving home I wondered how I had managed to do that for almost a decade, along with having three children of my own to look after. And I renewed my respect to all those adults who work day in and day out with our amazing but often challenging young people.

Whats more, I confirmed my belief in our young people who are mostly kind, thoughtful and well behaved. However I was also reminded just how easy it is for young people to be influenced and led into behaving against their own better judgement so they can to fit in. It is precisely because of this that we need to support teachers to do their jobs as best as they can. We need to support our school leaders to lead without having to look over their shoulders constantly. And we must ensure our young people can learn and flourish in a safe environment.

The Life of a Teacher

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Sometimes I wonder if there are many jobs more stressful than teaching? A teacher isn’t just someone who turns up for an hour to teach in a class, in reality a teacher has many roles. They must be master planners, each lesson must be appropriate for each group at the same time as being personalised for the varying abilities, special needs and progress capabilities. Then throw in behaviour management, I’m going to say this is probably one of the most challenging roles because children are children, each with their own personalities, emotions and family life. Oh and these young people know how to play the rules, so a teacher has to be on guard to stick to the rules or be ready to be challenged!

Teachers are held to account by their line manager, senior leadership, Ofsted inspectors and parents. I can think of a few professions that could do with such scrutiny but don’t have anything close to it.

Then teachers have to be kind and understanding, even if they are being challenged or just plain tired. And for the most part, teachers are good at what they do.

Mindfulness made all the Difference

What I noticed was how different I was on the day. My attitude made all the difference, my constant awareness of how I was speaking, moving and projecting, mindful self awareness. This is where Mindfulness comes in, the ability to self regulate throughout the day so your own stress levels do not increase and are kept in balance. If teachers can help themselves to stay still inside, then the outer environment is easier to handle and that’s got to be a better way to be throughout the day.

Do you want to bring Mindfulness into your school? Find out more on our Mindfulness in Schools page or get in touch to discuss how we can help.