Lesson 1: We Are Not Alone
For the first lesson in our new class we want to give you an overview of how we view compassion, what it means to us when we say “compassion” and how our framework for compassion relates to us as parents and educators. Mostly when we think of compassion we think of a feeling state - something that comes and goes - maybe even something we feel for someone else. As parents and educators, we often feel compassion for our children, a sense of being with them in their happiness, pain and suffering. At Courage we use an even wider definition of compassion and see it as not only encompassing a passing state but more as a motivational stance. It is a way we organize ourselves, our thoughts, emotions, intentions and behaviors. Contrast this for example with a competitive motivational stance - when our motivation is to compete - that is how we view the world, and our thoughts and feelings follow that motivation - how can I be better than so and so. I feel bad because in comparison to so and so, I am not as good, etc.
So if compassion is a motivational stance - a way of being in the world and something that organizes our thoughts and feelings - the natural question is how do we strengthen this capacity? And even more importantly as caregivers of children, parents and people who have put ourselves aside often in the name of compassion, how do we build this capacity without burning ourselves out?
To answer the first question - we see that strengthening compassion requires the cultivation of two related psychologies: the first is ENGAGEMENT. Engagement involves the ability, willingness and capacity to turn towards experience. This not only includes other’s experience but also includes our own.
The second psychology is one of ACTION. Action involves cultivating mindfulness, insight, wisdom, courage and skill to effectively respond to others and ourselves.
We start this training with building our capacity for compassion and care for ourselves - taking a deep look at the care that exists in our lives and opening to it in a way that feels nourishing and sustaining. To do this we have to have some sense of grounding, safety or a feeling at home with ourselves.
We use the term “care” in a broad way, sometimes interchangeably, to refer to Courage’s model of cultivating a more caring, courageous and creative way of being in, responding to, and transforming ourselves and our world.
No matter how we use these terms, we have a natural capacity for care and compassion. We are deeply social beings. We nurture our natural capacity for care in the context of caring relationships -- in other words, we learn to care for others as we have been cared for. We love as we have been loved.
At the same time, we can also train our capacity for care and compassion, and our ability to embody care and compassion in more stable ways. These skills include grounding, attention, mindfulness, distress tolerance, empathy, affection, insight, wisdom and courage. In this way, our development of care and compassion is both a personal and interpersonal enterprise.
At the same time, developing a more courageous, compassionate and caring stance requires that we attend to the causes and conditions -- personal, interpersonal, social, cultural -- that either facilitate or inhibit our capacity for care and compassion, and our capacity to realize more courageous, caring communities. That means that our full training involves not only the development of our own personal capacity for care and compassion -- which is the focus of this course -- but also an investigation into the social and structural inhibitors of care and compassion, coupled with training in how we can respond and either uproot obstacles to care and compassion, or design and implement new principles and practices that enhance care, creativity and compassion in our families, communities, schools, organizations, communities, countries and so on.
Establishing Safety and Balance
We also need to feel safe enough to do this work!
We mentioned that compassion and care are motivational systems -- our motivational systems are guided by underlying emotional systems. We find a heuristic developed by our mentor and collaborator, Paul Gilbert, very helpful in clarifying the relationship between three main emotional systems: our threat system, our drive system and our soothing system.
Our threat system detects and responds to threats in our environment. It is the source of emotions life fear, anger, anxiety, jealousy and disgust. Often being motivated by the threat system is a move away from something, it can be a move away from fear, insecurity, shame, blame, etc.
Our drive system helps us detect, be interested in and take pleasure in securing important resources that help us survive and prosper. It is the source of emotions like excitement and pleasure. You can imagine our ancestors needed this system to go after things like food and shelter.
Our soothing system is linked to feelings of contentment in situations where we are not threatened or driven. It is the source of emotions related to feeling safe, content and connected.
We all spend time in each of these systems - they were a good design and one that has helped us survive. What is tricky for us is when we cannot easily move between systems when they are no longer needed. For example, when a dog is in their threat system, they get riled up, bark and as soon as the threat is over, they shake it off and go back to sleep. Unfortunately for us, we get more “stuck” in the threat system, which colors the whole way we view the world. Think of a time when you were taking care of one of your children or teaching in a classroom and you were feeling anxious, worried or upset by something. I find in those moments, I have less ability to be responsive and caring, which then leads to judgement (since afterall, I’m a caregiver) which then triggers the threat system all over again. Imagine if we had at our disposal some ways to more easily access the soothing system and if we spent more time there on a daily basis.
We’ll return to these systems and the tricky brain we all have that keeps us from accessing the motivational system that is responsive to the situation at hand more in this course, but for now, it is important to spend some time focusing on the soothing system for that is where compassion, care and connection lives.
So the first step in growing our compassionate stance is to begin to access our soothing system so we can feel safe and grounded. As mentioned in the introductory video, each lesson has some basic teaching along with a practice so for this week, we’d like you to practice the safe space and grounding practice we offer below.