Monday, July 11, 2016

Contemplative Education: Modeling Compassion in the Classroom

Tarot card image for "The Hermit"
Overcome the "Cultural Shadow"
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen defines compassion while explaining the difficulty of teaching students to have compassion: "Compassion is not a behavior," she says, nor an "action," nor an "act of obedience" nor "even because we want to be good people" (1999, p. 34).  

So what is compassion? How do we do compassion?  How can faculty model compassion?

Defining Compassion

"Compassion" Remen continues, "emerges from a sense of belonging: the experience that all suffering is like our suffering and all joy is like our joy" (p. 34).  She goes on to argue that American individualism isolates individuals and often prevents the feeling of connectivity necessary for the discovery or remembrance of compassion.  She refers to this damaging effect as "the cultural shadow," (p. 35) and in it echo the narcissistic traits of our society as written by TwengeCampbell: vanity, antisocial behavior, and an overwhelming desire for uniqueness.  However, "Education," Remen wisely argues, "holds the greatest promise for healing the wounds of the cultural shadow" (p. 35).  

Modeling Compassion in the Classroom

There are ways faculty can model compassionate behaviors and help students discover compassion through a sense of connectivity to others, a sense of community. Modeling compassion in the classroom opens up the potential for us to help students become happier people by being more compassionate people.

Self Compassion and The Sharing of Joy and Accomplishment

Kathryn Byrnes offers an extended example of how faculty can model compassion in the classroom.  She profiles "Gil," of The Academy, a school with a contemplative orientation that defined compassion as "the ability to maintain one's own sense of self along with a sense of belonging to a larger group" (2012, p. 2).  In a section of the article called "Serving Others (Teaching with Compassion)," she explains his methodology.  
  • One aspect he modeled was self-compassion, his "attempt to be more accepting of his own personal anxiety and self-criticism" (p. 4).  His self compassion allowed him to have more compassion for his students.  
  • Yet another aspect was his willingness to create a relaxed environment for learning by being present with his students.  For Gil, being present included playing soccer with them and allowing the students to see his love for it (p. 4-5).  His love and joy became their love and joy, and vice-versa.  
  • Most importantly was his willingness to listen to students without interruption and to mirror students' accomplishments (p. 5).  In this way their accomplishments were his accomplishments, and Gil created a sense of connectivity with and among his students.  

In other words, Gil modeled compassionate behaviors.

Practicing "The Clean Slate" through "Loving Friendliness"

Gunaratana teaches that "Compassion is a manifestation of loving friendliness in action, for one who does not have loving friendliness cannot help others" (2002, p. 93-94).  The pain of "resentment" and "indignation," he says "can cause uneasiness, tension, agitation, and worry" (p. 93).  In order to overcome those negative feelings and have a greater ability to help others, faculty must practice what many of us have come to learn as "the clean slate" principle, where we offer students with whom there has been a confrontation, a "clean slate" when he or she returns to class.  The mental process necessary to enact a "clean slate" or practice compassion through "loving friendliness" can be transformative, both for faculty and for the students for whom they model the behavior.  "You can balance a negative emotion by instilling a positive one," says Gunaratana (p. 90).  

Gunaratana continues:
You start out by banishing thoughts of self-hatred and self-condemnation.  You allow good feelings and good wishes first to flow to yourself, which is relatively easy.  Then you do the same for those people closest to you.  Gradually, you work outward from your own circle of intimates until you can direct a flow of those same emotions to your enemies and to all living beings everywhere (p. 90-91).

This process of enacting "loving friendliness" is the antithesis of the narcissistic tendency to live in the isolation of "the cultural shadow," as Remen calls it. Just as the profile of Gil demonstrates how the students' joys and accomplishments were shared by Gil, the "clean slate" principle demonstrates how faculty can model for their students how compassionate behaviors can help ease a shared suffering. Not only are there implications for retention, but these practices reiterate the very pragmatic advice of Barkley: "Humans have a basic need to be part of a social community.  Students will engage more in classroom-based learning if they feel they are welcomed, valuable, contributing members of a learning community" (2010, p. 110).


  • Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint.
  • Gunaratana, Bhante H. (2002). Mindfulness in plain English. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
  • Remen, R. N. (1999). Educating for mission, meaning, and compassion. In S. Glazer (ed.), The heart of learning. (33-50). NY, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
  • Twenge, J. M. & Campbell, W. K. (2010). The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. NY, NY: Free Press.

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Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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