One of the best and worst things I heard on this second and last day of the conference was also one of the last things anyone said. Lee Schulman, commenting on recent research on teacher education, said “No one understands adequately that of all the forms of professional work, teaching is the most difficult.”
Can I get a hallelujah?
I needed someone outside of myself who neither works nor lives with me to say that. An objective researcher helps to confirm the feelings of exhaustion and frustration I often feel at the end of the day. So, it’s not just me. This is good news and probably the best news I heard at the conference. It is easy to think at the end of the day that my failures in teaching are my fault. Or, alternatively — and this is not helpful either — it’s easy to think it is the students’ fault. In the end, it is neither. Building a collaborative approach to teaching with the students is one way I hope to overcome what could be the inevitable burn-out that teachers experience.
The sessions continued the themes of the first day, but now the ideas seem to hold together more if only because we are hearing certain words repeated over and over again in tandem: compassion, social and emotional learning, neuroplasticity. It is various forms and combinations of those three words which, for me, hold the essence of this conference. The question became for me how do I cultivate feelings of compassion in my students so that they can use this skill — which it is, a skill rather than merely an inherent personality trait — to help themselves and others. The scientists and educators worked together to create a dialogue in which they can communicate about the same ideas with different languages and still comprehend each other. So, from the researchers we learn that students who can hold constant attention will learn more. That was obvious, but a student who can also regulate his or her emotions will also learn better. That was not so obvious. Emotional regulation was one of the more useful concepts offered by the panelists. If a person can regulate their emotions — regulate, not repress — it means he or she can deal skillfully with negative emotions and thereby create space for learning.
Dr. Nancy Eisenberg gave one of the best overviews of this emotional self-regulation in regards to sympathy and empathy. In her example, she described a girl named Isabella who watches a boy be rejected by other boys. In watching this situation, she feels the same emotion as the rejected boy. This empathy may lead her to feel concern: sympathy. Sympathy overlaps compassion because it includes motivation to make the boy feel better. Empathy, however, does not always lead to concern. (This is when I felt myself strain forward in my seat.) If Isabella has been rejected once herself, Dr. Einsenberg continued, then when she feels the boy’s rejection she begins to remember her own experiences of rejection and becomes focused on her anxiety. This becomes personal distress. Thus, a person becomes more focused on making themselves feel better rather the other person. With sympathy, focus is on the other; with personal distress, focus is on one’s self and alleviating the uncomfortable feeling. Choygam Trungpa calls this idiot compassion, and The Ven. Samu Sunim calls it grandmother zen. And I do it all the time.
As she spoke these words, I recognized myself. I recognized that when I often want to “help”others it is because their discomfort makes me uncomfortable and I want to feel comfortable again. This also explains why could be so pushy with advice and angry when people don’t take it. I need people to improve their lives, because it makes life easier for me. This, I realize, is decidedly not compassionate.
And His Holiness elaborated upon the levels of compassion recognized from the “buddhist view.” There are two levels of compassion, he offered. The first is biological compassion — we feel compassion towards others, but if they reject it or are not “nice” to us, we cannot offer it. As an example, an audience member had asked in questions sent to the panelists in writing, “How do I show compassion to students who call me vicious names?” This kind of compassion which is influenced by the others’ behavior is an example biological compassion. In contrast, there is “trained compassion” which is cultivated and not contingent on others’ acts, and this is the one we want to strengthen. His Holiness also added that we need a more “solid compassion irrespective of others,” and we don’t need religion. “It can be done through secularism.” At this moment, he interceded to stress another point: the purpose of the conference is not to have science be influenced by buddhism. “This is wrong,” he said. “We’re not here to prove next life — it is buddhist business. We never try to prove there is a god or heavens. This is none of our business. These are not universals. That is religion. What we are discussing is the potential to develop inner peace. We must remain strictly in the demarcation of secularism.” This was followed by a round of applause. An important point given that the audience members were mostly educators, scientists, policy-makers, and foundation directors and donors. He’s a shrewd one that Dalai Lama.
And even as I write all this, I realize I am creating a false impression. That these ideas as I summarize them were readily accessible at the conference. I had to concentrate hard for two days, and I have compressed my notes into a picture of a narrative with unity and coherence that, had you been there, you might not have felt yourself. In the end, this writing is a brief summary of what I could take away from a conference that at times left me fatigued from the effort to concentrate. The terminology could overwhelm me and I worked at understanding the definitions and the implications. In the end, I am left with questions. What does this mean for me? What would change in my teaching or life? What is compassionate action in a college classroom?
But, despite the unanswered questions, I came away with one really great story/joke told by Dr. Takao Hensch, a biologist. “There is an organism,” he said, “called a sea-squirt.” It is a tube-like organism at the bottom of the ocean, and it goes through a larval stage when it explores its surroundings until it finds a rock on which it can settle and it sticks itself there. At which point, he said, it ingests its own brain. “Sometimes I worry this is what happens when we grant tenure at universities.”
Big laughs from the audience.
And finally, there was one other good story from educator Linda Lantieri who asked if His Holiness had remembered a story from Gandhi’s Autobiography. In this story, she said, a mother comes to Gandhi to ask him if he can tell her son to stop eating sugar. Gandhi told the mother to bring the child back in two weeks. The mother returns in two weeks and Gandhi just gives him a lecture about eating sugar. The mother then asks, “Why did you want me to wait two weeks?” And Ghandi replied, “Because two weeks ago when you asked I was still eating sugar.” Thus, we learned that the only real way to teach compassion is to embody it ourselves.