Archives for June 2019

Facilitating our Flourishing Circles of Practice

By Cecilia Fernandez-Hall

CMSC Circles of Practice Coordinator

At its deepest level, I think teaching is about bringing people into communion with each other, with yourself as the teacher, and with the subject you are teaching.

– Parker J. Palmer


As MSC teachers, I imagine you are familiar with the questions from class participants, “What’s next?” “How do I keep my practice going?” as you are coming close to the end of the MSC course. You may even ask yourselves these questions about managing your own practice. Thankfully, CMSC has the Circles of Practice, an online meditation community that supports the practice of MSC graduates and teachers. 

A little history: Back in 2015, the Circles of Practice began as an inspiration for connection by Bal de Buitlear and became a labor of love for her and Carolin Grampp, who developed this supportive resource for MSC graduates to continue to practice in community. By 2017, the Circles of Practice had grown and was in need of a community of teachers to help keep this important resource available. Steve Hickman sent out the call for experienced MSC teachers to join a team of MSC community builders. We started with 3 separate weekly sessions lead by a team of MSC teachers.

Where we are now: The Circles of Practice now offers 6 separate weekly sessions! Our most recent offering was added in May 2019 to reach our MSC friends in the Southern Hemisphere.

I am amazed at how this seed of an idea about practicing in community, planted years ago, has grown and flourished within the MSC community! Our team of facilitators is creating a worldwide community of people who are actively growing their ability to be compassionate with themselves and, by extension, others. The world needs this!!!!

The Circles of Practice also needs you! We have an incredibly dedicated team of experienced teachers who give generously of their time and talent. We also continue to grow. As the word is getting out more and more about the Circles of Practice, we get more applications from MSC graduates looking for community and support. We want to share the enriching experience of facilitating with other experienced MSC teachers. The Circles of Practice, for the facilitators, is a valuable way to increase their skills in teaching meditation and to contribute to the effort in building a global community of MSC practitioners who come together to grow in compassion.

If you have not joined a Circle before, please join us by first completing an application here. This will enable you to become familiar with the process and experience this wonderful resource for yourself! If you are interested in learning more about becoming a facilitator for the Circles of Practice, please reach out to me at [email protected]. We are looking for teachers with experience, having taught 4-5 full MSC courses (8-week or intensives).

Below is the current schedule, whether you’d like to join as a participant or as a facilitator:


1500 UTC/GMT • 8 am Pacific • 11 am Eastern

Tuesdays (2 options)

1400 UTC/GMT • 7 am Pacific • 10 am Eastern
1500 UTC/GMT • 8 am Pacific • 11 am Eastern


7:30am UTC / 12:30am PST / 7:30am GMT

Fridays (2 options)

1000 UTC/GMT • 3 am Pacific • 6 am Eastern
1500 UTC/GMT • 8 am Pacific • 11 am Eastern


Deep gratitude, hands on heart.


MSC and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Over the past year, I have had the privilege of conversing with MSC teachers who are deeply committed to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). I have also had a series of painful experiences teaching MSC in large groups where a few courageous participants of color and other minority identities have spoken up, publicly and privately, about how uncomfortable they feel coming into a roomful of people who look different than they do. Similar experiences have led me and others at the Center for MSC to expand our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in every aspect of the organization. Kristin and I have also made efforts to weave cultural sensitivity and humility into the fabric of the MSC curriculum. This is an ongoing effort, personally and professionally, about which I would like to share some more here.

Whenever I have spoken with experts in the field of diversity, they have directed me again and again to an examination of my own whiteness and privilege as a prelude to understanding the experience of others. I thought this was rather annoying at first, as my mind was focused on organizational change rather than personal introspection, but when I decided to focus on my own experience as a white, educated, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class, older guy, I began to see the wisdom of that approach. It became clear to me how each of my identities has made my life easier, relatively speaking, within the dominant culture of the United States. For example, as a white man, I am rarely pulled over by traffic cops, with an education I don’t worry so much about money, being straight and married means I can talk about my personal life without carefully assessing the prejudices of the listener, and being older, which does have its disadvantages, is empowering in my professional life as a therapist.

More to the point, when I can see my own identities in the context of the dominant culture, without apology or shame, it evokes a space of inner humility and openness to the experience of others.

Furthermore, being aware of my old cultural experience, especially as it unfolds during the day, often feels as connected and grounding as anchoring attention in the body.

I think exploring diversity, equity, and inclusion is the most important thing I have done in the past year, besides self-compassion practice itself, to enhance my ability to feel compassion for others. Compassion is intensely personal. It includes recognizing and feeling the immediate experience of another person. Since so much of our self-worth is determined by cultural forces, being oblivious to this aspect of a person’s life (which is easy to do when we belong to the dominant culture) significantly narrows our ability to connect with those who have a different experience. Hence, I think that diversity, equity and inclusion work is an integral part of compassion work.

Exploring my own privilege has not been easy. At first, I felt responsible for the oppression of others because of my white identity. When I began to see it as the system in which we are all embedded, my guilt and shame subsided, but that opened the floodgates to immense grief about how large numbers of people with whom I interact on a daily basis are subject to slights and injury, if not outright hatred and physical danger. This pain is hard to bear and I have shed many tears over it. I now see in a personal, visceral way how much the oppression of others causes pain even to those identify with the dominant majority.

The heart can take only so much pain, and the pain that we cannot see is easier to block out as we go about our busy lives. But the pain of oppression is still absorbed in our bodies and if we don’t open to it, it comes with a cost, which is our capacity for compassion. Our humanity is subtly wounded without even knowing it.

As our world becomes increasingly globalized and we live cheek to jowl with people quite different from ourselves, especially people with different views and values, our need for compassion will only increase if our planet is to survive.

DEI training may appear to be simply the latest American obsession, but, in my view, it will soon become a global imperative. Regardless of the culture, there are always vast numbers of people who are suffering due to systemic oppression (unconscious bias, marginalization, or discrimination) of individual and collective differences. For example, in just about every culture, this is currently the case for most girls and women.

When there is one person in the MSC classroom who feels they do not fit in because of their identity or identities, even if teachers cannot understand the person’s experience, they can still make a meaningful connection by honoring that their experience is different, by expressing genuine willingness to learn, and by appreciation of the person’s strengths and resilience. Toward that end, MSC teachers Sydney Spears and Catherine Crisp, both of whom are also social work professors who have spent many years teaching about DEI issues, are putting together an online DEI training for MSC teachers which starts by situating our own identities in our cultural context.

Honoring diversity is also included in the ethical guidelines for MSC teachers and is integrated throughout the latest MSC curriculum (found in the forthcoming MSC professional textbook). The impact of cultural bias or discrimination is also part of the updated MSC curriculum in the form of yang, or fierce compassion, when the most compassionate thing we can do for ourselves and others is to speak out against social injustice. Through these efforts, we want to create a “brave space” (Arao & Clemens, 2013) in the MSC course where everyone can feel safe and welcome just as we are.


Arao, B, & Clemens, K. (2013). “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces. A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice.” Lisa M. Landreman (Ed.), The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections From Social Justice Educators. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Germer, C. & Neff, K. (2019) Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals. New York, NY: The Guilford Press

Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring for Yourself

On a tough day, raising children can feel like one of the most difficult, seemingly thankless roles a person can have. The stakes are high, and the hours are rough. There is no formal training, and it isn’t easy learning on the job — not to mention the fact that everyone else seems to be better at it than we are!

I remember leaving the hospital with my first son, and as the car pulled into traffic and sunlight streamed into the window, I was hit with the thought that “Everything has changed. Everything is much more full-on now. Even the sun feels different.” There was a sense of fear and wonder at what the world held for me now that I had this little being dependent on me.

I recently had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Susan Pollak’s forthcoming book, Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring for Yourself; and in hindsight, would have been just the thing to support and guide me through those daunting days. This wonderful book offers practical strategies and practices for the parenting journey, all based on a foundation of self-compassion and acceptance that we are enough, just as we are. Whether we’re new to parenting or seasoned veterans, Pollak’s guidance is a welcome relief.

Please enjoy this interview with Susan!

Mara: Most parents all over the world will agree that being a parent is not an easy task, but I wanted to ask you what brought you to writing this much needed book? Was there a specific event, or inspiration?

Susan: A client asked me to write about parenting. She was a single mom trying to manage two challenging teens who were fighting constantly, and feeling like a terrible, incompetent parent. Her focus was on trying to fix and control them and it wasn’t working. Nearly every interaction became a battle. We did some work on her own adolescence, tried a number of the self-compassion exercises, and the dynamic began to shift. Compassion was totally new for her and it changed her way of parenting. “None of the parenting books talk about this, Susan. Please write a book.”

The timing was also right for me. After over 30 years of parenting, mindfulness practice, clinical work, and the recent engagement and then marriage of my son, I had an appreciation of the arc of parenting and its developmental tasks. With this accumulated lived experience, I felt that I could understand things both as a parent and as a child.

Mara: How was being a parent yourself? Is there anything you wish you had known then that you have since discovered?

Susan: It was difficult. This book comes from my experience and struggles. I had a mindfulness practice, but mindfulness teachers generally don’t address parenting. Many of my meditation teachers didn’t have children and trained in a monastic tradition. I felt torn as I no longer had time for long, silent meditation, let alone retreats. I wish I’d known how to be kind to myself when I made mistakes, which I did constantly. I feared I was the only one who was doing it wrong.

The Zen masters joke that life is just one mistake after another. I now feel that parenting is one mistake after another. I didn’t realize that my kids were resilient and that we could repair the many lapses we all made. I took it all so seriously. I didn’t realize I could relax, enjoy them and have fun. Life seemed so stressful and competitive. It felt like we were all running an extreme marathon, with no time to stop and take a few breaths and just BE.

Mara: Would you mind sharing a couple of memories from your own parenting? What would be your most favourite memory from parenting? What about the worst?

Susan: My first thought was to share memories of when they were adorable babies on vacation, or the times when they were very ill in the emergency room, but then I remembered a meditation question that I have been working with—Can another moment be better than the moment I am in now? And I thought about the Dalai Lama’s response to the question, “What was your favorite moment in life?” He thought and then responded, “This moment.” So while I could go into a long dramatic story, I try to challenge myself to be in the moment that I’m in, because this is the only moment there is, and to appreciate where I am now as a parent, and where my kids are in their lives. For me, as for so many others, it is so easy to dwell in the past, or get caught up in worries about the future.

Mara: One of the main obstacles that parents face for self-care is time. What would you say to a parent that feels they don’t have time to learn self-compassion?

Susan: Yes, I understand that we are all so pressed for time. Most of the practices in the book are short, three to five minutes, and many can be done washing the wishes, changing diapers, even driving. There is also new research that informal practices, rather than formal sitting, is more effective than we originally thought. So it doesn’t need to be an obstacle—we don’t need to sit in silence for 45 minutes, and we don’t need to feel guilt about not practicing “properly.”

Mara: Parenting is a lot of learning on the job, especially if we are trying to be “better” parents than perhaps our own parents were. Sometimes we can feel like we just suck at what we do. We are not cut out for parenting overall. I know that is quite the loaded statement, but do you have a word of advice for parents that feel like they should just claim failure as the norm because of their own inadequacies?

Susan: I love this question. Rarely do we ever feel that we are good enough parents. I think most of us feel that we suck at times, especially if we had challenging parents who weren’t good models. There is a saying that I like which is, “I’m not perfect, but parts of me are excellent.”

I encourage parents to look at what they are doing that is effective, or loving, or kind. Just as parents are told to look at what their children are doing “right,” rather than always finding fault or criticizing, it helps to begin to appreciate ourselves.

So no, I don’t think we need to claim failure as the norm. We need to have compassion for the mistakes we all make, and to understand that we are all human and imperfect, and to try to learn from our mistakes. One of the great teachings of mindfulness is that we can always start again, no matter what we have said or done. I think the same is true for parenting. We can always begin again. The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron puts it well, “Fail, fail again, fail better.”

Mara: On the other hand, sometimes, when I tell people about my MSC courses and how MSC can help us be with the inevitable suffering and struggle we encounter as human beings, they say, “I don’t suffer or struggle that much. I doubt this would make any difference to me.” What would you say to a parent that believes their “small struggles” are not worth thinking about?

Susan: I think the use of language is so important. Some people find that the word “suffering” is too dramatic. You might inquire about moments of frustration or irritation. Try dialing it down a little. Sometimes you speak to folks who claim that parenting has been easy and they haven’t experienced difficulties. The interviewer in me always wants to talk to their kids and get their perspective! Also, some people feel that it is indulgent or weak or soft to talk about “small struggles.” I often switch direction here and talk about the research, about the importance of resilience, and how important it is to be kind to yourself.

Everybody struggles. Often folks wrestle with self-criticism, performance anxiety, stress, etc. but find it difficult to talk about. However, once trust is established and they feel they can be open about their challenges, the story often changes. We are told not to complain, or not to whine about our struggles. For some of the people I’ve worked with, it is taboo to talk about these things. It is often a process to begin to feel that our “small struggles” are worth thinking about.

Mara: This book is a great collection of examples of the difficulties that can be faced when parenting, and there are so many wonderful practices on offer. I love how you pull everything together in the “Toolbox for parents” at the end of the book. I could go in and find the topic I am struggling with and see what parts of the book and practices are most relevant. In all of them do you have an overall favourite practice?

Susan: I’m very practical, so I tend to like the practices that work for people when they are suffering. On a personal level, I like to practice with the metta/lovingkindness phrases. The Tree of Compassionate Beings, taught to me by Lama Willa Miller, is a go-to practice when life gets challenging. It helps me tap into the sense of not feeling alone, and feeling an abundance of loving, connected presence.

Susan M. Pollak, MTS, EdD, is cofounder and senior teacher at the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance, where she has supervised and taught since the mid-1990s. She is the president of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy and a psychologist in private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A longtime student of meditation and yoga, Dr. Pollak teaches about mindfulness, compassion, and self-compassion in psychotherapy and has been integrating the practices of meditation into psychotherapy since the 1980s. She is author of Self-Compassion for Parents (for general readers) and coauthor of Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy (for mental health professionals).