As we support our participants during the COVID-19 pandemic, our key guiding principle as teachers is empowerment. Our role is to help participants restore a kind of “inner authority.” We figuratively stand beside them and accompany them on this rich journey of self-discovery and resource-building, but it is they who are doing the work as we send the message that “You’ve got this!”
The ubiquity of human suffering, especially in the current circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, is almost overwhelming at times. Particularly for those of us drawn to share self-compassion through this marvelous mechanism of MSC, we can be acutely aware of the pain in our course participants and others we encounter in our work. As an MSC teacher, and even just as a human being, this can be a troublesome burden to carry.
As the tide of fear began to rise in the U.S. over the virus, it was inspiring to see MSC teachers around the globe responding to that fear with ingenuity, dedication to their participants and sheer certainty that this practice of self-compassion was a crucial survival skill to cope with the what we face. Teachers shifted their courses to online platforms, offered free online drop-in meditation or support sessions, and generally made themselves available to course graduates, current participants and even prospective future students in a spontaneous outpouring of compassion for our fellow humans.
The bond between we teachers and our participants is really quite sacred and precious, and we are finely attuned to the “quivering of the heart” that they experience, inside of class, outside, online, and via email or text message. Our mirror neurons are firing away, and we are feeling the pain and responding with kindness, patience, strength, and compassion. In a way, we are in our element when we are in contact with people who are suffering, but we are in potentially overpowering times with this pandemic because the suffering is truly all around and palpable to everyone. For those of us who are tuned a bit more finely to this distress, it is crucial that we find the right balance of self- and other-care that helps us sustain and continue to be of support to others.
But this is not about self-care, although that is important too, it is about not losing our feet as teachers as we respond to the suffering of the people around us. It is absolutely crucial that we remember the fundamental assumption that we make about our participants and hold that fiercely in all the choices we make as MSC teachers.
What is that assumption, you ask? It is that we firmly believe, with every fiber of our beings as teachers and practitioners (from our own experience), that each person we encounter possesses within them the fundamental capacity to respond to what they need in a moment of suffering.
They may have forgotten that capacity, believed it to be lost or destroyed by trauma, they may doubt their own resiliency and believe that they need others to lead them, but we know better. We know that deep within each human being is great strength and the seed of self-compassion, however un-watered or neglected. This practices of MSC are the means by which people learn to tend and water that seed and to bring it forth into their lives in a form that is meaningful and valuable to them. This isn’t to say that some people might need a bit more support and encouragement to find this inner strength and kindness, but in the end, it is in them and our role is to help them find and foster it. We are their supports but not their strength.
The key guiding principle here is empowerment. Our role as teachers is to help them restore a kind of “inner authority” that they may have lost along the way, through the way we meet them.
Whether we are asking for their input when presenting a topic, urging them to ask themselves what they need in a particular moment of suffering, or gently inquiring about their experience and letting the spotlight rest gently on them and not us, we are always sending the message that “You’ve got this!” We figuratively stand beside them and accompany them on this rich journey of self-discovery and resource-building, but it is they who are doing the work and we are simply creating the safe space, lighting the way and providing gentle compassionate encouragement when needed.
This profound respect for the deep inner wisdom and resources of every person is the healing ingredient of MSC, and it must extend to how we respond to our participants (or anyone) when they are suffering. When our heart is touched and we feel compelled to take some action to help relieve someone’s pain, we need to be aware of our mission as teachers and ask ourselves: “What will best serve this person?”
Perhaps a bit deeper question we might ponder in these moments of inspiration to action, is “When I pause long enough to see below the action, who is it for? Who is it TRULY for?” Can we look ourselves in the eye and say that this offering we are considering is truly aligned with our core intention as MSC teachers for our participants? Or is there some hint of needing to comfort or soothe ourselves in the face of their struggles? Is there a familiar pattern from our past that is unfolding in this moment that is better dealt with in other ways? What will empower this person to weather not just this particular storm, but many storms ahead?
This is not to suggest that we act selfishly when we seek to serve and support the people we teach. To the contrary, if we can meet our own needs in these charged moments (which is, after all, our responsibility), then we raise the level of the encounter to something truly inspiring and timeless for them AND us. This calls to minds the phrases of the Compassion with Equanimity practice of MSC: Everyone is on their own life journey. I am not the cause of this person’s suffering, nor is it entirely within my power to make it go away, even though I wish I could. Moments like this are difficult to bear, yet I may still try to help if I can.
Moments like this are indeed difficult to bear, but it is in bearing them with self-compassion for ourselves in the presence of our participants that they truly learn to bear their own difficult moments. We have served both our own important needs AND theirs, together, but separately.
At certain moments, when people are feeling completely lost and unable to access their own inner resources, the wisest response is to step in and support them, but as our MSC colleague, and widely respected psychotherapist, Susan Pollak recently told me, “I’m actually finding that people are more resourced than I assumed.” Susan went on to advise that we all err on the side of adopting what Zen masters call “don’t know mind” when it comes to rushing in to support people who are struggling. In other words, could we let our basic assumption about people be one of wholeness and resilience? In the end, this is not an easy assumption to make when people come to us not believing in it for themselves, but it is exactly our embrace of this assumption that can help them heal!
And even if we choose to act and offer something extra, above and beyond the call of MSC duty, so to speak, because we feel it is important, we have the constant opportunity to check in and guide our actions. While you are making the offering of time, energy or expense, check in with yourself to see if it nourishes or depletes you to do so, especially over time. This can be tricky because if this offering is made out of love but it fosters a kind of dependence on you as the “expert” or contributes to the person feeling like their resources are outside of themselves, then you may want to adjust and rethink how you manage your offering for the greater good.
The fact that we are moved deeply by the experiences of our participants goes to the very heart of our teaching and is a kind of badge of honor of our profession. But whether we are able to meet those feelings with compassion for ourselves is what makes this work truly heroic. From an embodied stance of self-compassion, we have the strength and warmth to support and empower the people we teach to do the same. This is teaching MSC at its very highest and best purpose: a humble “don’t know mind” stance of openness, encouragement and conviction in the power of self-compassion.