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Cultivating Three Spaces of Compassion

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Cultivating Three Spaces of Compassion

            Throughout this Empowering Learners’ course, we have incessantly used the term “compassion” without accurately defining it and exploring its uses in different contexts; a lot of this stems from the fact that it is such a versatile word, and has applied to so many spaces. This paper will be a a personal and interpersonal exploration and analysis of the idea of “compassion work” and the way that particular phrase has slowly, and especially since last semester, become inculcated into my lifestyle. I intend to use this paper as a reflective set of musings on whether compassion and emotionally involved work is something that I will continue to do for the rest of my career. I organize the methodology of compassion work by the way that it has been deployed in three different educational spaces that I have inhabited during my time at Bryn Mawr:  The Center for Creative Works, where I volunteer as part of my field component this semester; the space of academia, which I constantly inhabit through performativity even when I am not on Bryn Mawr’s campus but one I intend to deconstruct through the lens of BMC; and finally, the women’s correctional facility where I did my field placement last semester, teaching in the book club program.

            The definition of the phrase “compassion work” is a complex one. One could argue that once you take on the identity of being a compassionate person, you never escape from that line of work. Even if the career that you choose is not one of radical resistance or caregiving (which are interconnected to one another, not separate spheres) you can still practice compassion in whatever you do. But here, I want to speak specifically to the kind of work that directly involves emotional caregiving as part of the job description. Joan Halifax describes compassion work as “comprised of that capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering. It the ability to stand strong and to recognize that I also am not separate from the suffering…but compassion has another component, and that component is really essential: that component is that we cannot be attached to the outcome” (TedX Talk, Joan Halifax). This idea that Halifax explores is that compassion must be entirely developed by interactions with fellow being, regardless of where they stand in the hierarchy of power ascribed to humans by systems. You can develop and apply compassion, through work, to every facet of our interactions, even with peers, even with yourself.

            When I first told my parents that I wanted to participate in the Arts of Resistance 360, in Spring of 2015, they discouraged me immediately. My mother stated, “We know you well. You will become overly involved with these prisoners, overly emotional, and then that will bother you on a daily basis. You will not be able to function because you will be emotionally disturbed by their situation.” My parents believed that they were prioritizing my well-being by standing by that statement – and in one way, they were right. Compassion requires a suffering alongside the sufferer. But what they did not realize is what Halifax went on to assert as part of her argument for compassion as integrated into our daily lives:

            “Now we know from neuroscience that compassion has some extraordinary qualities. For example: A person who is cultivating compassion, when they are in the presence of suffering, will feel that’s suffering a lot more than other people do. However, they return to baseline a lot sooner. This is called resilience. Many of us think that compassion drains us, but I promise you is it something that truly enlivens” (TedX Talk, Joan Halifax)

            The fact is that by cultivating compassion into every aspect of our lives, we exist as more dynamic, more cognizant, even more mindful beings. This brings me to my field placement at the Studio, in which I have been inspired to act more compassionately. I begin with a section of my field notes:

            Working at CCW, I've noticed, has brought more compassion into my life. I feel it from people working there, from the artists, and from myself. I do not want to say that I have "benefited" from the experience because it is not all about me. I am there as a volunteer, working with the artists and for the center, not there to help myself, so I'm reluctant to say that. Still, I feel more than just compassionate for others [or what society deems as the “other”, supposedly lower in the power hierarchy than I am]- I feel a compassion for myself. I've been noticing how free the folks at CCW  are with their feelings, and I am striving toward some level of that. There are times when I want to scream in frustration too, want to laugh at myself - and society, ridiculously, doesn't really allow that. There are no barriers to emotion like that at CCW, no denial that the pain and anger and frustration exist. You deal with it, and then you move on - you look to the future.

            Systems of power directly affect the way that compassion work is deployed. CCW, arguably, because it applies the label of “disability” allows a level of separation from the power structure, momentarily, from the space. This is displayed through the way that no one at the center is assumed to have any specific power or skill, and so is able to develop their identities and skills freely in the space. This also allows for a sense of collaboration while maintaining individuality in attention. As I said in another set of field notes, “I [am] contributing a skill that I happened to have in order to aid [Ronnie*] in accessing her own skills” (Field Notes 1-CCW) This connects back to what Qui Alexander had to say about collaborative access, that he was trying to “lift people up so that they could speak to their own communities, so that people who do have that access could leverage it to marginalized communities”. While CCW is far from being that perfect space that is completely free from power dynamics, as others who have had their placement at the Center have asserted, it is a place where compassion is actively cultivated because it does not deny anyone their complex identities and histories. This is because those who work at CCW actively foster that kind of space, though again, there are exceptions.

            Compassion work manifests itself very differently in academic spaces. Here at Bryn Mawr, we are embedded within power structures, in contrast to at CCW, so this hierarchy places us on a higher intellectual plane of existence. This elitism is actually harmful, because it is unforgiving of differences. While at CCW, the entire process of education and artistic creation is based on the establishment of uniqueness and identity through skills that each individual brings to the table. Bryn Mawr and other elite academic spaces are based on the fantasy that we all come from the same (high-achieving, neurotypical) backgrounds. This assumption makes the cultivation of compassion a greater struggle, and demands consciousness-raising: the sharing of experiences to build trust and move forward. In bell hooks’ book All About Love, she discusses the importance of “honest communication between the individuals in [a community]” (132). When members of a community speak up about their differences and their struggles, it is an act of radical resistance against power structures. This is how compassion for one another is built: through seeking the complex experiences of others as part of acknowledging that you are all members of an institution which demands your neurotypicality, your intellectualism in every aspect of life.

            Our collective identity of being a part of a women’s college (or a college for gender minorities) plays into this concept. Compassion work itself is always gendered because we survive in a system where the expression of emotions is gendered. Joan Halifax states, “women have manifested for thousands of years the strength arising from compassion in an unfiltered, unmediated way of perceiving suffering as it is.” (TEDx Talk, Joan Halifax) Compassion demands emotions and women have a way of producing emotions to access their selfhood. Yet, women at Bryn Mawr have more of a tendency to devalue their emotions in the academic setting. Reluctant to play into the role of the hysterical woman, they compensate with stoicism and a lack of emotional attachment (Dalke). Compassion is inherently a collaborative act, demanding a community to work together towards understanding and feeling one another’s suffering. Understanding the different places, experiences, and identities that we all inhabit together in a space is imperative in order to further develop Bryn Mawr as a more compassionate space.

            The third and final arena of compassion work that I will focus on is the prison where I participated in and helped run a book club last semester. The prison classroom shows that classrooms can never exist in a vacuum; they magnify the differences in our identities and power. As we designed lesson plans, we often incorporated deeply emotional texts that could be triggering, texts that brought to the surface the roll that systems can have on us. As educators, we often questioned the morality of this. We occupied that space not as therapists or social workers but as educators, which meant that we could not always effectively hold the emotions in that space. In many ways, true empathy was to create a space for the incarcerated women to access their sense of self through the autonomy gained by holding back and keeping secrets. In Tuck and Rhee’s “Glossary of Haunting” they describe this fetishization of damage-based narratives which, as a class, we were desperately trying to avoid: “Damage narratives are the only stories that get told about me…people have made their careers on telling stories of damage about me, about communities like mine…I am invited to speak, but only when I speak of my pain” (647). There is power and the access of compassion through not telling a story. Just as at CCW people are able to raise their voices, to access skill and selfhood, here we assist in accessing selfhood by allowing for the existence of silence.

            These three spaces manifest compassion from and through different bodies in diverse ways. The ultimate definition of that “compassion work” gets manipulated along the way, as it is circulated through different people. To close, I do not come to a conclusion but a series of questions: How can we create spaces where compassion workers can develop that resilience? How can silence play into the cultivation of compassion? How do we interrupt this compassionate labor with critiques of power systems?


Works Cited

Compassion and the True Meaning of Empathy. Perf. Joan Halifax.TEDX. TEDX Talks, n.d. Web. <>.

Dalke, Anne, and Clare Mullaney. "On Being Transminded: Disabling Achievement, Enabling Exchange." Disability Studies Quarterly 34.2 (2014): n. pag. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.

Hooks, Bell. All About Love: New Visions. New York: Harper Collins, 2001. Print.

Tuck, Eve, and C. Ree. "A Glossary of Haunting." Handbook of Autoethnography. Ed. Stacey Holman Jones, Tony E. Adams, and Carolyn Ellis. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2013. 639-58. Print.