This post explores the science of emotions, the research on social aspects of teaching, as well as the work of embodiment and how it can support us in moments of difficulty or overwhelm. At the end you’ll find an offering to create space for compassion & empathy for yourself & others.
Dr. Eve Ekman is a contemplative social scientist and teacher in the field of emotional awareness and burnout prevention. She defines emotion as “a process that is triggered in 1/25 of a second, lasts only about 30 – 90 seconds, and helps us respond to important challenges.” Emotions get our attention and remind us of our values. Being aware of our emotions allows us to acknowledge them without criticism and make wise choices about our role in what comes next.
Community spaces are filled with people, and as such are filled with emotions, as well as lots of triggers! This is just as true for digital interactive spaces as it is for in-person events. Whether you’re a leader, participant, student, teacher, parent, child, or all of these and more, spending hours each day in social environments creates an opportunity for emotional exhaustion.
Research in education shows that practicing mindful awareness can help decrease burnout and increase an overall sense of well-being. Because this is true in K-12 learning environments, we can reasonably extend these findings to include a variety of other group settings, such as professional and corporate offices, fitness centers, child care facilities, nursing homes, hospitals, and community events – basically, anywhere there are facilitators and participants, anywhere there is more than one person.
Practicing Presence is the Seed of Empathy.
Practicing Presence within community requires a certain amount of non-reactivity. Being able to notice and observe our own emotions allows for a space between what activates us (or triggers us) and our next thought, word, or action. The space allows us to respond skillfully rather than react thoughtlessly. It also creates pathways to take care of our own needs in the moment. This practicing awareness of our emotional process gives us insight into the experience of others, precisely because all of us are human. Happily, that new information we gain inside that moment of presence increases the likelihood that we can, and will, envision ourselves in someone else’s situation.
These are the seeds of empathy.
Empathy leads to another key aspect of mindful awareness, the active partner of non-judgement: compassion. What’s great about compassion is that it’s for everyone, including yourself, and it can really help guide challenging conversations and all manner of interactions.
Compassion allows us to see our life-partner, who is letting the housework go and actively not asking us about our day, or our needs, as a beautiful human being who is fatigued and out of resources. It allows us to see the student melting down in front of us as another human, just like us, in need of support. Compassion can even bring us to a new perspective on the behaviors of our co-workers, family and community members, as well as complete strangers (and even people we might classify as the manifestation of enmity and animus – our enemy).
Everyone is a human being – just like us. This fact is an excellent reminder that, perhaps most amazingly, self-compassion allows us to see our own selves as deserving of gentleness, acceptance, and encouragement, too, the hallmarks of empathy.
We experience emotions on a broad spectrum. There’s a wide range of ways we can know anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and enjoyment. And knowing that the initial emotional reaction only lasts 30 -90 seconds, it benefits us to wait it out, seeing if it subsides or changes before we say the thing we really want to say (that thing we feel absolutely justified in saying). The magic in this moment is patience. And one support for practicing patience is to go ahead do something.
Here’s an embodiment practice for that. I’m calling it SPACE, because I love talking about, thinking about, and accessing spaciousness as a pathway to loving and being loved. It’s a way of being present in my body that allows me both to notice and observe my emotions, as well as wait for them to change or subside.
- S – settle
- P – pause
- A – abide
- C – center
- E – expand
Basically, SPACE creates space. And space allows for compassion. First, I settle into my body by feeling my feet and noticing gravity. I pause and breathe. I abide in the present moment. I find my center, and then I expand from there – breathing in and expanding my ribcage in all directions. By expanding, I’m creating physical space inside my body, bringing about sensations associated with happiness, freedom, and joy. I’m also creating intangible space between what is said and done, and what is understood and experienced. No one knows I’m doing all of this. I can settle, pause, abide, center, and expand while I am listening to the other person speak or while I’m experiencing their actions. This embodied work allows me to feel grounded and gives me the space to choose what I will say and do, as well as what I will not say and what I won’t do.
Continue practicing awareness.
Keep non-reactively observing.
Carry on with making space.
If nothing else, the next time you notice a strong emotional reaction, let that be your cue to press and settle into your feet and expand from your center. The breath will happen. You will pause and abide, and you just might find yourself and others surrounded by the spaciousness of compassion.
Your Yoga Practice
While you are practicing asana, concentration, and meditation, practice spaciousness.
- Settle into your body by feeling your feet and noticing gravity
- Pause and breathe
- Abide in the present moment
Then, take this wisdom off the mat with you and into the world!
With Love, Compassion, Empathy, & All Things Spacious
The Universal Yogi