How to build a culture of compassion

Just like me. An exercise in compassion

Recent findings in neuroscience and evolutionary biology show that humans are wired for cooperation and compassion from the first years of life onwards. Translated to the school setting, the research confirms that the vast majority of students, including those involved in bullying, will demonstrate empathy and kindness towards their peers when their school creates conditions that support these behaviors. One of the most powerful practices to build compassion is to move beyond our habitual focus on differences and to lead your students through this "just like me" exercise.

Ask your students to find a partner and to sit facing them.

Say: For the next five minutes we are going to explore a different way of seeing others.

Take five seconds to make eye contact with the person in front of you and now close your eyes.

As you sit here with your eyes closed sense that there is another person sitting in front of you. A fellow human, just like you.  Now notice these things about this person.

  • They have a body and a mind, just like you.
  • They experience sensations, feelings and thoughts, just like you.
  • They have suffered from physical and emotional pain, just like you.
  • They have felt sad, disappointed and angry, just like you.
  • They have felt inadequate just like you.
  • They have felt unsafe, just like you.
  • They get stressed sometimes, just like you.
  • They have felt lonely, just like you.
  • They long for good friends, just like you.
  • They want to be happy, just like you.
  • They want to be safe, just like you.
  • They want to belong, just like you.
  • They want to be included, just like you.
  • They want to be loved, just like you.

Now, allow some wishes for their well-being to arise

  • May they be free from pain [Pause]
  • May they be happy [Pause]
  • May they be loved [Pause]

After a few moments, ask your students to open their eyes

Take a moment to notice the person sitting in front of you and to look around the room

Take five minutes to talk in your dyad how this exercise was for you. If you feel that they need specific prompts you can suggest they ask

  • Do you feel any differently about the person sitting in front of you?
  • Do you want to treat others any differently now?

At the end of five minutes ask them to thank their partners.

Discuss as a large group how this exercise was for them and ask for two or three of them to share their answer to the questions.

Note to facilitator:  This is a great opportunity, depending upon the age of your students, to take twenty minutes for a guided discussion about differences.  The feeling that you are different is a state of mind (a belief) and, similar to all beliefs, is as much constructed as real. 

Say: Everyone has at some point felt different or on the outside.

Ask: Go back in time to a moment when you felt different or when you felt that you did not belong.

  • What was it about this situation that caused you to feel different?
  • What happened inside of you when you felt different?  What thoughts and feelings did you have? (Often it is anxiety or anger with thoughts of not being wanted and not being safe.  This can lead to judging and putting down the other person in your head.)
  • How did your thoughts and feelings shape how you interacted with these people?
  • Would this situation have turned out differently if you had not had these thoughts and feelings?
  • What would happen if you recognized that everyone you meet wants to belong and be loved, just like you?