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Vinciane Rycroft: A Mind With Heart

--Bela Shah, on May 29, 2014

How does one cultivate empathy and compassion? Is it something that we learn as children or can it be developed even as adults? And is there really such a thing as compassion fatigue? Vinciane Rycroft, the founder of Mind with Heart, shared some insightful answers to these questions on our Awakin Call.  Mind with Heart is an international charity, based in the UK, dedicated to equipping young people with the social and emotional skills necessary to their well-being and to building a more sustainable society. On the call, Vinciane outlined many gems that can serve as a practical guide for teaching empathy and compassion to youth and children. Moderated by Trishna, this fascinating conversation is captured below.

Trishna: Can you tell us how Mind with Heart came to be?

Vinciane: On a personal level, I’ve always been really interested in working out how we can all survive together on this planet. It’s been a lifelong inquiry for me and has led me to this work on compassion education.

“As a teenager I was always struck that the main things we were learning at school were only about things we shouldn’t be doing. We had sessions about not taking drugs or not smoking but we never had any sessions about how to cultivate something positive in life. I always felt a deep gap and for me it was always a big question mark of why there was such a void.”

Being idealistic, I started becoming interested in issues such as world peace and the role of the United Nations. All of this led to the study of international law and the environment. My burning question was, “How do we live together without destroying the planet?”

I was fortunate because my first job was in the UN, where I worked for their environmental program. However, I found myself working from an office without knowledge of what was actually going on in the ground. I wanted to know, “How do you build a community? How do you live harmoniously?”

Along the way, I also encountered great thinkers such as the Buddha and the Dalai Lama and I realized there were a lot of answers to my questions in what they were saying. I was very inspired by Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see”. I felt that it all comes down to the human mind and I studied in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery for four years. I wanted to understand how to cultivate compassion in our minds because that is the root of everything.

Trishna: Can you describe more how individuals such as the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, and others inspired the early seeds for your work in compassion education?

Vinciane: They opened up completely different perspectives about the inner change being the key for the outer change.

“What made it real was meeting a Tibetan Buddhist master who explained very concretely how the mind works and how we’re constantly making these choices either to cultivate positive states of mind or just to let ourselves be completely caught up with everything that goes on in our minds and get lost in that.”

Trishna: You mentioned that you studied at a Tibetan monastery for four years. Can you tell us about that experience?

Vinciane: I studied the Buddhist path. I started with meditation and studied enough of it to finally understand what it is. What I’ve understood is that it’s about the ability to be completely present and stable with whatever arises, to not block that, and to just let it be. It’s not about, “Don’t do this or that”, but it’s more about stability and presence.

“Meditation is about just being and daring to be completely yourself with whatever comes up. That was a huge learning. It’s an incredibly powerful message for young people. It’s the main message that keeps coming back again and again.”

Trishna: What inspired you to introduce Mind with Heart to schools?

Vinciane: I was talking with my husband one evening about how wonderful it would be if this understanding of how to be with yourself could come into schools and we were also reflecting on how sad it was for us that it wasn’t there when we were in school. We wondered how it would be if just a little seed could be planted. We realized that this understanding doesn’t have to stay in the realm of spirituality and that it’s very human and applicable to all of us.

Trishna: Can you share one or two stories that are powerful illustrations of the internal shifts that you’ve seen in students?

Vinciane: Locally I work with young people that have behavioral difficulties. One thing we do is look at common humanity, where we take a situation where we’ve had difficulties and we’ve had to deal with someone that we’ve had problems with. In the case of this young man, it was a policeman that he had trouble with. Then we look at what we have in common with this person. We start at the basic level with qualities such as sharing a common human body and then we dig deeper from there. For example, this person that we feel challenged by also has a family and he wants to take care of them. In this case, this young person that I was working with was so aggressive at the beginning of the session and you could see suddenly his face completely changing when he got that the policeman was just like him.

Trishna: When you were speaking to schools about integrating compassion into education did you guys encounter any resistance?

Vinciane: You now, it’s becoming more recognized and one big benefit is that at the moment there is this mindfulness in schools movement and that really supports our work. Yesterday my husband was saying that the teachers themselves are really into the techniques because they can see that they have a need for it themselves. They need to be able to know how to settle down and come back to themselves in the middle of everything they have to deal with. Teachers are saying that young people are getting more and more distracted so they’re interested in these kinds of tools to help them focus.

Trishna: I read an old article in The Guardian where you wrote,

“Teaching empathy is experiential, there is no flashcard for it; it does not develop like that. You have to see it to experience it so we have to teach with empathy. My main advice to teachers is very simple, “Let’s be human beings before we are teachers.”

What is your advice to anyone that works with kids? Where do they begin since you can’t purchase a pack of flash cards for teaching empathy?

Vinciane: The first step is to learn to take care of ourselves and to embody being the change. For that sitting, mindfulness, and meditation are the foundation. We say that mindfulness and meditation are the very first practices for developing empathy and compassion; they’re the first tools for ourselves and also for young people. It’s surprising, even for me. It took me a while to see how key meditation was because it’s obvious and not so obvious. As a person who likes rushing about I find it easy to forget that sometimes.

“The second step for developing empathy and compassion is taking the space to investigate and experience what genuine happiness is for us by showing love to ourselves. Ask yourself, “What is genuine happiness for me? What if I chose to cultivate that a little bit?” We can spend a lot of our time doing things habitually because it’s been passed on through conditioning, but creating that space of genuine happiness as a practice of love for oneself is key to breaking through this conditioning.”

After understanding our own mind, the third step is common humanity by coming to this realization that others also go through suffering, wish for happiness, and share the same emotions as us. We tend to think other people are very complicated beings but we all have the same basic emotions. We express ourselves in various degrees of intensity but the basis is the same so we can recognize our common humanity. This dissolves the fear of the other and develops a common ground and a common love.

The next step is compassion itself and understanding what empathy is and what compassion is and how the two are different. On a cognitive level, we have an “aha” moment. Empathy is the ability to feel what the other person is feeling while knowing it’s not what you’re feeling. It’s this ability to be present with that other person’s feelings.

“Compassion is when you’re actively generating positive emotions of love and a wish to alleviate the suffering. The reason why we’re afraid of being compassionate is that we think we’re going to be overwhelmed by the other person’s suffering or we think we’re going to have to do something about it and so we develop resistance to opening up our hearts to the other person. But as we generate love for the person that is suffering, it’s impossible to burn out.”