Imagine your house burns down on a Saturday night. You and your kids are homeless and have lost everything in the fire. Over the weekend, you manage to get yourself together enough that you only miss one day of work.
When you arrive at work on the Tuesday following the fire, wearing the donated clothes that are best suited for work but still involve a pair of yoga pants, your boss looks you over.
“That’s an interesting outfit,” she says. “What do you think it is, Casual Friday?”
As shocking as that boss’s utter lack of compassion is, it may be a symptom of our growing disconnect with each other.
According to Mary Purdy, a long-time yoga instructor and healthy living facilitator, we are all born with the capacity for compassion but it’s a skill that must be developed.
“Compassion is about seeing suffering and wanting to do something about it,” she explains as we sip tea in her home in Streets Ridge. “More importantly, it’s about doing something about the suffering. Compassion takes a lot of courage.”
In this spirit of taking action, Mary is shifting the focus of her education and workshops to compassion because she believes we live in the kind of world that no longer encourages the development of that skill.
“The place where we used to learn about compassion and kindness, the church, is no longer there,” she says. “The other thing is this culture we’ve created. It’s about keeping the economy going by buying and it’s all throwaway stuff. We’ve become a materialistic society and that means I have to do and be something bigger and better than you. To be a successful person doesn’t have much to do with compassion. I think we need to reverse that.”
Having worked in local schools over the years and being married to an education assistant, Mary knows first-hand the stresses facing students, teachers and parents.
“These are trying times in the education system,” she says. “Teachers are so overwhelmed they don’t want one more thing to do, like a breathing meditation or a compassion circle but compassion cultivates trust and safety. I think many children don’t feel safe and they don’t trust. I think many teachers don’t feel safe and don’t trust because they don’t believe the resources and the support will ever come.”
Mary recently conducted a compassion circle with the 24 students in Mrs. LeBlanc’s Grade 3 class at Oxford Regional Education Centre.
“We sat in a circle and I was just the same size as them which worked out very nicely,” she laughs. “We talked about what compassion means to them then we talked about when someone showed them kindness. That’s how they understand compassion but when they talked about kindness, it was definitely compassion.”
She says she was warned that the students wouldn’t be able to sit still for more than 20 minutes but when she asked after 30 minutes if they wanted to close the circle, they said no.
The compassion circle lasted an hour and Mary was amazed at the honesty with which the children expressed themselves. This hunger for more meaningful connection with others fuels Mary’s passion for teaching compassion to children and adults.
“I want to rattle the cage,” Mary says. “I want to be somebody who wakes people up. I want to be the one that comes in and points out that we’re all interested in stopping bullying then say ‘Stop using that language’. What we’re interested in is creating more peace. I don’t want to hear that someone is labeled a bully; that person is someone who needs skills. That’s the person who needs compassion.”
Mary, who is a member of the Atlantic Contemplative Centre in Halifax, sees herself as being part of a compassion evolution but one could argue that if Mary is out to rattle cages and challenge language (and bosses), well, that sounds a lot like a revolution.