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Karen Stewart retired in October 2021 after more than 40 years of practicing psychol-ogy. She cares deeply about this planet and all of the people on it, especially the margin-alized, social excluded and disenfranchised. She believes we are all one and we sink or swim together. She still has something to say.

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Remembering and Embodying Self-Compassion and Awareness

By Karen Stewart, MA

Karen Stewart, MA

Several weeks ago, I sat with my granddaughter as she happily worked on some math worksheets. As we enjoyed our time together, she allowed me to see how she embodies what I consider to be three most essential elements of being: the joy of learning, self-compassion, and awareness. It was a privilege to be with her in this awareness. I have shared the experience with many people. Now I am happy to share it with you. While Alayla is very special to me, these qualities are within all of our children and all of us, even if they have been buried or forgotten.

The Joy of Learning, Self-Compassion, Awareness

Alayla is quickly learning addition and subtraction and she enjoys it. Children love learning, until something makes it too difficult and the right help or tools are not available. I watch my 9-month-old grandson, Samuel, as he constantly moves and investigates the world. His mother puts him down on the floor and he is off—crawling, smelling, tasting, feeling, and giving everything a good shake. He is delighted to be in this world, and he embodies curiosity. His older brother, Jack a solid two-year-old is the same. He can walk, run and hop so his investigations are on a bigger scale. Alayla has observed these two and how they grow and develop. A few weeks ago, Jack couldn’t hop and then the next time we saw him he was hopping everywhere. Alayla knows what it means to be growing, developing and learning new skills, for herself and for these younger cousins. I hadn’t realized how important that was until our “math” work.

Alayla would read out the math question, say her answer and write it down. If she hadn’t said the answers out loud, I would not have known that they were correct, because her numbers were illegible. I asked her if she thought it would be helpful for me to write the numbers down so she could look at them as she wrote them. She said she would like that. I wrote 1-10 on a separate piece of paper. I also shared that when I was learning how to write that we traced the numbers and letters. She did that a bit and then we described them: ‘2’ is half a heart and a line, etc.

After a few minutes she went back to the math problems. She came up with the answer and tried to write the ‘2’ and she couldn’t do it! I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until she burst out laughing. My automatic response had been fear that she would feel frustrated at not being able to write the ‘2’, or somehow feel badly about not being able to do it. Instead, she just giggled at the fact that no matter how she concentrated she couldn’t make the 2. No shame, no frustration! The next answer was a 3 and again she couldn’t write it, but we both just burst out in joyful laughter.

There are so many important lessons for me in her beautiful, amazing response. There was no hint of shame at not being able to do it, no frustration or anger at the task. She simply accepted that for now her brain isn’t ready to write those numbers, just as Jack couldn’t hop and Samuel cannot walk. She has the faith that she will learn how, and it is okay that she cannot do it now. Would that we could all bring this generous compassion to ourselves when we are having difficulty learning a new task or making mistakes. Would that we could laugh at our mistakes, secure in the knowledge that we will learn and do better. Now sometimes our mistakes hurt others unintentionally, so we would not laugh at those mistakes, but we could still bring generous compassion to ourselves and the knowledge that making mistakes does not make us bad people. We could apologize, learn from our mistakes and trust that we will learn to do better. We could live with more lightness and ease.

The third and most amazing quality was that she knew she was clearly more than her ability to write or add and subtract. She is more than what she can do. Her identity and self-worth are not based on what she does. This is not to say that she is not proud of herself when learns how to do something, or sometimes feel frustrated when she cannot, but her self-worth is not based on writing those 2s and 3s. She is not just her brain and her actions. She is something more, something beyond my poor ability to articulate. When we are asked who we are—to point to ourselves—we point to our hearts, not our heads. We can forget that we are not just our brains or our bodies. Our brains and bodies are part of us, but we are more, something beyond those parts. This is a spiritual truth that often we must re-learn as adults. Alayla knows it now and we all know it at some level.

Alayla starts first grade in a few weeks. I hope that she will continue to view learning as natural and fun. I know she takes learning seriously, but I hope she will be able to continue to laugh at her mistakes when appropriate. I hope she will be able to continue to have this joyful compassion for herself as she experiences all the challenges that will come with formal education. Most importantly I hope she continues to remember who she is—that she is more than what she knows or does. She is a whole being, body, mind, and spirit and valuable beyond measure. Each of us is.

The joy of learning, self-compassion, and awareness that we are more than what we know, are too often dampened unintentionally in our culture. Teachers are underpaid, underappreciated, and have extremely stressful jobs. Schools often do not have all the resources they need. Shaming is too often a part of discipline. Parents are stretched and stressed and often do not have the time they would like to spend with children. Especially right now, stress, impatience, and anxiety are rampant.

We need to offer ourselves generous self-compassion, to reawaken our knowledge that we are more than what we think and what we do, and to remember our love of learning about this beautiful amazing world. We do this for ourselves, our children, and our world.