Pema Chödrön's Commencement Speech at Naropa (my alma mater)

Graduation season is upon us, which always reminds me of the fact that the word "alma mater" translates as "nourishing mother." Doesn't graduating in some way feel like leaving a safe womb and going out into the world on one's own? When I graduated from Naropa University with my Masters degree in transpersonal psychotherapy and art therapy, I certainly felt like I was leaving a protective and nurturing space and bringing all I had gathered there to share with the greater community. It's fitting that this year's graduation ceremony at Naropa University takes place on Saturday, May 10, the day before mothers' day. The commencement address will be given by Pema Chödrön. Naropa will be live streaming the speech, so visit this link and sign up to watch.


Naropa University is a unique and amazing place for contemplative education. If you're unfamiliar with the way education is offered at Naropa, watch the quick video below for a taste.

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"To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to continually be thrown out of the nest." -Pema Chödrön

Tonglen: You're just one breath away from self-compassion

We cannot have compassion for others until we have compassion for ourselves. This is often the step that's missed by those who say "I don't have time for myself. I am always giving to everyone else." To be with the suffering of others (grief, loss, fear, pain, etc) we must first be able to be with and stay with these feelings in ourselves. If we are helping others in their suffering without first being able to sit with and lean into our own suffering, can that be called authentic and wholehearted giving? Perhaps the other person does benefit from our gift of support, but if we skip this step of doing our own inner-work with suffering, we are missing a HUGE opportunity: to go deeper, to heal ourselves and others, to truly touch someone's heart with our own openheartedness, to share in our humanness and vulnerability. In the words of George Eliot, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”

Tonglen is a Tibetan word  meaning "giving and taking." It is a way to connect with suffering -- that of others and our own. Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön, says, "This is the core of the practice: breathing in other's pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness." Yep, you can extend compassion to others or yourself in the time it takes to TAKE ONE BREATH.

Pema goes on to say, "However, we often cannot do this practice because we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain, our personal stuckness happens to be at that moment." So, that is when we take another breath for ourselves. Or if you know you are suffering, start with yourself.

Breathing in: acknowledge and touch that part within yourself that is experiencing suffering (pain, anger, hurt, jealousy, sadness, grief, despair, fear, etc.)

Breathing out: send that part of you a gift with your breath. I like to envision it as an internal kiss. Or a simple phrase like, "I see you." or "I love you." When I'm feeling more playful, I often imagine self-care types of gifts I could give to this suffering part of myself, like a bubble bath or dark chocolate.

With tonglen, your experience of your own suffering is a path to developing compassion for everyone.

Pema goes into more detail in the links below. I encourage taking a moment to read her very accessible and practical way of explaining this practice:

You can also learn more about Tonglen in Pema Chödrön book on the subject. Click here to find it on

Now give it a try on your very next breath: Inhale and touch that part of you that feels ___ in this moment. Exhale a gift to yourself.

Follow along as I post more practical ways to work self-compassion into your life over the next few weeks, by following me on facebook or twitter.

Self-care and self-compassion are not selfish.

We hear the words self-care and self-compassion thrown around quite a bit these days. Being a therapist who was trained at a Buddhist university for experiential and contemplative study, the recent mainstream buzz about the inherent health of these concepts is music to my ears. Writing prescriptions for both self-care and self-compassion seems to come into play with most of my clients during the course of therapy. (And for myself and my loved ones, for that matter!) Okay, so what's the difference between self-care and self-compassion? Self-care can take the form of setting healthy boundaries with others, bracketing time for relaxation and personal-care, socializing, making art, and doing other enjoyable activities. Self-compassion is a way of relating to yourself when you are having a difficult time, in the very moment of suffering.

Actively engaging in self-care is traditionally met with negative feedback involving words like "selfish" or "indulgent" or "self-centered." When I became conscious of creating space to honor myself in these ways in my own life, I would share this with others in hopes that it might allow them to consider the same. For example, if I got a massage or took a day off work to rest, the phrase I heard in response quite often was, "Must be nice!" which implies that it's a luxury to do so, and the person speaking that would never consider this as an option for themselves. The idea of including self-care in your life, for many of us, is a process of unlearning and shifting mindset. It's about giving yourself permission to include this healthy way of being into your awareness and your schedule.

This Spring, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Kristin Neff speak at a Women's Symposium at Stanford about the importance of both self-care and self-compassion, and why helping professionals need self-compassion in order to be at all effective in working with others. (You can read more on her thoughts by clicking here.) Her talk excited me. She is speaking my language:

Not only are concepts of self-care and self-compassion NOT SELFISH, they are KEY to helping others.(You know, just incase we needed to convince the naysayers.)

Those of us who help others (whether therapists, doctors, teachers, parents, adult child of aging parent, etc) sit with the pain of others daily. Doing so can bring up discomfort, fear, and eventually burnout. That's why engaging in empathic work with others must start with first having compassion for ourselves. Many of us did not grow up with the message that it is okay to acknowledge our own pain or vulnerability and make it known, so a "grin and bear it" or "stiff upper lip" sort of mentality develops. That's a natural response to receiving such a message, but this is not useful to our personal growth, or in caring for others. This is why an integral part of my passion and my work is in supporting caregivers and helping professionals in developing realistic, workable ways they can make space to honor their own suffering (humanity) in order to avoid empathy-fatigue.

I work with my clients on exercising their self-love muscles, which have often atrophied by adulthood due to disapproving introjects and societal messages around weakness or selfishness. I collaborate with my clients to develop and teach practical, doable ways of working self-compassion and self-care into their daily living.

Over the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series of blog posts here devoted to  specific ways of doing this. Be sure to follow along on facebook or twitter to see when the next entry is posted for inspiration for your own journey.