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Is compassion catching on? Tracing the impact of a historic event

The Dalai LamaFifteen-hundred children jump to their feet, clapping wildly and screaming with joyous abandon. The floor shakes; the walls of KeyArena seem to expand with electric energy. At the heart of this whirlwind, his image projected on the jumbotron overhead, stands an elderly monk in maroon robes. He is beaming broadly and bowing repeatedly, hands in prayer. “The whole world is just one entity,” the monk says. “We need the whole world. Just like a family member. One human family.

“I need you. I need you,” the Dalai Lama says to the children, and the room erupts in cheers.

For many in attendance, this moment is the fulfillment of a deeply held dream; the heart and soul of a unique five-day event held last spring in Seattle called Seeds of Compassion. Countless hours of planning, millions of dollars, and days of seminars, panel discussions and Q&As have come down to this: Fifteen hundred children from 433 schools, sitting in matching T-shirts, raising the roof off the Key. Fifteen-hundred children by turns wild with excitement, then quietly rapt; thumping out their heartbeats on their chests as His Holiness the Dalai Lama beats along on a drum. The emotional high of that moment moves adults to tears: a male television producer, a security guard, dozens of teachers, sponsors and politicians. For many, this is a moment — a feeling — they will never forget.

Will it last?

That feeling — of unity, connection, and yes, of compassion — is just one of many goals set by the organizers of Seeds of Compassion (SOC), a group of savvy and successful business people, advocates and politicians. The five days of the event were almost staggering in their depth and breadth, and included large public events on the science of compassion, interfaith discussions, seminars for business leaders, workshops for educators and parenting experts, a resource fair, a rock concert and more. The subject of compassion was thoroughly addressed, from every conceivable angle. Among the luminaries in attendance: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Gov. Christine Gregoire, Dr. Daniel Siegel, Dr. John Gottman, rocker Dave Matthews. A public gathering with the Dalai Lama packed Qwest Field; in all, 145,000 people attended Seeds of Compassion events. And according to Seeds, close to 70 million experienced it globally through media coverage and podcasting.

Incredible reach for one event — but was it successful? Did Seeds of Compassion create a cultural shift, achieve the stated goal of kicking off a global “compassion movement”?

“It surpassed all of our expectations,” says Seeds’ new executive director Pam Eakes. “I know that there have been many, many sprouts from Seeds of Compassion.” Eakes cites several groups that had their genesis in the event: Bellevue-based Compassionate Action Network sprang out of SOC’s interfaith committee. A Seattle-based Web project, The Wisdom Commons, is creating tools for teching about compassion. In Bellingham, Eakes says, a discussion group meets regularly to discuss ways to spread the message of compassion. A group of healthcare providers has started a “compassion in action” circle. In fact, Eakes says, it’s impossible to know exactly how many ripples are spreading out from SOC, because most are created independently. People take their inspiration from the event and the Dalai Lama, then do their own thing. Some join compassion circles for discussion; others have new motivation to volunteer or donate money. On many levels, compassion remains an intensely personal thing.

Ashley Cooper, a counselor at Seattle’s Evergreen School, says she was fired up by SOC. “I was amazed at the level of excitement that I felt leading up to and during the event,” says Cooper. “It provided a really profound opportunity for people to come together and make a commitment.”

Cooper is also an instructor for Roots of Empathy, a Canada-based program that helps kids learn empathy by bonding with babies. She says her class of fifth-graders at Seattle’s John Stanford Elementary has a higher level of awareness of compassion as a result of SOC. “I was really touched after the [Children’s Day] event, when I saw my Roots fifth-graders. They were just so excited to see the Dalai Lama and hear his message.”

“The Dalai Lama was pretty inspiring,” agrees 11-year-old Matthew Nesteroff, who attended Children’s Day with his class from Seattle Country Day School. “What he had to say was really important.… I was kind of expecting it to be powerful, but I was still surprised by the whole thing.”

His mother, Kimm Viebrock, blogged about her son’s reaction at the time:

For Matthew, the most important thing he talked about was how compassion connects us all, that … violence does not counteract violence, that we must use compassion to make things better. "It may not seem to help at first; it may take time [to work], like saving money to buy a dog.” Wise words from an 11-year-old.

Among other things her son learned: “Doing bad things might get you what you want in the beginning, but doesn’t make you feel better. Acts of kindness are remembered longer than bad things and have more of an impact and longer value. Compassion might be tough at first, but it gets easier after you get past feeling awkward.”

Viebrock says the event gave her son something special. “To hear the Dalai Lama talk … this was an opportunity to really have a sense of the world that I wanted him to have. He’s a pretty sensitive guy already, but for boys, a lot of that gets socialized out of them. Now that natural sensitivity has a nurturing place to sprout from. I have the sense that instead of getting squashed, there can be a shape to this, a reason why compassion is OK, why it’s needed,” Viebrock says.

“One way or another, he will always remember that he did this.”

Sprouts of compassion

One of Matthew’s teachers, Miriam Ayala, is busy turning “feel good into real good,” as SOC organizers like to say. The fifth-grade Spanish and general studies teacher has always incorporated compassion into her curriculum, but SOC inspired her to do more. “I was so touched by the Dalai Lama, and am continuing with our compassion campaign,” Ayala says. After the event, her class brainstormed about ways they could spread compassion. Among the ideas: a letter-writing campaign for elderly people and a monthly “hero of compassion” award.

Kids & the Dalai LamaAyala uses the compassion curriculum created by Seeds in her classroom, but her real connection came when she took the kids to the Children’s Day event. “I just couldn’t stop wiping tears off my eyes; one of my colleagues was crying, too. The children all around me, the energy and the presence of the Dalai Lama — it was a magical and incredible experience.

“More than anything, the children were touched by the Dalai Lama. They said, ‘He is a person just like us!’ — but so incredibly warm and wonderful and funny and human.

“The more you talk about compassion with kids, the more they want to take part,” says Ayala. “It’s like it’s contagious!”

And it may be children who are the best hope for carrying the message of compassion forward. One SOC initiative, Youth Ambassadors, gathered kids from schools all over the area to form a group dedicated to discussion and furthering compassion. That group of about three dozen kids still meets regularly. “I think the whole idea of spreading the seeds of compassion is so cool,” says 13-year-old Gemma Holt, an eighth-grader at Seattle Girls’ School. “I liked how they were using kids as the vehicle for change.”

At the group’s last meeting, the kids discussed ways of volunteering, of giving back, and ways of getting more and younger kids involved.

“We became like a big family,” Holt says. “I didn’t really have any expectations of how it was going to be, but I guess it turned out pretty much perfectly.”

Too little, too slow?

But for some, the picture is less than perfect. There are rumblings by those who are frustrated that more concrete progress hasn’t come out of the millions of dollars and thousands of hours that went into — and continue to go into — Seeds of Compassion. One major sponsor, who wishes to remain anonymous, is seriously disappointed with what she sees as a failure of leadership. “The people who led [SOC] to begin with had absolutely zero picture painted for what they wanted to see afterwards. They just dropped the ball.” And she points to power struggles and hard feelings within the organization as ultimately harmful to Seeds’ long-term success. “The event itself was successful as long as you were in front of the scenes instead of behind the scenes.… People were short-sighted; they didn’t use the compassion and integrity that they were trying to teach everybody else.”

“We understand that there are some people who have a certain degree of impatience for concrete things to happen,” says Ron Rabin, executive director of the Kirlin Foundation, from which Seeds of Compassion was created. “We’re fully aware that it’s months now since the event and we’re still responding to and understanding what it was that really happened.

“It was an invaluable event, and we’re still feeling and witnessing and hearing about the ripples that have gone out, and the networks that have been created and enriched; the new interests, new connections. We’re proud of what it was, and what it is becoming. We’re still discovering what it’s becoming.”

And Rabin says Seeds of Compassion does have concrete plans for growth; the group has applied for 401c3 status, which means it moves out from under the Kirlin umbrella to stand on its own. “This suggests it has enough energy and momentum and support to do so,” Rabin says. Also on the horizon: a major overhaul of the SOC Web site, with the goal of becoming a hub for all things compassion; a resource and a connection point.

‘Huge handshakes’

Connections may be one of the best things to come out of SOC, especially for those who work in the compassion biz, who benefited from the event’s rich and myriad opportunities for networking. “It was like huge handshakes all over the community,” says Joan Duffell, executive director of Committee for Children. Duffell’s group works nationally and internationally on programs for developing social and emotional skills in children, but the group needed to build stronger ties locally. “Seeds of Compassion fast-forwarded me right into pretty much every relationship I needed to start working in that direction,” Duffell says.

“One thing that is a reality is that the Dalai Lama is not going to move in. The kind of excitement and interest in this topic that his presence delivers is hard to maintain. But I’ve been working in this field for 25 years, and I found that this event made a huge difference.

“Has the Zeitgeist of Seattle shifted? I don’t know. But it’s shifted something for our organization, and it would have taken years to get there otherwise.”

Duffell cites the work of state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, who’s working on getting social and emotional learning goals written into our state’s teaching standards. “As a result of the Dalai Lama’s visit,” Dickerson says, “I have tried to prioritize acts of compassion and state policies that would reflect compassion. Certainly, I think social and emotional learning is a great way to teach kids about the value of compassion and help make them more successful at the same time.”

And SOC’s Pam Eakes sees compassion cropping up in all kinds of official documents, from Seattle Mayor Nickels’ budget plan that includes $9 million to prevent youth violence and encourage community compassion, to the Seattle City Council’s proclamation vowing to include compassion in all decisions going forward. “Gov. Gregoire uses the word a lot,” Eakes says.

For some, that’s progress, indeed — if gradual and difficult to measure. “I think it’s a slow process,” says Roots instructor Ashley Cooper. “We have to touch people’s willingness to put compassion into action. In my school community, people are talking more spontaneously about empathy and compassion. To me, that’s a great outcome.

“But I think it’s really important that we move beyond the Dalai Lama. It was fabulous that he was here, but I really feel like it’s up to us as ‘normal people.’ What are we going to do to make something different happen?

“I feel hopeful, and I feel like Seattle has that capacity,” Cooper says. “It’s a matter of: How much do people want to do these things that are important — and what are we each willing to do to start making a difference?”

Kristen Dobson is ParentMap’s managing editor. She learns compassion from her two children, ages 9 and 12.

Web sites

Roots of Empathy 

Seeds of Compassion 

Compassion Action Network 

The Kirlin Charitable Foundation 

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning 

The Wisdom Commons 

Suggested reading

Roots of Empathy by Mary Gordon

The Mindful Brain by Daniel Siegel

Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell

Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Myla Kabat-Zinn

Teaching Empathy: A Blueprint for Caring, Compassion, and Community by David A. Levine

An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life by the Dalai Lama

 

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