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Home arrow Sociology arrow Holistic engagement : transformative social work education in the 21st century
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Skill 4: Compassionate Attention

Contemplative traditions (e.g., mindfulness) embrace practices of paying attention without judgment (Barbezat & Bush, 2014; Hick, 2009). This is a particularly difficult prospect for social workers, who work in a value-laden profession that asks us to judge situations and critique injustice. We instill in ourselves and our students a commitment to social justice that extends both from our core values and what is codified in our respective national-level codes of ethics. It is our job as people and as social workers to respond to social justice issues anytime we experience them, whether or not we have a direct role in addressing those or intervening in any way at that particular time. Although this contributes to our values-driven profession by ensuring the enduring commitment to not settling for things as they are but, rather, advocating for all to experience the dignity and worth they have as beings, it does catapult us out of noticing, into action, whenever we are moved by injustice.

We recognize that we tend to abandon the moment as it is as soon as we actively try to change it. As our social justice/human dignity tripwires engage, we go from noticing, and therefore pausing long enough to connect fully in that moment, to immediately, perhaps reactively, wholeheartedly changing the moment. The balance quickly becomes very tricky because while we are reacting, we are not present in the same way. We may become caught up in our own reactions—physical, emotional, and mental—and cease to be available in the same way to connect fully with another's experience. While we react, we abandon them, ever so slightly, ironically, as we make plans for making the situation better for them. As well, this abandonment may happen due to our own intense need or habitual pattern of judging and changing the moment to be something more comfortable. Holistic engagement is concerned with connecting fully, so this abandonment issue presents a problem. If our advocacy for human rights is tethered to our recognition of and reaction to social injustices, how do we pause this reactive judgment and stay present? Is it even possible to be with others fully in their experience during the most difficult times?

Our notion of compassionate attention is built on the premise that connecting during those intense moments is a needed skill in holistic engagement and a pathway to ensuring that we remain with our clients before we act, if even just for a moment. It requires that we experience the moments, especially the outrageously unjust ones, as they are before we act upon them. Thus, we define compassionate attention as seeing things as they are with a discerning capacity to suspend action or judgment en route to uninterrupted presence.

Our work in social work education needs to include ways that students can expand in this capacity, recognizing that we, as educators, likely have not been formally supported to practice compassionate attention ourselves. Creating and strengthening “discerning capacity” for social workers to pay attention without action invites an important shift in education. It requires that we develop the skillfulness to be able to notice what is happening without changing it, rejecting it, judging it, or acting on it, when what we are seeing is uncomfortable or is not aligned with our value system.

I (GA) often tell my students that when they sign up to be social workers, they are signing up for paying attention pretty continually to social justice issues. Is it possible to be an ethical social worker and pay attention without judgment? We recognize that the importance of paying attention without judgment really lies in the elements of distraction. Because it is often in our judgment of what is or is not happening that we direct the most interest, we lose sight of what we initially experience. As social workers, having our own reaction to what we hear, including our judgment and horror in response to injustices that we see, is crucial. The way these tend to shake us up at a cellular level often bears witness to the depth of our understanding and empathy.

Paying attention without ever getting to judgment is likely not something we want to, nor is it possible to, train our students to do. However, there is a point at which that distraction of our judgment, or outrage, or motivation to action can distract us from being fully engaged in what is happening. As we are developing the notion of holistic engagement, we need to have a way to support social workers' capacities to be present in the moment in a way that includes their own judgments and emotional reactions as part of the moment but that helps them not to get too distracted by and swept up in these emotional reactions. We focus on welcoming the emotions and not shutting them down because they tend to provide important information for us to use. If we are going to be attuned professionals, we need access to this full reaction.

Part of our job in social work education is to think about what methods we can utilize to help our developing colleagues to pay attention to what arises for them in challenging or unfamiliar situations, hold them well and yet, in the moment, create a kind of spaciousness and full experience of what is happening without the need to change it right then. Central to this practice of holistic engagement is the ability to “let go.” This means letting go of our grip on our own beliefs and emotions as well as letting go of our often tightly held egoic identities as professionals or social change agents.

Creating situations in the classroom in which students have opportunities to practice “letting go” can be useful en route to sustaining compassionate attention. When I (LP) ask my Community Building students to stand up and come into a physical pose that embodies their understanding of oppression, they are forced to confront feelings of discomfort with putting their bodies out there for everyone to see. Also, in my (LP) Yoga, Mindfulness and Social Work class, I ask students to engage in improvisational dance as a way to integrate and release after a very emotional exercise we do. Improvisational dancing in a university classroom requires a tremendous amount of “letting go” of inhibitions. Many students report how difficult it is to do but how liberating it felt once they did it. There are always a couple of students who are just not able to bring themselves to do it.

Consider the experience of being in the classroom early in the semester, inviting the new class of students to briefly introduce their own pathway to choosing social work as a profession. Hesitantly, a student of color raises her hand and begins to tell her story: “I always dreamed about becoming a nurse; I dressed up like a nurse every Halloween; I told my grandmother that I would be a nurse, as she was dying in the hospital when I was in high school, and she said ‘of course you will, dear.' I worked hard, graduated with honors, and applied to the nursing program with qualifying grades, what I thought was a strong essay, and my dreams squarely intent on enrolling. I received a conditional acceptance, pending interview.” She pauses. “I was told by the program director that students from ‘my kind of high school' tend to struggle in the program and she thought social work would be a better fit for me, the demands weren't as difficult and she thought I'd have more ‘peers' in that profession. I guess I got on the pathway to social work because the nursing program didn't like the way I looked.” As we learn of this injustice in enough graphic detail to bring both tears and chills, imagining the pain, the reality that the perpetrator is a fellow educator, we may launch into rage, and sadness, and perhaps disdain for the program director. We may immediately condemn the behavior, cite the grotesque violation of educational and human rights, and reassure her that she deserved so much better. Meanwhile, here sits this student, frozen in silence that followed her spoken trauma, taking the risk to tell her real story. Are we present for the fullness of this student's experience? Perhaps we miss the uniqueness of the persons with whom we are working and

their response because our responses are so big that they fill up the room. Our job as social work educators is to design ways for students to start to break down and inquire into the minutia of those split seconds to see the richness of their experience and to see what could be getting in the way of compassionate attention.

In our work as educators, we strive to create ways to show our students how eventually they might be able to pay attention and to sit with discomfort that might be generated without acting. However, it is not prudent to throw our students into the deep end without a life raft just as we would not want a new social worker to be thrown into a very challenging case alone. Sometimes, students are just not ready yet to sit with discomfort without acting, so we give them opportunities to process it in a way that is more comforting, by journaling about it, discussing it with peers, or working through difficult content through some form of artistic expression. Sitting with discomfort is difficult to trust because we often draw our energy and substantive responses from the very judgment we experience versus the experience itself (Van Soest, 1996). As well, our culture values both judgment and action and puts less value on nonjudgment and non-acting, so what we are teaching is in a sense countercultural, or what Buddhists refer to as “against the stream” (Levine, 2007).

In our model, we shift the contemplative emphasis from noticing without judgment to noticing without action—at least for a little while. If we can stay grounded in what is happening, including what is happening inside of us, our picture is much more comprehensive than if once the fireworks of judgment spark inside we abandon our client and the moment in search ofjustice. Compassionate attention involves all of these happening simultaneously, leaving no one's experience out. The discernment needed to do this in the moments of highest intensity presents us with a grand and challenging invitation to ourselves, our students, and for social work education.

 
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