Compassion Cultivation Training with Dream a Dream Foundation
In January this year I had the opportunity of teach the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT™ ) to a group of facilitators from Dream a Dream foundation. CCT™ is an 8-week program, developed at Stanford University, with insights and techniques from psychology, neuroscience, and contemplative practice. The course integrates evidence-based meditation techniques, interactive discussions, and lectures as well as real-world exercises to put learning into practice.
Dream a Dream empowers young people, from vulnerable backgrounds, to overcome adversity and flourish in a fast changing world, using a creative life skills approach. The training was supported by a generous grant from the Compassion Corps, which is a part of the Compassion Institute. The course wouldn’t have been possible without the help of two volunteers – Madhusmita Misra and Eerana R both of whom worked tirelessly to take care of logistics and operational issues. Gita Venkat from The Mindful Initiative was instrumental in helping in almost every way to get this training off the ground till the concluding session of the course.
Teachers and facilitators at Dream a Dream foundation work with young people who have gone through difficult situations in their daily lives and belong to disempowered communities. Equipping and empowering these young children and adults with life skills through sports, art, vocational training and coaching, prepares them to face life’s challenges, and opens their lives to a road of possibilities, hopes and dreams. By planting the seed of confidence in the minds and hearts of these youngsters, these life skills propel the students towards progress by expanding their repertoire. This enables the students to navigate through life’s challenges and flourish ahead.
The Dream a Dream foundation conducts three main programs:
- After School Life Skills Program
- Career Connect
- Teacher Development Program
I have had the opportunity to visit a few “After School Life Skills” programs and meet with the “Career Connect” group. The schools nurtured by Dream a Dream are in some of the poorest areas of the city of Bangalore (India) and are located across the city. Currently, Dream a Dream partners with 28 partner schools, touching the lives of over 5,000 students each year. I have been deeply moved by the commitment and passion of the facilitators of Dream a Dream foundation. Many of the facilitators have grown out of the Dream a Dream system itself. Their mission in life is to give back to society, and to restore and preserve dignity in the lives of children.
Chandra English High School
Here are a few glimpses from the first school that I visited. The school address that was provided to me led to a completely different part of the town.
Luckily, I had a lot of buffer time and thanks to Ravi, the facilitator for the school, I made it to class just in time. Climbing up very narrow stairs, I reached the terrace where the program was to be held. About 20 young boys and girls walked in. The place is used for lunch in the afternoon. The students came in and cleaned the floor before the session started. These were all sixth graders who were going to learn life skills through art. The day I visited, the children were learning to recognise the names of fruits and vegetables through various activities. Ranjith, the program manager for the facilitators was also a part of the session. We all sat in a circle and one of us enacted the role of a fruit/vegetable seller vendor, going around asking what vegetable we would like to buy. Half way into the game the facilitator felt that the students want more interactive activity so we started playing a game called, “Statue” – where everyone continued to do what they were doing until they heard, “Become a Statue” and then froze in whichever position they were in.
As students enjoyed playing “Statue”, I started to notice the joy on their faces. The energy in the room was at a different level now but maybe the children of this age have that kind of energy. This continued for another 10-15 minutes after which a short break was called. Three girl students were assigned the task of marking the attendance for that day. Even though I had seen the room earlier, I now noticed that the room also stored some broken chairs and tables. While the students were all across the room, the three girls kept marking their attendance. The attendance was followed by some song and dance performances. You can see the photographs below.
Round Table School
The second school I visited was facilitated by Pallavi, a 27-year old graduate of the Dream a Dream program. The program was to teach life skills using a football.
When the program was introduced in the area where the school is located, there were no open spaces for children to play football. Dream a Dream worked with the local legislators to create an open space not just for their program but for the entire community. The ground that you see in the photograph above, used to be a garbage dump and it took them over 15 months to get the ground in its current form
These were older students – 9th graders. The program started with a warm up. I couldn’t understand much about what was going on as the medium of instruction was Kannada – but I was getting a gist of what was being talked about. The warms ups were followed by girls sitting in a smaller inner circle while the boys sat outside. As the girls sat quietly, some important questions were asked by Pallavi. The questions were relevant to their day to day life. For example – why is it important to respect women, and what is the right way of communicating. They debated with each other to arrive at what should be the right way. Pallavi facilitated the entire discussion. Then it was the girls’ turn to have a discussion, as they sat in the outside circle and the boys came inside.
After football and team building activities, birthday of one of the students was celebrated. I was lucky to be invited to join the celebration as some other students posed for the camera.
Towards the end of my visit, the facilitators said that the struggles are many – but the motivation is to make the lives of future generations better. She said, “There are many who need help so I do what I can.”
Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT)
Each CCT that I have taught has been life altering for me. It’s an opportunity to introduce Compassion to many but in return it is a huge learning opportunity for me. By the end of this CCT course I was a better person because of the participation of the students and the experiences they shared. Together we laughed, cried, rested, ate, moved, meditated, drew, wrote and did many more things that I can’t remember. However, I will always remember the heart that all the students brought each week to the class.
It would be quite relevant to talk about some of challenges that I faced during the course and some measures I took to overcome them. 58 students were divided into two separate groups. Each group had 29 students. The following is not a week by week account but an overall picture of the challenges through the course.
Even though all students knew English their levels of English were quite varied. They found it intimidating to express themselves (especially in English) in front of a large group. This was amplified by the fact that English was not their preferred language of communication. To address this I changed a few things. These changes came about after a few suggestions from Aly at the Compassion Institute and my colleague Gita at The Mindful Initiative.
- I started preparing poems, notes etc in English and in their mother tongue, Kannada.
I arranged for a translator to translate complicated words, sentences in Kannada (made me think of Thupten Jinpa and Dalai Lama).
- I kept on encouraging everyone to speak in any language that they were comfortable in.
- We also tried translating the meditation in local language, but we couldn’t finish this in time.
- Many of students were teaching Life Skills program through Art – so we ask them to draw their experiences at times
It was heartwarming to see the changes brought in the class participation and group discussions. I felt more connected with the students and it felt that they were too.
Where and When to Meditate
Many students couldn’t find time and a quite place to meditate. Once I started to get to the roots of the issue, I found that the issue was much deeper. Some students lived in a one bedroom house with 6-7 family members. Some mothers had to attend to children and/or cook, clean before and after work. A few students worked 3-4 part time jobs and few were students at university. These were some the problems we knew and I am sure there were others that weren’t brought to my attention.
Dream a Dream employees, Pavithra and Revanna, the two people who had championed CCT, came to rescue. We worked together to create a quiet room at both their offices. The participants were also encouraged to meditate right before they started their shifts (so they could delay their classes by 10-15 minutes). This changed many things for us during the course. Many students could relate to what we were talking about during the class based on their first hand experience – the conversations became more richer as classes went on.
Long Breaks and Movement
There were two issues related to breaks: Once students took longer to get back from breaks and second students had low energy after the breaks. The former could be a function of catching up with other people, looking at phones and latter may have been the time of the day. After a few failed attempts of using various methods, we
decided to circumvent the issue by introducing the idea of Mindful Breaks – to increase awareness by doing things in silence. This helped students be more aware of their actions and reduced interactions, which helped tremendously with the issue.
The other issue of lethargy was a bit trickier. Merlene, my classmate from CCT, teaches CCT in South Africa. After I shared the problem with her she was kind enough to share her experience of walking through a dark tunnel with her eyes closed in Japan. Even though we couldn’t introduce the exact same idea, but along the same lines we introduced the idea of Mindful Walking first with open eyes and then with closed eyes. Based on the feedback I received, we practiced Compassionate stretches after a break along with a few other Mindful movement exercises. The idea of these 2-5 minute movements exercises was to ensure that students shouldn’t be sitting throughout and it helps
Nabeel is 18 and was the youngest student in the entire group. For the first few classes he always walked in 15-35 minutes after the class started. Coming late wasn’t an issue once in a while – but he was fashionably late in each class. He seemed uninterested during the sessions. I thought it was to with his age. After one of the classes we both engaged in a casual conversation where I got to know that it takes him about 2 and half to 3 hours to get here. He takes a rickshaw, a train and changes 2 buses to get here, which probably explained why he was late for every class. He also told how difficult it was to find time for anything as he had to teach, then go to college and work 2 other part time jobs. Listening to him, I felt so sorry for him and all that he was going through as a teenager. Right before our conversation ended, I casually remarked, maybe leave a little earlier so you can get here on time so you can make most out of the class – a very non-compassionate statement, I felt. That response stayed with me through the week. While marking attendance (yes I marked attendance – this was a way for me to get to know everyone’s name) – Nabeel was on time and he was on time for each class afterwards. He meditated during the week, participated in conversations, and activities there after. The photo that you see is a card that he made expressing his love and gratitude for a loved one. It was one of the most creative cards that I had seen that day. During our last class, I walked up to him and asked him what changed – and he politely responded – that when we spoke – he felt that I cared and I noticed and that’s all he wants. Probably all of us could do with more love and caring in our lives.
The final session for both groups was combined into one session. We invited Ramesh Aarvind, a very popular Kannada actor to speak and felicitate the participants (Thank You to my colleague Gita for making this happen).
As part of the completion of the course, I asked the students to create a short film of upto two-three minutes that could sum up their learnings of the past 8-weeks. The students were divided into groups. Even though we had 19 groups, I got 24 submissions (some were just notes and audios). Some students couldn’t coordinate so they submitted individual films. Students cooked food and brought drinks to share for the final session. A memory that will be with me for a long time – as we watched all the films together. As far as I know none of students had any prior experience in filmmaking. This was their first time attempting to make a film.
Please enjoy the four most liked films:
Film 1: Mindfulness by Karthik, Pavithra and Shanthi
Film 2: Our Experiences by Sheetal L.
Film 3: Mindfulness Learning by Afreen and Chandralekha
Film 4: Hungry by Chandru Kanasu
I was humbled by teaching such a dynamic and inspiring group. There were many Nabeel’s, Ravi’s, Pallavi’s that I got to know. As I said earlier, I learnt more from them than they probably learnt from me. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to introduce the idea of compassion in their lives and hopefully sowed a seed for a better future.