Some semesters it seemed as if the registration gods conspired against her and five or six young men would fill the back row of my friend Karen’s intro to philosophy course. Slouched in their seats, baseball caps pulled low, wearing letter jackets—just the sight of these students propelled Karen back to her student days—these were the jocks who had her treated her love of learning with disdain.
When Karen told me how she felt about these students she called mooks, she was ashamed. Many professors were outstanding students and can be a bit indifferent to all but the best students in their classes. Not Karen. She sees past superficial differences to reach the learner within. But when a group of hulking athletes took over the back row it reduced her to her smallest self and she believed there was no way for her to connect with them.
She wasn’t proud of how she reacted and she knew she couldn’t just stuff her feelings down and move on. She’d tried that and it hadn’t worked.
Karen began an inquiry process when she admitted to herself that she was reacting to these students from her younger self. In accepting this she could finally notice the tension she felt throughout her body, especially in her face when she looked at them. She realized that her arms were often folded across her chest in a gesture of self-protection that also shut off her off from them. She saw that her contempt was written all over her body and even if she doubted their love of learning she knew they were smart enough to feel her dislike. As she made a conscious effort to relax her body, her mind began to follow.
Over time, she came to see them as she saw other students—with openness and compassion for them as individuals. She was no longer surprised or suspicious when they participated in class discussion or performed well on assignments. When they struggled, her compassion for them overcame any lingering doubts about her ability to help them.
Who are your mooks? Who are the people who reduce you to your smallest self? When you see them ask Tara Brach’s perfect question, “What in me is disturbed by this?” When you find the answer, I urge you to act with compassion toward yourself, as that is the first step toward behaving with compassion toward them.