Interviews with Karuna Students: Emily Earlenbaugh

Our next interview is with Karuna Graduate Student Emily Earlenbaugh, a writer and cannabis educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. Emily says she was first inspired to join Karuna because of an interest in contemplative psychology and a desire to become more compassionate. “I had been interested in contemplative psychology for a while, but there weren’t many programs for it nearby.” Emily explains. “When I heard that the first North American Karuna Training Cycle was starting up, and was within a few hours drive, it felt like it was meant to be. I went to the introductory weekend with Melissa Moore and was hooked.”

Emily says that the program seemed like one where she could work on a few different skills she wanted to develop. “For one thing, I had recently finished my PhD in analytical philosophy, which had really developed my ability for argumentation” she says. “I was trained to be very aggressive and cutting in my style, and I felt like I needed something to soften my communicative edges. I wanted to learn to be kinder, more vulnerable, more compassionate.”

Emily says she also felt like she needed increase her skills working with people in pain. “I was working in the cannabis industry.” she recalls. “I am a writer and educator in the space, and was often working with patients who were suffering from extremely painful and life-altering conditions. I felt ill-equipped to manage these encounters, and often left them wondering if I could have done better at being there for these people in need. I felt like I needed more training, and Karuna seemed to have the exact tools I was looking for.”

Experiential Insights Into Compassion

According to Emily she learned everything she had hoped for. “Karuna gave me everything I had been looking for and more.” she says emphatically. “There were so many incredible teachings and tools, throughout the program, that have helped me to work with people in more skillful and compassionate ways. But for me, the majority of learning came through experiential insights during the program.”

On a personal level, Emily says she now feels more confident offering compassion to others. “I have had practice with literally everyone in my cohort, and even gotten feedback from them. This has given me a strong sense that I am capable of being there for people, something I felt unsure of before. I also feel like I trust in the goodness of other people more, after the program. I remember when we first started, thinking to myself that there were certain people I wasn’t going to get along with. Over the course of the three years, I got to know everyone on such a deep level, that I began to not only like, but really care about each and every one of them.”

“It really reinforced this idea (that is taught in the program) that everyone is basically good. If you get to know them well enough, you can see the places where they are just like you – people with good motivations but pain and confusion that sometimes gets in the way. I feel like I see everyone this way now, at a very instinctual level. That was probably the most important take-away because it leads me to more compassion in every interaction I have. I have less anger and aggression and more kindness and confidence.”  

Compassion in Online Arguments

Emily says there are moments every day where she notices changes in her own thoughts or behavior which she attributes to Karuna Training. “Recently I’ve been noticing some cool changes in discussions online.” she explains. “As a writer, I constantly have to deal with online trolls, usually misogynistic ones. As an argumentative philosopher, I’ve always loved getting into debates online when people are saying things I find offensive or hurtful. I jump into the conversation and start making points in the opposite direction, but it’s hard to convince anyone of a view they are diametrically opposed to. I stopped doing this for a while, because I didn’t like how I felt afterward, and it didn’t seem to be actually helping.”

“Then last week, there were two separate occasions where I felt like stepping in.” Emily recalls “In both cases, I noticed that I wasn’t angry at the person I was arguing with. I was actually curious on why we disagreed, and how to connect to the basic goodness of the person. This led both conversations on a long but fascinating journey, that gave me insight into the person, and completely shifted the other person’s view.”

“In one interaction, an acquaintance on facebook wrote something like ‘Can you imagine being married to a feminist? I’d rather kill myself.’ The long line of comments responding were other men agreeing. I couldn’t help it, I jumped in to find out why he thought feminists were so bad, and started genuinely questioning him about his views. At first he was very rude and made jokes at my expense. I kept questioning and offering my own observations back in a calm and kind way. I learned he felt that the feminist movement was harmful to men and boys and there were ways it was going too far. It became clear how much fear was behind his statements, and I grateful that my training helped me to see that, rather than the aggression covering it up. I tried to connect with him on what mattered to him and relate it back to his initial comments.”

Emily says she was surprised by how the interaction went. “By the end of the discussion, he had not only changed his mind (saying that he would happily marry a feminist if they were a good fit) but he also apologised to me for his rude behavior at the beginning of our dialogue. He said ‘It won’t happen again, to you or anyone else. It’s something I need to work on.’ He thanked me for being so civil in our discussion and said he hoped to have more conversations in the future. Other men on the feed commented that they felt hope for humanity reading the conversation. It was a pretty shocking turnaround. There is so much divisiveness in the world, but it was beautiful to see how much impact it can make to stay kind and curious. I wouldn’t have believed it could work, but I learned this from Karuna, and it has changed so much about my day-to-day experiences.”

Bringing Karuna into Interviewing

Emily says her graduate practicum for Karuna was to bring Karuna Training techniques into her interviewing. “As a writer, I am often interviewing people for articles and I wanted to bring more compassionate listening skills into that area of my life.” she explains. “We’ve learned so much about how to create a safe dynamic for people to share, so I decided to focus on bringing that to my interviews. The changes have been really amazing.”

“I feel much more connected to and curious about the people I interview now.” she says  “In the past I had focused a lot on the questions I needed to ask, and whether the person was providing me with the quotes I needed. This has became a secondary concern. I still get the information I need, but usually this happens naturally, during the course of the conversation.” Emily says her ultimate goal in the interviewing process has shifted to creating a sense of connection and understanding with the person she’s interviewing, and to extend that connection and understanding to her readers. “This has helped me, not only to create more compelling articles, but also to improve the interview experience for myself and those I’m interviewing.”

Emily says her only advice for others considering Karuna Training is “if you feel a pull towards Karuna Training, go for it. I can’t speak for anyone else, but Karuna has been life-changing for me.” She explains. “ It helped me in my work, but it has also helped in my relationships of all kinds, including the one I have with myself. If you are working on yourself, your relationships, or your work with other human beings, this is an incredible training that you won’t find anywhere else.”