We met Lara Naughton in 2015 and have since collaborated on a series of Compassion products, hosted an event in support of her book, The Jaguar Man, and taken a course in CCT Training with her. She has been an incredible inspiration and a strong voice for peace in our lives.
What's your name and where are you from?
Lara Naughton. I was born in Ohio, lived just outside Washington D.C. until middle school, and then my family moved to Philadelphia. As an adult, I’ve chosen to live in Los Angeles and New Orleans. When asked this question, I usually say I’m from Philadelphia.
What's your background? What was your initial practice and medium?
My personal/professional/creative trajectory has always incorporated teaching and writing. As a kid, I played “school” with my stuffed animals in a small classroom I created in our basement. I’ve been a teacher for about twenty years now. Currently, I teach creative writing fulltime at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. As far as writing goes, the first poem I remember writing was in elementary school. It was a four-line ode to the Olympic skater Dorothy Hamill, a terrible little poem but I loved writing it because it expressed just how I felt! I didn’t take writing seriously until college, when I really connected with it and began studying the craft of writing. Since that time, I’ve shaped my life around this art form. I’ve primarily been a documentary playwright, probably because of my long-standing interest in hearing and helping other people share their experiences. I find that when people tell the truth about their lives, their stories are inherently filled with strength, courage and enormous wisdom. Recently, I’ve begun writing about my own experiences, including in my memoir The Jaguar Man, and no doubt I’m better equipped to do this as a result of listening to so many other people share what they encountered in life.
How long have you been working specifically in the field of compassion, or CCT? Would you explain your background with Compassion and the training courses?
I came to compassion as a result of surviving a violent crime. While traveling in Belize, I was kidnapped and raped at knifepoint by a man pretending to be a cab driver. I couldn’t run or overpower him, all I could do is turn toward his pain and try to soothe his suffering so that he’d soften enough to let me go. It was an instinctive strategy, and it worked. I didn’t walk out of the encounter untouched, but I walked out alive. After this experience, I had so many questions about compassion: What is it? How does it work? How can it be so powerful that it can literally lower a knife? I spent a few years considering these questions and exploring them in different ways, and then in 2014, I enrolled in the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University School of Medicine. The Center is devoted to the study of compassion. There, I studied the science and philosophy of compassion, and became one of CCARE’s certified compassion cultivation trainers.
How has Compassion Cultivation Training pushed your spiritual growth?
Compassion is innate and evolutionary. Everybody has a natural capacity for compassion, though not everyone practices it. When people cultivate compassion for themselves and others, it leads to a greater sense of connection, and an awareness of our common humanity. That doesn’t mean we will like everyone we meet, but we’re able to recognize the humanity of each person, even those we don’t like or the people we think have harmed us. For me, compassion is part of my spiritual life, part of opening my heart. There are times when it’s really challenging, but those are also the moments that can lead to deep learning and push me to become more loving and understanding. I try to keep my spiritual focus on truth and love. Compassion is a way to practice both of these.
Is "compassion/mindfulness/care" your primary focus? Would you say you have 3 concurrent projects (teaching, writing, and compassion projects), or do you see it as fitting into a singular vision?
This is a great question, and one I’m figuring out. Compassion projects, teaching, and writing are intersecting in my work more and more. For example, I often incorporate personal narrative writing in my compassion workshops, and compassion exercises in my writing classes. In my own writing, I’m drawn to documenting stories that are ultimately about compassion, beauty and joy, even if on the face of it the stories seem to be about things that are painful and ugly. There’s a lot of ugliness in the world, but right beside the ugly is usually beauty. For me, that balance is important to remember.
What have you learned lately through producing art, teaching, etc?
People want to be at peace with themselves and others. Fear can get in the way and wreak havoc, but I keep learning the same thing in different contexts and from different people -- that underneath our often unskillful actions is a common desire to be happy.
Is there anything that you have learned through creating art that has made you a better person as a whole?
I think just the act of creating art makes me a better person. It’s a gateway to self-expression, it gives me an expanded sense of possibility, and it’s an abiding reminder of my interconnectedness with other people.
What else are you working on right now?
My main goal right now is to continue working with people involved in criminal justice reform, and to offer compassion cultivation training on both sides of the prison gates.
What most inspires you about New Orleans?
I’ve lived here nearly 12 years, and in this time I’ve met incredibly talented and generous people. I know this would be true anywhere, but New Orleans seems to make things visible in ways other cities doesn’t. What other city is this colorful, complex and endlessly interesting?
Are there any wise words you’d like to share?
I don’t know that I’m qualified to offer anything new, but since our conversation has been about compassion, I’ll reiterate something wise the Dalai Lama teaches: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Learn more about Lara's work here
Shop our Compassion products here
Photos by Michael Tucker