Not too long ago, a friend texted me and asked for my opinion on something. As soon as we started talking on the phone, I realized my friend was going through a really rough time.
So I started offering advice.
I went into full on problem solving mode. And let me tell you, these were some good solutions!
I was feeling pretty proud of myself for being able to come up with some creative fixes on the spot.
However, as our conversation continued, I could tell my friend was getting annoyed.
And then I started getting annoyed.
I mean these were some really top notch suggestions! What was the issue here?
Suddenly, I realized that my friend didn’t actually want advice or solutions at that moment. My friend just wanted to feel like someone had their back and was on their side and that I was listening. In other words, my friend wanted me to sit and listen to their experience of discomfort and suffering with compassion.
What is compassion exactly?
The English word compassion does not mean “with passion” as it is sometimes explained. It actually comes from the Latin word compatī, which means “to suffer with.”
While compassion is sometimes used interchangeably with the word pity, that’s not quite it either. Pity has a different, sometimes negative, connotation. Compassion is not the same thing as feeling sorry for someone. It is about empathy and the ability or heart-felt desire to understand someone else’s feelings and experience and to be fully present for them.
Compassion is one of the four keys to peace.
In Sanskrit the word for compassion is karuṇā. It is an important part of Buddhist practice as one of the Brahmavihārās, also known as the sublime attitudes or the four immeasurables. The sublime attitudes are also known as the four keys to peace in the Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali.
Sūtra 1.33 says:
maitrī karuṇā mudito-pekṣāṇāṁ-sukha-duḥkha puṇya-apuṇya-viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaḥ citta-prasādanam
There are a number of great and compelling translations and accompanying commentary on these words but the basic gist is that we can find peace by cultivating these four qualities:
maitrī = friendliness
karuṇā = compassion
mudita = sympathetic joy
upekṣā = equanimity
It’s easy to see how it is a worthy goal to cultivate these qualities in our relationship with others and the outer world at large.
It’s often a bit tricker to answer yoga’s call to cultivate these qualities towards ourselves. Yet, compassion isn’t just for other people.
As you might have suspected from my earlier story, I’m a problem solver by nature. I like to take action and get things done. However, no matter how much satisfaction I get from solving my own problems, sometimes a rush to action can leave me feeling unsettled. Just like in the story about my friend, I know I need to offer myself moments of comfort and compassion, not always solutions and actions alone.
But this is SO HARD!
Compassion on the Meditation Cushion
The foundational Buddhist meditation practice of mindfulness known as śamatha or “tranquility of the mind” is a technique for cultivating a sense of equanimous steadfastness. In the Four Ways to Arahantship Sutta, one of the “Numerical Discourses” of Buddhist scripture, we learn that the one way to advance along the path to enlightenment is vipassana-pubbangamam samatham. In English, notice the things that cause your suffering and then sit with those things in calm abiding.
The first enemy of compassion is cruelty. If you sit and begin to observe and acknowledge the causes of your suffering, the hypercritical side of mind can show up to chide or berate or lay blame elsewhere. Sometimes that voice might sound like “If only that other person would behave differently, I wouldn’t be suffering right now!”
One of my favorite lines comes from Visuddhimagga’s The Path of Purification, by Bhadantácariya Buddhaghosa, translated by Bhikkhu Ñáóamoli:
“For irritation subsides too through compassion.”
This goes for the vitriol and harsh words we direct back at ourselves too. Our inner critic can be especially cruel upon discovering that we are responsible for causing our own suffering. That inner voice might sound something like “You know this is bad behavior. Why do you keep doing this to yourself?!?”
It’s impossible to sit with ourselves, to tolerate the sources of our suffering, and feel peace without offering ourselves compassion.
The Path of Purification explains how like a farmer plowing his field, the first step is to define the scope of the work and start small. In order to become more compassionate for all, we have to start with ourselves.
Compassion on the Yoga Mat
Āsana, or posture practice, offers us a chance to practice compassion in moments of discomfort and suffering too, through the experience of our physical body.
For example, utthita trikoṇāsana, commonly known as triangle pose, invites us to notice our response to tight hamstrings.
Vṛkṣāsana (tree pose) gives us a low-risk way to explore how we respond to physical instability.
Bhujaṅgāsana, the low to the ground belly down backbend called cobra pose in English, offers us a chance to notice how it feels to open a place across our chest that we often close off and protect.
In āsana practice, we are called to notice how the perfectionists part of us show up. Yoga poses aren’t intended to be used as punishment. Instead, they are opportunities to explore the less than compassionate reactions we sometimes have. They are an exercise in shifting away from harshness and high demand towards inquisitiveness and tenderness.
Whether you are practicing handstands, restorative yoga, or sitting for your meditation practice, what happens when you just practice being with what is and you don’t try to fix anything?
Can you be with whatever you encounter with curiosity and compassion without trying to solve any so-called problems?
It’s a good thing to practice.
And in many ways, it’s the only practice there is.