Is your default compassion when someone is going through a tough time? Mine definitely isn’t!
The other day a friend texted me and I asked if I could give some advice. 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. Solutions. I went into full on problem solving mode. And let me tell you, these were some good solutions!
I was feeling pretty proud at myself for being able to come up with some creative solutions 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 in 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?
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 interchangeable 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 to understand someone else’s feelings.
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 worthy goal to cultivate these qualities in our relationship with others and the outer world at large. In addition, yoga also calls to cultivate these qualities towards ourselves.
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. You’ve heard many of my thoughts and stories about this in previous blog posts like this one.
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, we need to offer ourselves moments of comfort and compassion, not just solutions and actions.
Yoga practice helps us feel more compassionate.
Our yoga posture practice, especially Restorative Yoga, is often the solution for our exhaustion, overwhelm, and anxiety. More active posture practice helps us get strong and flexible and provides us a way to move our body in a mindful and purposeful way. Above all, yoga also gives us a chance to practice compassion in the moments of discomfort and suffering.
For example, Triangle pose invites us to notice our response to tight hamstrings. Tree pose gives us a chance to see how we respond to instability. Cobra pose offers us a chance to notice how it feels to open a place across our chest that we often close off and protect.
Whether you are practicing handstands or corpse pose, 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 good a practice.
And in many ways it’s the only practice there is.
There’s are lots of great stories from the yoga tradition about compassion. You might enjoy reading this one.
Ready to try this on your yoga mat?
There is a four-class series on the keys to peace available right now on Tara Lemerise Yoga On-Demand. Subscribe today to check them out.