Wise words from the Dalai Lama. I could take his words a bit further and say that love and compassion are the very essence of humanity, and without them we would not be human. It could be argued that the rest of the animal kingdom experiences love, but the extent that humans feel and show compassion for each other makes us a unique species.
Compassion (Karuna), is a key aspect within Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It is one of the keys to peace and serenity of the mind.
So if compassion is natural and essential to our happiness, why is it so hard to feel and express at times? What can we do to reconnect with our natural ability to give and receive compassion?
Social and Emotional Barriers
We live in a modern society that is obsessed with the self. Every day out minds are bombarded by narcissism on social media—a constant feed of everyone’s life highlights. The suffering of others, and even our own internal suffering is easily ignored. We are fighting an uphill battle against the egoic mind that drives us to be self-involved. Tuning out from media and tuning into loved ones and our own true feelings can help reconnect us to the human experience of compassion.
Certain emotions block us from experiencing compassion. My mother has stage 4 breast cancer, and suffers from anxiety and depression. She hasn’t been herself since the diagnosis, and sometimes her anxiety is so severe she cannot function or get out of bed for days. I know I should have compassion for her. I know I should lay beside her and cry with her, but all I can do is lecture her about eating healthy and facing her fears. Sometimes I get frustrated and become distant. I know I’m in denial that my mom might be dying. I can’t bring myself to feel her pain and sadness because I am afraid it will swallow me whole. Anger, fear and denial are the barriers keeping me from feeling compassion.
But you can empathize with someone without having to take on the entirety of their suffering. You can be compassionate just by acknowledging another’s pain and being present to comfort them without judging or striving for change. Just sitting on the porch swing with my mother in silent, loving companionship does more for her healing than any word of advice.
When we think of compassion, we automatically think of empathy for others, but it is equally important to have compassion for ourselves. In fact, we begin with self-compassion and then allow our hearts to continue to open to others.
Self-compassion is unconditional, non-judgmental love and acceptance of our minds, bodies and spirits. Having compassion for yourself does not mean being okay with all of your faults and never striving for greatness. It is healthy to want to better yourself, but on your journey to change you can treat yourself with compassion. Self-compassion is understanding your humanity, and realizing that it takes time to figure out life’s complexities.
We start to cultivate self-compassion by forgiving ourselves for mistakes and imperfections. This means when a mistake is made, we learn from it rather than allow it to mire us in shame and depression. The process of forgiveness begins by briefly dwelling on what happened, extracting any wisdom we can from the experience and then consciously moving forward.
The Yoga Connection
Yoga in itself is a form of self-love. The act of reserving time to stretch and exercise, soothe and focus the mind is a way of honoring your body. You can expand that self-love into compassion by dedicating your practice to acceptance of yourself. During your practice, bring your awareness to your pain and insecurities and just be present with them in a non-judging, loving way. Open your heart and feel compassion for your day-to-day struggle, as well as the struggle of mankind. As you move and stretch through the asanas, tap into your personal strength and envision it flowing through your body. See your body and its movements as a symbol of your power and resilience. Visualize a stream of loving energy that grounds you to the earth as well as unites you with all living things.
What’s Left in the End
Compassion isn’t complicated, it’s simply as state of mind that when tuned into, helps us connect to each other and the universe. Once you strip away the negative, defensive, self-preserving emotions and attitudes, compassion is what remains.
Along with love, humility, gratitude…