I recently heard about a church group who started what they call Valentine’s Day of Compassion about 10 years ago. In an answer to the “Hallmark holiday” that focuses almost exclusively on romantic love, the organizers wanted to reframe the idea of what it means to love and be loving towards others. It reminded me of the different ways that yoga views love.
Love as compassion is one of them. In Yoga Sutra 1.33 we are advised to act with compassion for the miserable and sorrowful.
Miriam-Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”
In Sanskrit, the word for compassion is karuṇā.
Just like our understanding of the English word compassion, karuṇā is more than plain empathy, more than the ability to understand the feelings of another. And it’s not just sympathy or feeling pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.
Karuṇā is the ability to understand someone else’s feelings, plus feeling pity and sorrow yourself for their dilemmas, AND a desire to alleviate the suffering for both of you.
There is a beautiful compassion meditation that comes from the Buddhist tradition.
It goes like this…
Invite into your awareness someone you know who is suffering. (It works best at first if you choose someone you know personally.) Fill your heart with an image of this person. Inhale and draw in all of that person’s pain as if it were a dark cloud. Exhale and send the person a bright light of joy and healing.
It sounds simple, right? But if start to practice you’ll notice it’s not as simple as it seems.
Noticing what comes up as you practice this meditation gives you lots of information about yourself and your tendencies.
For example, when I do this meditation, I make it about 2 or 3 breaths before I’m in problem-solving mode. I hear myself in full-on infomercial announcer voice “Are you suffering? Well suffer no more! I’ve got 50 different options for things I’m sure you haven’t tried!” Then it starts to morph into something similar to this cartoon.
Does your mind do this too? Does it immediately jump to all of the schemes, all of the actions, all of the solutions for the problem?
Or maybe you get sidetracked by our own pain and discomfort. Thinking of a friend who is suffering reminds you of your own suffering and instead of being able to offer light on your exhale, you end up getting bogged down in your own dilemmas. That’s definitely happened to me too!
These scenarios make it tempting to consider your compassion meditation a failure. But Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön writes about karuṇā, saying:
“True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.”
Cultivating karuṇā is about connection to others through memories, sensations, realizations of our own sufferings. But it can be challenging not to get bogged down in our experiences of suffering or in our rush to judgement and desire to offer up advice.
Compassion that comes from the ways we are similar is meant to be the foundation upon which we chose to act.
And just because I couldn’t borrow the blog post title from Tina Turner without actually linking you to the song, here you go.