This article is the second of a four-part series on Chapter 1, Verse 33 of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Compassion is a practice that is well-known, yet little understood in its deepest form. We know that it is good to be compassionate – we feel for our loved ones who suffer, for innocent victims of abuse or war, for animals that die at the hands of uncaring or unconscious humans.
The author of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali, emphasized compassion – Karuna in Sanskrit – as one of four attitudes that sustain inner serenity when faced with a variety of situations in human life.
Maitri Karuna Muditopekshanam Sukhaduhka Punyaapunya vishayanam
Bhavanatah Citta Prasadanam
“The mind becomes serene by the cultivation of feelings of love for the happy, compassion for the suffering, delight for the virtuous, and equanimity for the non-virtuous.”
Those four practices mentioned in this passage are Maitri (friendliness or love), Karuna (compassion), Mudita (joyfulness or delight), and Upeksha (even-mindedness or equanimity). Patanjali states that Karuna, compassion, is to be practiced when encountering one who is suffering.
This seems like a no-brainer, eh? We already know that. But the question is – do we really practice it? And how do we practice it?
Certainly, it is relatively easy to be compassionate with someone we love who is suffering. Concern naturally flows from a parent when their child is sick, for example. Yet even in those situations, we are often unclear whether we are being compassionate, or reacting from worry about their well-being.
It helps to have a better understanding of what compassion is. Rev. Michael Bernard Beckwith, new-thought minister and author, distinguishes between sympathy, empathy, and compassion in a way that brings clarity to this practice.
In essence, he says that sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. While there are times when we like receiving sympathy, it’s not a very empowering attitude. It views the other as a “poor dear”, a victim of circumstance. Sympathy tends to focus on the tragedy of the situation and is not always helpful to the one suffering.
Beckwith describes empathy as “I’ll feel for you.” We take on the feelings of the one suffering, imagining how we’d feel in their place – not necessarily how they actually feel. This tends to disturb the mind, causing us to focus on what our worries or concerns would be in their situation. If we are to maintain inner serenity in the face of someone who suffers, this isn’t the best path, either.
Compassion, however, truly focuses on the needs of the one who suffers, and develops in us greater awareness and inner peace. First of all, we become fully present. Compassion allows us to be with the one suffering – even if it is our own self that is in pain – by being in the now, focused on what is, instead of projecting ourselves into what may be. We let them know we’re right here with them.
Then, we share our understanding of their pain, their loss, their fear. Whatever is the cause of ailing, we attempt to understand deeply. We learn to quiet our own fears, reactions, judgments, opinions, and simply understand from their point of view.
When our mind is quiet, we can deeply, truly listen, which is healing itself. Thich Nhat Hahn states this beautifully: “So if we love someone, we should train in being able to listen. By listening with calm and understanding, we can ease the suffering of another person.”
This is not the same as taking on their emotions by feeling them ourselves – it is being present to them and recognizing the experience another is having. Disaster workers understand this, as they would fall apart if they fully took in the pain of the people they are helping. They must be present, listen, and share their understanding from the place of a witness in order to be truly helpful.
Lastly, Beckwith says that from compassion we extend a hand – how can I help? How can I support you? We are not able to take care of all their needs, but when we practice compassion we naturally fall into right action that supports the healing and well-being of the other. This is done from the quiet mind that is in service to all beings.
So compassion – Karuna – is the practice of being present to another who is suffering, deeply understanding them, and exploring in what way we can assist them. Sometimes, our way of helping is simply to be there, holding their hand, or to keep them in our thoughts and to wish their pain to be lifted. We may be able to help in a much larger way, but don’t discount the small ways in which you can extend the action of compassion.
Occasionally, obstacles may arise to our ability to be compassionate. We may have judgments about the nature of the person’s suffering. There may be a grudge we have towards a particular person that blocks compassion. We may cut ourselves off from the situation because it feels too painful to witness it.
Yet, in all these circumstances, if we are able to step back a bit from our personal reactions and projecting our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs on the other, we may be able to overcome these obstacles. It is not our job to fix the situation. It is not our place to judge how someone arrived in that place. The person you hold something against is not who you are sitting across from, but rather a fixed idea you have kept in your mind. Being fully present, understanding, and helpful doesn’t require you or the other person to admit wrongdoing. Just be there, with your heart open, the best way that you can.
And remember that you are deserving of compassion, too. We often have the most difficulty practicing compassion towards ourselves. If you are suffering, be fully present to it. Feel what you feel in your body. Open your heart to it. Listen to yourself, and try to understand the nature of your pain deeply.
Then, consider how to respond most compassionately to yourself. Do you need words of encouragement? A little time to rest and be at peace? To be kinder and less judgmental? Some self-massage? Look at what you can do to ease your own suffering.
The way of compassion – Karuna – is a powerful healing path for all who practice it. For it not only eases the suffering of others as you cultivate Karuna; it brings peace to your own mind and heart. As Baba Hari Das says, “The attitude of compassion… also removes hatred. When one understands, ‘others want to live happily, just as I do,’ then one can feel the pain of others as his or her own pain. This fills one’s heart with compassion.”
We are not truly separate from others – we all share the same longing for love, connection, and happiness which is our Divine Spirit. Karuna calls us to feel our kindred spirit with all life. Their suffering is ours. Realizing that, the ego softens and we feel more One with all that is. It is that Oneness that is yoga, or union. In that place, true serenity lies.