The residents of the Institute chose to practice compassion for the month of August. Compassion is a cornerstone of all spiritual paths and a primary virtue in all faiths. It arises naturally from the awareness that we are all interconnected with each other and the whole web of life. It is a positive expression of Ahimsa, or non-harming, which is one of the most fundamental precepts in the eight-limbed path delineated by the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Showing compassion for ourselves can be a simple way to begin this practice and insure that it does not reinforce an unhealthy habit of self-denial. We can each direct this intention to the body when we practice asanas, responding to its messages instead of imposing how we would like it to be. Then we can develop that same accepting awareness towards our minds, witnessing its moods and desires, unhealthy attachments and aversions, without judgment and without getting swept away by them. Sometimes I can see, for example, how attached I am to my own expectations for how events will unfold and how my struggle to control things creates tension or conflict. I can observe this with an amused affection and recognize this habitual tendency to try to arrange for happiness.
When we are able to be openhearted and honest about our own darkness, we develop understanding of the whole human experience and can relate with more compassion to others as well. The Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, writes in her book, <span style=”text-decoration: underline;”>Start Where You Are</span>, “The basic ground of compassionate action is the importance of working with your own unwanted, unacceptable stuff, so that when the unacceptable and unwanted appears out there, you relate to it based on having worked with loving-kindness for yourself.”
It can be particularly challenging to practice this with those whose behavior is hurtful. If we look deeply into another person’s behavior, we can often see that he or she has also been a victim and that suffering is at the root of their actions. When we truly consider how painful it must be for someone to hurt others, how it poisons the heart, we can wish for them to be free of suffering, even as we protect ourselves from their behavior.
It may be wise to begin practicing compassion with simple acts of kindness for those close to us and learn from experiencing the joy of serving and giving. When we take a moment to actually feel the energy of genuine care in the heart, we will appreciate it and can gradually learn to extend it towards others. We have endless opportunities every day to be a little more considerate when we are driving, listening or working with others. Practicing kindness in even a few of these moments has a ripple effect that can soften the hearts of those around us, and makes a positive contribution to the collective consciousness of our world.
Ultimately, compassion represents a shift from me-centered to we-centered thinking, and the realization that loving others <em>is</em> loving yourself. My teacher, Sri Swami Satchidananda, beautifully articulates this essential truth when he says, “Real love is possible only when you see everything as your own expression. All others are none other than you; they just appear to be different. We always need to go beyond the name and form. When we rise above the worldly limitations, we will find that the essence is the same.”