Nirodhaḥ Yoga Blog
"What compassion really means is a relationship between equals."
Recently, I was overcome by feelings of grief. We are all processing the last weeks and many of us are working through a realization that the world will never be the same.
In the U.S., we are often encouraged to push away feelings of sadness or discomfort. Whether this is due to discomfort with sitting with our own or another person's emotions, or a fear that another person's pain will cause us pain, pushing feelings away is a surefire way to kindle them further.
Then, we may turn to anger, alcohol, drugs, unhealthy food, or any other maladaptive coping mechanisms we are prone to. We stuff away these feelings in avoidance, never realizing they are only fermenting and growing more explosive each day we avoid them.
Although yoga is often thought of as exercises for the body, yogis practicing at 5KY know that there are many more layers we're accessing through our practices. In yogic philosophy, there are five layers (koshas) that cover and give expression to the true self within each of us.
There is, of course, the bodily layer. That part of us made up from the food we (or our mothers, when we are in utero) eat. The next layer, which is slightly more subtle, is that part of us made up of our breath. Oxygen energizes the physical body and helps us act.
Beyond this layer, is the layer of our instinctual mind. This is distinct from the "wise" part of our mind that is responsible for observing the fluctuations of thought and controlling our responses to stimuli.
So for example, our instinctual mind may smell something really tasty cooking and think, "I'm hungry. I need to have that right away." Our wise mind may tell us "no, I'm in the middle of my work. I just ate two hours ago. I can wait until dinnertime."
Though this wise mind is useful in reigning in instinctual impulses that don't serve us in the long run, sometimes our instinctual mind cries out with such urgency that we must listen. So how do we combine honoring and controlling our emotions, especially in times like this?
The answer is compassion. In Sanskrit, compassion is called Karuna. Karuna is that sweet sadness we feel when we observe another being in distress.
Sometimes we get swept up in this sadness and start to empathize with the pain of the other. Although empathy can create a powerful connection, when we are stuck in the same emotion as the being we empathize with, we are unable to offer real help. Compassion allows us to feel for the being's pain, without creating additional suffering (within ourselves).
One helpful tool from psychology I often employ when feeling overwhelmed by empathy, is discerning between my "circle of control" versus my "circle of influence". Most of us are very concerned about the well-being of our loved ones, our neighbors, our city, and our planet.
But it is not within our influence to correct every mistake we see. When we try to influence things out of our control, we find fear. And fear will always lead to anger and sadness. Fear, anger, and sadness may be emotionally potent but they are also powerless to create feelings joy, love, wonder, or peace.
Furthermore, when we act out of fear, anger, and sadness, we may impose our own will upon another. Not accepting our lack of influence in the situation, we use strategies that work for us and try to control others. When our feeble attempts at controlling something wholly out of our control fail, we only feel more fear. The cycle repeats.
Karuna is the middle path between pushing our emotions away and overly involving ourselves in the feelings of fear, anger, and sadness. We can feel compassion for those suffering at this moment, for the whole planet even.
We can also feel compassion for our own emotions. Then, give ourselves the opportunity to turn toward courage, love, and joy, as an antidote to our suffering. It's a practice and it takes time.
Through this compassionate attention to our own emotions, we will begin to feel the unity behind all diversity. We will stop causing pain to ourselves, others, and to the planet. We will see the solutions to ending suffering for all beings with whom we co-exist. Only then can we say we have true equality: no divisions between individuals, countries, or even, species.
In service of this, I offer you a prayer I use during Metta or Loving-Kindness meditation, which has helped me cultivate feelings of courage, love, and joy in these dark days.
In each part, call to mind someone specific to whom you offer these thoughts. Sit with the prayer for each person and really try to feel what you are thinking.
I send my prayer that you are free from suffering and surrounded by peace, health, and happiness.
Just some thoughts about yoga as I go...
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