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The definition of compassion is:

  • a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

But the essence, or the heart of compassion doesn’t live within that dictionary definition of compassion. Instead, real compassion lives within the heart space and is shown through true acts of loving-kindness.

Acts of loving-kindness toward others cannot exist though, you can’t give the same to yourself first. Compassion is rough ya’ll! It can often be mistaken for victimization. When we say “oh, I’m so sorry that person is suffering” we may think we are expressing compassion.

Do we really understand that person’s suffering? In order to understand someone else’s suffering, you have to be fully present for your own. Being present with your own suffering means having an open heart and empathy for yourself. Then you have the capacity to show the same to others. To fully understand the depth of compassion we must be able and willing to lean into discomfort with a tender heart and non-judgment. This is by no means, easy.

It begins with understanding one’s own prejudices, one’s own suffering, and ignorance (avidya) as well as privileges and boundaries. If you lose sight of compassion for yourself, of befriending yourself — even your shadow sides — then acts of compassion toward others have no real meaning.

This is where I turn to the teachings of yoga to awaken me to the present moment of reality. An aphorism from the yoga sutras states that:

“The mind becomes quiet when it cultivates friendliness in the presence of happiness, active compassion in the presence of unhappiness, joy in the presence of virtue and indifference toward error.”

We can look at this as a way of addressing our relationships with others.

I’d like to share a personal story with you that happened to me the other week. After sitting in on a philosophy lecture followed by pranayama and metta meditation, I was overflowing with lightness and peace. My teacher was discussing the depth of compassion, human suffering, loving-kindness, and the true practice of yoga, which doesn’t happen on the mat. Going on about my day, I met up with a dear friend to have lunch. As we sat there in our little world, a homeless man came up. He started poking on my shoulder with his finger to get my attention. That poke started poking at my boundaries. I’m sure you can guess the conditioned conversation in my head!

My response before he could get the words out of his mouth was the classic “I don’t have any money for you”. He then proceeded to say to me that he didn’t want any money. He was hungry and wanted some food. As he’s speaking to me I could smell the alcohol on his breath. I thought to myself, “This man has no idea of social distancing, no idea of triggers, no sense of boundaries at all.” These thoughts set off myriad triggers within me. My instant reaction was to turn and say “I’m sorry, I can’t help you today.”

But I didn’t.

I paused for a moment to think about his suffering. I looked around me and wondered, who in this crowd would feed this man? Anyone? I thought, “What if this was me? If I was hungry, I’d want someone to feed me”. When I said “Yes” to buying him some food, his face lit up like a child’s wishes being granted. You’d think that would be enough, right? Nope! He poked me again to ask for the specifics of the food. My reactions instantly turned into sheer irritation!

Even though I leaned into his suffering for a moment, it was an empty act of loving-kindness. His poke on my shoulder irritated me all day and into the next. It was days later that I realized my inner well of compassion had run dry. It’s hard to keep the wellspring full when you’re a nurturer.

There are a lot of us holding space for others daily, and trying to keep our cups full at the same time. That sh*t is hard as f*ck and it requires an enormous amount of inner strength. Add in trying to maintain personal space boundaries while holding another human in loving-kindness and an even greater amount of strength is needed. We’re all being poked right now!

The lesson here is that genuine compassion is uncomfortable. It makes us look deep within. It’s difficult. It’s maybe even a little bit scary. But it’s so important and powerful.

When we act from a place of discomfort, we are motivated to change. The next time your compassion bubble is popped, ask yourself, “What do I need right now?”

Lean in and ask for it with loving-kindness. Then turn it inward towards the self, then outward to a friend or family member, or even a stranger. Hold it in your heart space and then, let go of the outcome.

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