Let a man lift himself by himself; let him not degrade himself; for the Self alone is the friend of the self and the Self alone is the enemy of the self. Bhagavad Gita Chapter 6 verse 5
Compassion is an important aspect in the practice of Yoga and one of the core values in Buddhism. I recently asked both my adult yoga students and my teenage yoga students what compassion is for them, and their answers inspired me to write this post.
I can start like I did with my students by asking what is compassion for you? Take a moment to think about it before you read further.
The common definition that most of us use is being understanding and kind towards others. The definition in the dictionary is slightly different: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.
Very few students include themselves as an important object of compassion when defining the word. However, according to the Yogic and Buddhist traditions, in order to cultivate compassion towards others, we have to first cultivate compassion towards ourselves. If this is a new idea for you, take some time to reflect on it. Doesn’t it make sense? But what does that mean? How do we show compassion towards ourself?
I asked one of my teenage yoga students how she shows compassion towards herself, and she answered “by eating chocolate”. Eventhoug there is nothing wrong with enjoying something we like, I think this illustrates how we sometimes tend to misunderstand what self-compassion is, and that is why I opened this post with the quote from chapter 6 in the Bhagavad Gita.
We often think that we are being kind towards ourselves by indulging in something, especially when we experience distress. It can be food, alcohol, TV, social media, you name it. In my perspective, this is only a way of escaping from that distress. We might get the illusion that we are alleviating it, but in reality we are just hiding it or pushing it away. That is not self-compassion.
Self-compassion requires courage, it requires the ability to see beyond our fear. We have to first have the courage to stop running away and face the source of our distress, which we often have the illusion comes from the outside world, but if we look closely, we will discover that it comes from inside us.
So, I wonder, when am I doing something ‘kind’ towards myself that will allow me to continue growing as a spiritual being and what am I using as crutches to avoid the fall, the pain, the distress?
I have already shared in a post the distress I sometimes cause inside myself because I get caught up in thoughts and emotions. I recently realized that I haven’t been showing self-compassion at all. Although it is positive to be aware of one’s flaws, one’s dark sides, it is harming to be judgemental about them. The advice in Yoga is so subtile, I think. We are encouraged to confront our inner darkness but we have to accept it first and then make small adjustments at a time. As a dear friend recently said to me, you need to embrace the monster inside you to move forward.
Only when we decide to live a life of awareness, of rude honesty towards ourselves, will we be able be compassionate towards ourselves and thus lift ourselves forward.
In the process, compassion towards others starts to come easier and more naturally as we keep discovering our dark sides, our weaknessess and we then can identify with other people’s distress. This allows us to be less judgemental and more understanding, more tolerant, more willing to help.