By Catherine L. Schweig
At the heart of our own humanity is our ability to be sensitive to the feelings of others.
When upon seeing others suffering we feel our own heart ache, and reach out to soothe their pain, we are living up to our highest human potential. This kindness, as I understand it, is compassion in action: the unsupportable urge to relieve another of their wounds.
When I reminisce on my life, the regret that makes my stomach churn the most is that of not having treated others with more kindness. However, regrets cripple compassion. So, instead of wallowing in them, I make a conscious, daily effort to use my old regrets as inspiration to be kinder today. Sometimes this warrants summoning the compassion goddess within me.
The quality of compassion was so revered by ancient eastern traditions, that they gave it divine status, ascribing it to merciful goddesses who ferried souls from states of suffering into states of enlightenment. From Sri Radha to Kuan Yin, Hindu and Buddhist texts alike consider most worthy of worship those who hear and respond to our cries.
But what happens when our own cries are so loud that we become irresponsive to the cries of others? It’s not uncommon for our own compassion to falter when we ourselves are struggling. Suffering can overwhelm us to the point that we disconnect from our own kind nature. Sanskrit texts refer to this phenomenon as the impossibility of a drowning person to rescue another drowning person.
Compassion then enters as one who has transcended the sea that drowns us, and descends from above.
The Buddhist tradition depicts such a compassionate one as Avalokitesvara, or “that lord, or ruler who gazes down upon the world.” For looking upon the suffering of this world with compassion is inseparable from successful lordship or governance. Leaders, or guides in our lives, who can elevate us past feelings of anger, fear and anxiety inspire us to move toward the best versions of ourselves: owners of compassionate hearts.
Cultures that cultivate karuna—compassion—thrive.
This is one of the basic tenets of Eastern traditions. Compassion becomes like nourishment for society. It is easy to feel compassion for an orphaned child, a homeless person, or a little bird that has fallen out of a nest. Our hearts are tested, however, when life invites us to extend compassion even toward those who may be hurting us, or others.
What does this kind of compassion look like?
The form compassion takes in each of our lives differs from person to person. For me it begins with trying not to take the aggressions of others personally. I find that when I do, I may slip into the very feelings that are fueling oncoming attacks. Deep hurts can all too easily move into anger. People who are hurting all too often become hurtful.
In becoming sensitive to my own wounds and those of others—and whatever triggers them, I more readily access the compassion in my own heart.
In the Jain tradition, compassion is regarded as one of the four reflections of universal friendship, as there is no hope of cultivating true friendships, without the ability to empathize and feel compassion toward others. Compassion thus becomes a sturdy bridge between hearts; even two wounded hearts.
When we surround ourselves with those in whose presence we feel heard, kindly treated and most loved, we are extending compassion toward ourselves. Within compassionate communities everyone feels safe, respected and honored. Such sangas become the backbone of nations in which love reigns supreme.
In the Bhakti yoga tradition, those who spontaneously give rise to such sangas are seen are valuable leaders, teachers or gurus. Such inspiring people are referred to as karuna-sindhu—oceans of compassion—for their sensitivity toward others never expires. In meditating on extending compassion outward into the world that is as deep and broad as the sea, we’ll find ourselves effortlessly connecting with our own compassionate heart.
Only when we allow ourselves to be governed by thoughts, words and behavior that flows from this sea of compassion, will our world be at peace. I find comfort in knowing there are such souls on this planet.
Catherine L. Schweig has practiced yoga in the Bhakti tradition since 1986. Her regular treks into nature, and relationships with others, are a valuable part of her spiritual journey. Passionate about inspiring women to honor their voices, in 2012 Catherine founded the Journey of the Heart: Women’s Spiritual Poetry Blog, through which emerged a trilogy of poetry anthologies, the latest is Poetry as a Spiritual Practice: Embracing the Awakened Woman (Golden Dragonfly Press 2016). Catherine is also the creator of the Vaishnavi Voices Poetry Project. As co-founder of The Secret Yoga Institute, with her life partner, Graham M. Schweig, Ph.D., she designs yoga workshops and publishes in various yoga magazines, and co-authored Yoga in the Gita: Krishna & Patanjali, The Bhakti Dimension, (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2016) with Braja Sorensen. Catherine lives in Virginia with her partner, younger son and cat, where she also makes vegan, Waldorf-style dolls. You may connect with Catherine on Facebook, email her or visit her website: catherineghosh.com
Editor: Alicia Wozniak