3.26.2012

What Does Compassion Look Like?

Palden Lhamo:  wrathful incarnation of the goddess Saraswati.
This frightening image is a depiction Palden Lhamo, the fierce, red-haired protectress of the way of compassion and the only female among the Eight Guardians of the Law.  She crosses a sea of blood astride her mule, a gift from the gods.  Seated on a saddle blanket made from the flayed skin of her own irreparably evil son, she has eaten his flesh and drinks from his skull, a clear warning to all who might threaten the way of compassion in this world.

We talk a lot about compassion in the yoga-sphere. It is a virtue we aim to cultivate. It is the key to human connection, but we don't talk much about what compassion really is or how to recognize it within oneself. What are its characteristics?  What is its nature?

com·pas·sion /kəmˈpaSHən/ 
noun : 1) a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.  2)  To suffer together with : PITY, MERCY.

Hmm...  Sorrow.  Pity.  That's not the shiny, happy yoga that studios and media are selling.

The truth is that compassion isn't pretty.  Compassion is not pleasant or easy.  To feel compassion is to feel the pain of this world.  It is to shoulder the suffering of others -- to share the pain -- willingly and without resentment in order to "crush and destroy" it.  Impossible though it may seem, the way of compassion is to carry on with a clear intention to put an end to all suffering.

It is a daunting prospect, to be sure.  The way of compassion is filled with legitimate danger and risk.  We must ready ourselves with practice.  We must build strength (love) and eradicate weakness (fear).

Palden Lhamo's message is that the way of compassion is not always kind -- at least, not on the surface.  Her steed bears an eye on its haunches which grew from the wound inflicted upon it by her angry husband -- furious with her for murdering their son who was destined to destroy Buddhism -- as she fled from their home forever to serve from the mountaintops as guardian of the Way.  She is the "Victorious One who Turns Back Enemies," and she gave up her family to follow truth and serve love.

In order to effectively eradicate the suffering around us, it is our duty to expand our awareness of our environment and deepen our understanding of our place in the world so that we may recognize the seeds of suffering long before they take root, especially if that source of pain is a product of our own action.  This can (read: will) mean great personal sacrifice.  It is through practice and an ever-deepening relationship with one's own body as a microcosm of the nature of the universe that we develop the steadiness of mind and clarity of perception to make such a sacrifice and follow the Way with pure intent.

4 comments:

  1. Good post. I use the literal, suffer-with definition of compassion. And to suffer with means to identify with. See myself in the other and see the other in myself. The problem is, there are others I don't want to identify with. I don't want to see the villain in myself. I don't want to see the meanness and ignorance in myself. So my compassion becomes conditioned and limited by how much I need to protect my ego. Like you said, the way of compassion is filled with danger and risk.

    Thanks again. Now that I've found you, I'll be back.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary, David. The compassion response becomes conditioned to protect the ego -- so true.

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  2. Yes, what an excellent post.
    Thank you for sharing your insights. Resonate.

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  3. Love this, Megan. "It is through practice and an ever-deepening relationship with one's own body as a microcosm of the nature of the universe that we develop the steadiness of mind and clarity of perception to make such a sacrifice and follow the Way with pure intent."

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