The Edge of Compassion


Traveling around in the world of yoga, it is not uncommon to hear regular talk of compassion. Most often it is spoken of as an orientation to self and other based on love, understanding, empathy, acceptance and forgiveness. Or maybe as the heartfelt desire to relieve suffering in the world. These are all good, noble and important aspirations. As a matter of fact, we might be hard pressed to find many who would disagree with such an exalted approach to Life.

And yet, there can be serious downsides to this. It might come in the form of believing that compassion is something you do to yourself or another. It might show up as the inadequacy that registers in your mind or the minds of others when your displays of compassion do not look or feel like they are supposed to, because they do not line up with some external definition of such. It might come in the form of using compassion as a way to keep others close and beholden to you; a kind of indebtedness. Or it might show up as an insidious way of managing or controlling other’s views of you; as in, because you are “a compassionate person,” you are somehow above reproach. These downsides range from the incomplete to the manipulative to the dangerous.

When looked at from this perspective, compassion is actually a very, very edgy place. A place that requires a lot of personal integrity and responsibility. A place that demands an accounting of your actions and most importantly, your underlying motivations; a honed focus on “the why” of what you do, versus “the what” of what you do.

There are many who would argue that we are born innately and naturally compassionate, and that the ways of the world take this natural inclination and distort it. Squash it. Squander it. And that when given half a chance, along with the right circumstances, this is the state that not only do we long to return to, but would gladly get to of our own accord. If this makes any sense to you, then it only  stands to reason that a return to an inborn compassion that has been covered up or somehow misconstrued requires a kind of ferocity. A particular type of discernment that is keen enough, sharp enough, and edgy enough to cut through all of what has been overlaid and woven onto and into this native and life-giving inclination.

Compassion is not a coat to be donned. It is not a way to fit in, or ingratiate yourself. Nor is it a sugary sweet that you dispense. Instead, it is an inherited, powerful, magnetic and raw force to be reckoned with. One that requires accountability and a kind of ongoing nurturance. One that has nothing to do with how it looks from the outside. One that is only truly resonant when the intentions and the motivations of the one offering the compassion have been married up to a rigorous kind of personal integrity.

My yoga teacher once spoke on the compassion that arises organically as opposed to the one that we feel like we are supposed to be with ourselves or show to others. He taught that the organic type originates naturally from within when the body is free of tension, the heart safe and at ease, and the mind clear. Looked at in this way, compassion has absolutely everything to do with the state of the giver, and is the first and most important condition to be met. Ever.



A couple of weeks ago, I had an experience where a bug flew into my eye. This was unlike any other experience I have ever had of this nature. Without being dramatic, it felt like the equivalent of having acid thrown into my eye; leaving it red, painful, and swollen. Not only did the surface of my eye feel burned, it also felt as though I had been struck by a blunt instrument. For a couple of days, pus oozed out of it, and so, like an old school grandmother, I had to tuck a tissue into my waistband to have at the ready to soak up what was coming out of my eye.

Literally, for days there was not a single moment that the discomfort and the strain did not stand between me and whatever it was that I was doing. It was not until it had cleared, and an enormous sense of ease washed over me that I realized how hard I had been working; every single moment of every single waking hour. Until it was gone, I had no idea how much energy I had been expending. And while there was most certainly an uncomfortable physical reality, the real effort, and consequent exhaustion, emanated from the thoughts in my mind. All of the ways that I wanted it to be other than it was. All of the ways that I kept replaying what had happened over and over and over again. But most important and essential of all, all of the ways that I was focusing on the physical discomfort in an attempt to avoid the meaning underlying the experience.

Which brings me to the yogic practice of using the body as a doorway into a greater sense of who we are. A portal into deeper levels of our truest nature and our connection with All That Is. From this perspective, everything that happens in and to our bodies is an opportunity to travel a little deeper. Get to know ourselves a little better. Understand our connection to Spirit and our own souls a little more.This as opposed to getting hung up in limited ideas about what it means to be in a body. Getting caught up in the illnesses, ailments and accidents as if they were only something to be avoided, medicated against, done to us and gotten over.

To illustrate, I could just leave it at “a bug flew into my eye and it was an inconvenient, uncomfortable and sometimes socially awkward experience.” Or, I could tell you that at the exact moment that the bug hit my eye, I had gone from a very connected, open, grateful state of consciousness to a small, petty and resentful mind state. I could tell you that the experience was nothing more than some random thing that happened to me. Or, I could tell you that at the exact moment of contact, I knew that I had made a choice I did not want to get behind. I could tell you that The Universe played no part in this. Or, I could tell you that this was a Divinely guided moment to help me choose whether to look through the eyes of resentment, or through the eyes of love.

And while this may seem nutty or even downright untrue to some, the veracity of this is not the point. Nor is it up for grabs. The point is, and always will be, how we choose to see our embodied existence is always up to us. A choice we make each and every day. For the Truth is, where you wind up is most definitely based on how you choose to see.


Rock Boundaries


Away on retreat several weeks ago, I ran into the “Rock of Gibraltar.” This was the nickname given to an enormous boulder that sat at the junction of three trails meeting. It was quite a spectacle sitting there in the middle of the woods. So much so that someone had written a poem to this behemoth and staked it off to the side for people, or maybe it seemed for the rock itself, to enjoy.

I stumbled across this monument on one of my days out hiking, and I was struck by its presence. If ever you could imagine the physical embodiment of strength and grounded-ness, this was it. If ever you wanted an extraordinary example of steadiness, stillness and solidness, this was it. It was as if it knew its place and knew how to hold it well. It truly was the kind of thing that made you want to sit there and hang out with it for a while. And so I did.

What I noticed first was despite its rock-hard, exceedingly clear edges, things were growing all over it. Delicate little flowers. Florescent green mosses. And lots of things were crawling on top of it while other things were momentarily resting there. Yet none of this changed the nature of Gibraltar. Not by even one iota. It continued to be itself; unharmed, undisturbed, unperturbed and most of all, unchanging.

In that moment I was brought to think about boundaries. About how difficult it can be to know when and where to draw a line with others. About how often we either collapse our boundaries to acquiesce to some demand or expectation, or on the other end of the spectrum, how we harden up and armor up to protect ourselves. And then there is good old Gibraltar, doing the only thing it knows how to do. Be itself. Fully and completely. No apologies. No accusations. No explanations. No permission requested.

That is when it really sunk in for me. How when considering or working on boundaries with others, we can make the mistake of believing that we need to begin with our edges. Or worse yet, that we need to begin outside of ourselves. Both are incorrect. We need to begin with our center. With the core of who we are. With the deepest essence of our truest nature. In a phrase, we need to be fully established in the truth of who we are, then the rest just naturally takes care of itself.

This is not easy to do. It would be far easier to believe that others should act the way we want them to. It would be far easier to believe we have to be at war with others, protecting ourselves against their violations and onslaughts. It would be far easier to just cave into the demands to keep the peace. And yet, to do any of this would be to violate our best and truest natures, which by extension, then goes on to skew and contaminate our interactions with others.

That big, beautiful rock stands as a powerful symbol for me. One that says it is possible to be in harmonious and symbiotic relationship with all of the life on us and around us when we never, not for one moment, cease to be ourselves.



Be yourself. Just be who you are. Sounds good, right? Like a great hashtag or something catchy printed on a t-shirt. Who wouldn’t want this experience? But the truth is, this will absolutely be the single most difficult thing you will ever attempt in your life. If you even make the attempt.

Maybe it seems downright ludicrous to even be discussing being yourself as on some level who or what else could you possibly be? As it turns out though there are lots and lots of facsimiles, cheap copies and low-grade versions of ourselves that we take on. We do this for all kinds of reasons, but the result is always the same; our real self left out of the equation, MIA, downgraded, degraded, ignored, drowned and left for dead. Being who you actually are is not for the faint of heart; those unwilling to take responsibility for themselves, or those favoring an easy way out. Instead, it is for the whole-hearted. The bold-hearted. The brave-hearted.

Why? Because if you make the choice to be who you are, you must pass through all that you are not. This part alone is why so many of us stop. Or do not even begin. It is just too painful. Too arduous. Too complicated. Too confusing. Too demanding. Too provoking. And right along side that, too magnificent, too out of the box, too empowering, and too liberating to bear; with either side of the equation feeling like too much to be with. And so, we choose lessor versions of who we are.

I once had a practitioner I was working with say to me, “You are honest and you are transparent, but you are not always authentic.” She hesitated in the delivery of this observation, cautious and wary of my reaction. But I knew instantly and exactly what it was she was talking about. More than that, I knew it to be true. Instead of feeling hurt or defensive, this comment brought light to something that had always lived just beneath the surface.

That being, the regular and daily ways where I was most decidedly, not myself. Not authentic. Not true to who I was. Not true to my experience of being in the world. Maybe it was in the ways I pretended to like something when I did not. Or be interested in something when I was not. Maybe it was in the way I would smile that tight, forced smile when I was really upset. Or said yes when I knew the answer was no. Maybe it was in all the ways I pleased, placated and performed to appease another, to belong, to fit in, to feel safe, to avoid rocking the boat.

To be yourself is to choose and to choose and to choose again. Each and every day in ways large and small. In ways easy and seemingly impossible. In ways obvious and in ways hidden. Given the magnitude of this, how do we begin given all of the habits we have gotten into around who we need to be? How do we begin given how tied we are to what others expect of us? We do it by getting clear, courageous, and firm with ourselves, not others, that this is our one and only life. Our one and only chance to be our one and only self.

And then, we begin to practice. Every day. How might that look practically? One idea to try is something you can do while lying in bed right before sleep. Go back over your day. Not obsessively or critically, but in a curious-about-you kind of way. Locate a moment where you were definitely not you. Put a little circle around it in your mind. A red one. And then place that red line through the middle of it. This is not a judgment or a punishment. It it an awakener. A marker to help you remember what it feels like to not really be yourself. Something you want to become aware of so that you can catch yourself before you go in too deep.

Next, find a place in your day where you really felt at home in yourself. A moment where you were genuine, true to your feelings, authentic. Put a circle around that one. Let it be whatever color feels most true to you. Notice how that moment felt. Choose to remember it in any way that makes sense to you. And then, build from there. There is absolutely a very distinct feel to the real you. One that you want to memorize, get comfortable with, call in, and grow as often as possible.

As silly as it may seem, we really do have to consciously choose to build our way back into the truth of our authentic selves. One experience at a time.