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.