What Is Compassion?

Two years ago today, I heard breaking news over the radio about a 17-year-old boy who opened fire at his high school in Florida. I watched the spectrum of human emotions unfold in the headlines of social media posts and videos everywhere. The number of lives lost was inconceivable and I instantly thought of my own daughter, who I had just dropped off at preschool.

As I drove home listening to the news, something I heard repeatedly was the mention of prayers for the victims and their families. But what was lost on me, at that moment, was that there was no mention of prayers for the young man who opened fire and his family. While I understood my sorrow for the lives lost, I didn’t fully understand the intensity of my sorrow for the young man who had taken so many lives.

I went home to meditate and felt called to pray for him. I listened for insight into my own emotions and kept hearing one thought echo repeatedly in my mind: 

Have you ever thought about how much suffering it takes for someone to hurt another human being?

Instantly, I understood what it was I felt so deeply: compassion

We don’t have to think about having compassion for the victims and their families, but it takes much more inner work to break through the barriers of the heart and extend compassion to someone who is capable of hurting others. They too are victims, but victims of their own suffering. And it was then that I realized that understanding someone’s suffering is what it takes to have compassion. 

The Universal Teaching of Compassion

The unity of compassion between eastern and western spiritual traditions.

What unites all spiritual paths of the East and West is this underlying teaching of compassion.

What unites all spiritual paths of the East and West is this underlying teaching of compassion. 

In Mahayana Buddhism, for example, bodhisattva refers to a human being who is committed to the attainment of enlightenment for the sake of others. After reviewing the stories of Buddha and his life, the Mahayana tradition felt it imperative to stress the idea of compassion because they recognized that the Buddha had perfected compassion leading up to his liberation. In essence, when we liberate others, we liberate ourselves, and vice versa. 

Parallel to this idea is the Guru in Hindu traditions. Guru is translated as “the dispeller of darkness.” The guru is the most compassionate human being, as he is a direct channel of God’s unconditional love. The guru sees beyond our faults and inadequacies and speaks to our perfected self. Through his grace, the guru pierces through that veil of fear and awakens us to love ever more deeply.

And, in the West, one of the most profound examples of compassion is in Christ. In the Promise of Immortality, Swami Kriyananda explains the compassion of Christ, “Had Jesus not willingly assumed body-consciousness, his suffering on the cross would have been a mere pretense, and his assumption of humanity a sham. Instead, he was as wholly human as we are. The difference between him and us was that his consciousness, even while suffering, radiated outward from himself, and included others in his compassion.”

Receive a free gift, “The Introduction to the Revolutionary Teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda.” Yogananda was known as the Father of Yoga to the West arriving 100 years ago, in 1920.

How to Cultivate Compassion 

For many of us, embodying the compassion of a spiritual master may seem lifetimes away, but it shouldn’t keep us from doing what we can to continue opening our hearts. 

The first thing we can do is begin shifting the narratives around current events. We should never find comfort in villainizing those who hurt others because we miss the opportunity to be examples of compassion. With compassion comes understanding, and from that understanding comes solutions that are less apparent when we stay in judgment. 

The next way is to practice self-compassion. I’ve found, in my own life, that it’s the judgment of my own ignorance and wrong-doing that keeps it alive. What if, when you don’t show up as your best self, you forgave yourself quickly and hold compassion for where you are? 

Loving our own faults so that they become strengths requires self-awareness. And one of the most practical ways to increase self-awareness and compassion is to take time to meditate. Studies prove that meditation increases the centers in the brain responsible for empathy and compassion. “In one study, researchers found that fifty percent of people who took their meditation classes were willing to give up their seat to a stranger. Whereas only 15 percent of the non-meditators did.” If you can’t get yourself to meditate for your own benefit, think about how it will benefit those around you. 

Research meditation on compassion from the greater good uc berekely

Source: Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley.

When in doubt, look to the masters of any great faith for help! Where I found kindness shining through my guru’s smile, I have also found compassion in his eyes. I encourage you to meditate on the eyes of a saint or read their works. Feel their endless compassion for you in the teachings they have left behind, and be inspired to share that compassion with all. 

“Awakening Kindness, Compassion, and Mercy” Yoga Event

As featured in LA Yoga Magazine

Join the annual spring yoga festival and inspirational event in Los Angeles, at the Cultural Civic Center in Torrence, California. This year also celebrates 100 years since Paramhansa Yogananda, author of the best-selling spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi, came to the United States. Livestream the keynote talk on March 7th or come in person for free:

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