FOUR FLAVORS OF LOVE, PART II: COMPASSION AND DISSOLVING FALSE WALLS
Teacher and Yoke Quarterly Contributing Editor Aaron Dias returns with the second of her four-part installment on the Yoga Sutras. In this issue, she helps us explore compassion and gives us tools to build a deep and authentic sense of caring for others.
Something was terribly wrong, but no one could figure out what. For several weeks, my friend Lindsay had been suffering from twitches, tremors, spasms and shocks of pain in her legs, arms and hands. Sometimes, she had trouble manipulating her fingers. As a professional puppeteer, performer, sculptor, painter and masseuse, mobility and dexterity were not optional. She wasted no time in seeking the help of specialists, hoping that someone could fix the problem and get her back to her work, her art, her vibrant and full 31-year-old life.
By the end of the summer, the muscular discomfort and dysfunction had worsened and spread to other parts of her body, and all sense of hope began to wane. The doctors and healers had exhausted all other possibilities before announcing a diagnosis that no one wanted to hear: ALS, or amyotrophic laterals sclerosis, a progressively degenerative disease that ultimately affects a person's ability to move, speak, eat, or even breathe. This diagnosis presented the picture of a future far different than the one that this wise, adventurous, independent, fiery, kinesthetic, strong-willed, generous and wildly creative woman had envisioned for herself. It came with the suggestion that a violent and mysterious guest was living inside Lindsay’s body, attacking her motor neurons and causing those pains and tremors and disability. With an average life expectancy of 3-5 years after diagnosis and without a known cure, Lindsay would eventually be left with reduced muscle control, muscle mass, vitality and independence, day by day. Just as her peers would be breathing life into careers, partnerships, children of their own, she would no longer be able to take the breath of life into her own lungs.
When Lindsay first told me the news of her diagnosis three years ago, it was as if a wind passed through me, causing a shudder, but ultimately leaving me unfeeling. It's not how I usually am: as a yoga teacher, a meditator, an energy worker, a big sister, an animal lover, a person who embraces and cares for those around me with an open, compassionate heart, I identify as a nurturer. So I was surprised that Lindsay’s situation seemed to leave me numb. It was as if I had two selves: a logical, thinking self which heard the words clearly and understood that this was a terrible thing happening to one of my dearest friends; meanwhile, the other, emotional feeling self hid behind a mile-wide wall, hands over ears, keeping the greatest possible distance from the true significance of what was being shouted in her direction.
For the first year of Lindsay’s illness, I mostly went about my business as if nothing had changed. I didn’t see Lindsay so often anymore anyway, since she had moved to the Bronx several months prior--this precipitated by, believe it or not, a tornado ripping the roof off her top-floor Brooklyn apartment. The physical distance allowed me to keep the situation at an emotional distance without too much difficulty.
Two years after diagnosis, the disease had spread significantly, and Lindsay, in turn, created a stunning performance piece that allowed all of us to bear witness to her process. My nurturing, emotional self finally began to stir as I watched the performance, tears filling my eyes, a safe distance away from the stage. As I left the theater that night, in my healthy body, back home to my normal life, I felt satisfied that I had taken in and digested what was necessary from Lindsay's experience, that I had responded in the "right" way. I felt reassured that I was compassionate enough after all. What a relief.
Then, Lindsay asked me to come closer. She wanted me to start visiting regularly to help her stretch, and breathe, and feel her body. My resistance was immediate. Excuses quick-fired through my head as soon as I received her text: I’m too busy for this. Can’t someone else do it? The Bronx? What does this have to do with me?
Of course, I didn’t dare utter those words aloud. I knew that helping Lindsay was the “right” thing to do, so I carved four hours out of each week to visit her. Since she had neither the muscle mass nor the control to move her own limbs in most of the shapes, I had to place her in a position and hold her there for a few minutes at a time. It was extremely physically demanding and tedious work to move her around, but it was also awkward. I didn't know how or when to move, how or when to be still, and I feared offending her pride or hurting her body. With her masseuse and dance and directing background, Lindsay was able to give me clear feedback about what worked or didn’t work, but rather than feeling connected, the comments made me feel overly critiqued during those first few visits. It wasn’t like working with my other private clients, where I was the expert teacher, where I was in control of everything, and they just followed. I was completely out of my comfort zone on multiple levels, and while I felt both inadequate and insecure on the one hand, I also reacted haughtily and a bit egotistically on the other: Shouldn’t a physical therapist be doing this? I’m better at other things. This is a waste of my effort, time and resources. Does she know how much I usually get paid for less travel and less work? Is it even helping? What am I getting out of this? She’s taking advantage of my generosity. Why don’t I have better boundaries and know when I’ve taken on too much! I'm a fool.
Needless to say, the first several times I went to see Lindsay--armed with my shut-down, defensive attitude--my time with her felt cold and forced and I returned home drained, tense and resentful. At the same time, I wanted to feel like a big, generous person, so I went through the motions of showing up and stretching her, all the while lacking that warm, fuzzy feeling that normally accompanied a good deed. Whatever my outer self was doing, inside I remained in a fetal, self-protective shape, terrified to bridge the wide divide that I perceived between the two of us. The sense of guilt and duty that made me get on the subway and cross miles of land and rivers to her house couldn’t make me cross over that thick psychic barrier behind which I had imprisoned my heart. Only compassion could do that.
COMPASSION FOR SUFFERING: THE SECOND FLAVOR OF TRUE LOVE
In the first installment of this series, we introduced Sutra 1.33 from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:
"...cultivate attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the suffering, joy for the virtuous and equanimity toward vice, and the mind will become purified and retain its natural calmness."
In Part I of the series, we discussed the meaning of this famous sutra, which teaches us how to love in an enlightened, unselfish way, and we put a microscope upon that first attitude: maitri for sukha, also known as friendliness for the happy. Seeing someone experiencing sukha, or joy, can cause me to want to take away her pleasure and possess it for myself. We saw last time how a greedy attitude causes suffering, and that the cure is to develop maitri, a sense of camaraderie. With maitri, we begin to relax and allow joy to bloom around us, to live by the wisdom that another’s happiness is not a threat to our own, but is in fact a boon to it.
This time around, we are considering the second attitude: karuna for duhka, or compassion for suffering. When we see someone in a state of pain--dukha--we often want to push it away. And as I found in my situation with Lindsay, the greater the pain, the greater the push. I tried all the tactics over the first two years of her illness: staying numb and ignorant, looking the other way, building great walls and distances, constructing false narratives to convince myself that I was protecting my healthy life from her sick one. I was working under the delusion that I could avoid experiencing this challenging situation--and boy, was I working hard. My attempts to flee from her suffering were leaving me exhausted, resentful and divided. I was worn out from doing this dutiful thing with a tense and bitter attitude. I was torn between my identity as a nurturing person and the fact that I was dragging my heels about the nurturing act. While part of me truly wanted to help her, another part yearned each week for any excuse to get out of my service. This ambivalence toward the one I was trying to nurture ripped me up with confusion and guilt. What was wrong with me?
I wasn’t being a bad human. Just a human. The root of my issue was the most innate and universal of instincts: an aversion to pain and suffering. It is not a bad thing in and of itself, of course, to have a desire to protect and promote our precious lives. Without this self-preserving nature, we wouldn’t make it through childhood, let alone grow into an adult with the instinct to nurture our loved ones. What was causing me to stay small and afraid were a couple of false beliefs that I had been unconsciously cradling, and I let them grow and graft themselves onto this survival instinct. If I could detect and uproot them, I might have a chance of feeling whole again.
The first false belief is that the best life is one totally free of suffering. In the last issue, when we contemplated what makes a good human life, we saw that it is not created by accumulating the maximum amount of pleasant experiences; by the same token, neither is it the life with the least suffering. Ask any successful, mature, content person to tell you the story of how they got where they are and inevitably there will be chapters of strife, failure, hard work and facing up to any number of unwanted challenges. We don’t want to go looking for suffering necessarily, but some vigorous and dedicated effort is required to be a healthy and productive person. When we are overly afraid of physical work, we are more likely to end up with weak or diseased bodies in need of fixing; and the same follows with our intellect, creative capacity and emotional well-being. Effort is not optional if we want to stay sharp, vibrant or healthy in any given area of our lives, and sometimes, that effort extends into times of suffering.
"Okay, fine," you might say. "Being willing to sweat a little to keep my mind and body in shape is one thing. But suffering like Lindsay's is different. It's totally unjust and horrible. I can't advocate a painful disease or a premature death". But when we turn to the yoga teachings, we find a linchpin in the concept of sat, which is Sanskrit for "the truth of being". The "best" life--at least, as we perceive it--is not as important as truth. Regardless of our own opinions: what is, simply is.
Think of it this way: because of the nature of sukha (joy, ease), there is dukha (sadness, suffering). Death exists in the very nature of birth. They come together, as one. Just because I have slapped the label "bad" or "ugly" onto these darker aspects of living doesn’t change their inevitability or their unbreakable link to all the lighter aspects of life that we have labeled "good" and "beautiful". When we look from a perspective of sat, we see that the labels we apply are truly the only aspects of our experience that we have the power to pull apart. Birth and death, light and dark, can never be torn asunder. So we must look to our own perceptions about things if we want to make a difference. I didn't write this script I received upon arriving to Earth, but I sure have spent a lot of my precious resources attempting to refuse it or rewrite it. The yogic way is to leave behind those frustrating and fruitless attempts, instead investing my time and energy on studying the script I've been given, learning how to best play my part.
The second unfounded belief is that we must protect ourselves from the pain of others so that it doesn’t contaminate our own well-being. We worry the sufferer will weaken us, cause us to feel their pain, or, at the very least, be a big buzzkill. We tend to think this way if we believe that we don't have the power or the tools to handle or help ease suffering. But the truth is, encountering suffering is exactly what develops our ability to face it. Life’s challenges give us the opportunity to grow, expand and evolve. Attempting to ignore others' pain only causes us to grow weaker, smaller and less endowed. So the more I turn toward suffering, the more I develop my tools, the less likely I am to fall back under the illusion that I am too weak to handle dukha.
At the root of this last false belief, we find another, deeper one: that being connected with others is a choice. If I am going to attempt to shut myself off from others, I must also believe that I am, fundamentally and originally, already separate. The truth is, none of us gets to stand outside of Life. A living person without a world makes no more sense than a living tree that doesn’t root in soil, drink in water, or soak up sun. Try and isolate a tree: it is no longer a tree. The same goes with us. If we cannot learn how to stop wasting all our time and energy running, hiding, and building walls to keep reality at bay, we end up with few resources left for leading healthy, purposeful, productive lives. Some kind of hardship inevitably catches up with all of us, and if it has to yank you out of your hiding spot, you can expect an even harsher experience than if you had just stood up and met it face to face. While standing with others and trying grow our capacity to alleviate their suffering actually makes us more powerful, turning away from human connection makes us more lame, more anxiety-ridden and more susceptible to suffering. The most resistant easily become the ones who need the most help. And if we have been in the habit of being inattentive, callous or condescending to others in their time of need, it becomes less likely that we will find good folks around wanting to extend their hands and hearts to us.
When we build those walls, we have to live behind them, disconnected from the nourishment that comes from all four flavors of love: friendliness, compassion, joyful encouragement and radical acceptance. By trying to evade suffering I had barred the way for maitri, karuna, mudita, and upeksha to come into my life and I was experiencing dukha as a result. I had cut myself off from the sources that might nurture me and flood my life with goodness.
For dukha, develop karuna. From the perspective of someone practicing Yoga Sutra 1.33 and developing the four attitudes of true love, to meet anyone at all is to meet yourself, whether that being is having a great day or a crappy one. When a suffering person crosses your path, learn to turn and face that person and, if it is possible and appropriate, learn how to help them. When we do this we gain access to the part of the self which is bigger and more resilient than pain. We connect to that universal self that resides in all beings. We become expansive enough to take in another’s suffering and still have room for kindness and joy. We begin to drop false beliefs and invented labels like “good” and “bad.” We start to jive with the wisdom of Life instead of screaming in its face and trying to in vain to evade it. We become the magic-working healers who transform what seemed ugly and scary into something beautiful and authentic. Ultimately we not only allow ourselves to feel more love and happiness when we develop karuna, but we begin to become a kind of super hero. The person who overcomes her fear of suffering and learns true compassion gains access to his or her special powers, discovering a unique personal skill set for saving the world. That person becomes a beloved person, perceived for all her bravery, strength, wisdom and generosity. She is spreading goodness and virtue and empowerment into her world, and the world floods it all right back through that heart she has cracked wide open with karuna.
One day Lindsay and I were still on the floor after our stretching session, sitting cross-legged, face to face, heart to heart, and she asked me a question which changed everything.
“Why?” she asked. “Why is this happening to me?”
I went up into my headspace and searched frantically for an answer among all the texts and teachings I had studied and stored, among all the life experiences I had filed away and stories I had catalogued. Every option I found seemed disingenuous, cliche or, at best, simply useless. In the silence right before I spoke, I had no inkling that my response, the only authentic response that I had, would usher in such a profound shift for me.
I said, “I don’t know.”
With that single, truthful, humble utterance, true compassion entered the space between us, crumbling away the walls around my heart. They had been built from fear of Lindsay’s suffering but they had also been keeping out all the things that I sincerely wanted to access. Truth, wisdom and courage. Ease, trust and surrender. Suddenly we were together again. She was still terminally ill and I was still fit. She would still need me to pick her up off the floor and put her back into her wheelchair in a few minutes. I would still be striding out the door within the hour, totally free and able to skip, jump or dance my way home. But we were together in not having answers, together in being honest, together in being afraid, together in being courageous, together in human bodies that are beautiful, together in human bodies that are going to die. We were together in the spaciousness of the unknown, the un-understood, the uncomfortable, neither of us ultimately in control of our own destinies.
I had been so distraught before, blaming Lindsay for coming at me with her tough shit. But it wasn’t her tough shit I didn’t want to deal with, it was Life's tough shit--meaning that it was mine, too. I was upset because I feared the suffering and loss of a loved one, the disease that was devastating her life, the injustice of the situation, my own powerlessness to help in a meaningful way, and the darker qualities of our own shared mortality. I was trying to excommunicate an inevitable and important aspect of being human but instead of protecting me, my efforts left me feeling small and sad and spent.
I realized that I couldn't change the circumstances of birth and death, but I could stop trying to struggle against them. A wiser and healthier alternative to running and hiding from dukha appeared in that moment of karuna, and living with that has changed how I think about my own mortality. I have far less anxiety than I did before being with Lindsay's illness, I am more apt to relax and say "yes" when life hands me something unexpected. And I seem to be developing better tools for doing my life's work. The last few times that a student or a friend has approached me with real tough shit, I found that I was far more comfortable and capable in the kind of support I could give.
Before that day, I had been totally ignorant about why I was going up there to see Lindsay. I thought I was supposed to fix her. To fix all that mystery and sadness and sickness and humanness and fear. But that isn't my job or my place. My purpose really isn’t even to stretch out Lindsay’s body, though I am thrilled that I can do something to bring her any momentary comfort and it's a great excuse for the regular visit. My job is to be present and available in a loving way. To say "YES!" to the great gift of her being in my life, whatever shape she takes. To be open enough to receive her just as she is, as a precious, incredible, once-in-eternity living being and to offer myself as the same.
Compassion. Com = with. Passion = suffering. My purpose is to be with her in an act of suffering that is not just hers, but all of humanity's. My job is not to be outside of the suffering, over the suffering, better than the suffering, in charge of the suffering, or far far from it. It's not easy to dissolve those walls that fear has built, but once we do what's left is simple and singular. It's just being together.
Here are a few practices for developing karuna.
1. Karuna meditation
Sit down and take a few long, even breaths. Think of a being toward whom you naturally feel a nurturing attitude. Imagine an instance of that being suffering and sit with the feelings that your compassion for her or him inspires. Wish him or her well. Then think of someone else who evokes a slightly less protective feeling and remember that he or she also has capacity for suffering and, like all beings, desires love and happiness. Wish him or her well. Try it with other people, eventually working your way toward people whom you are finding difficult to love.
2. Work with your third and and fourth chakras
The third, the manipura chakra, is found at your solar plexus and is your center of strength, will and vigor. When this is clogged or out of balance we feel powerless and disenfranchised; we have difficulty living with clarity or strength of purpose. The fourth, the anahata chakra, is at your heart center and it enables you to connect with others compassionately. When it is out of balanced we feel alone, disconnected, trapped and under-nurtured. There’s a guided chakra balancing meditation in the second issue of Yoke to get you started.
3. Utilize mantra
“Om Ma” is a mantra connecting to the Divine Mother. She possess that fierce and bottomless love for all of the Earth’s inhabitants, all of her children, and she is the source of compassion that lives within us all.
4. Be real and present
If you want to develop karuna, spend time being real with someone. Allow yourself to be vulnerable, without trying to control what arises in your interactions. Open yourself up to this person and allow yourself to soak in their essence. If you become good at this, do it with someone who is going through a challenging experience. Even if you don’t like it at first, keep doing it. If you stay sincere, available and trusting, something will eventually shift and in will flood wisdom and love.
My visits with Lindsay are much different now than they were before. I still move her and hold her in poses, and it still requires some effort, but now, we communicate fluidly about what she needs in a shared special language. Instead of feeling burdened when I hold her body, I feel a lightness, as if we are dancing the shapes together. And there can be no payment equal to the joy I feel when we get the stretch right and she lets out a little moan of pleasure or signals a brief moment of relief across her lovely face. This is all possible because I turned to face mortality. When I did, it taught me that we are not purely physical beings, that what Lindsay and I were doing together was not a purely physical exchange. The real reason I am there is to reside awhile in the healing space opened by karuna--that clearing wherein truth, courage and ease prevail.
Lindsay was always one of the wisest friends in my life; time with her was always rich and wacky and wonderful and enlightening. But the way that she is facing ALS is transforming her into a beyond wise being, and time spent with her transforms me, too. My visits to the Bronx are my most real and profound time of the week, my chance to hear stories that no one else can tell, to have audience for stories that no one else would understand, to share our deepest realizations and truest fears. To be together in touch, song, tears and laughter. And now I don’t leave feeling depleted at all. I leave inspired, moved, cleared out, cared for, super-charged, passionately married to this wild world of light and dark, in awe of this rare opportunity to be alive and to love.
I would travel many more miles, over many more rivers, to be there.
ABOUT Aaron dias
Aaron is a yoga teacher and Contributing Editor for Yoke Quarterly. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.