In engaging with the wonderful task of writing a commentary on samānubhūti, the virtue imparted by Gurumayi Chidvilasananda on June 24, 2022, we are beginning to realize that just as the positive effects of samānubhūti are akshaya, inexhaustible, so too the depth of understanding is ananta, infinite, if we continue to explore this sadguna, this virtue. As we keep learning and unearthing more, we’re seeing that there are also ample opportunities to act on the findings of our exploration of this virtue.
In Parts I and II of this commentary, we learned that the foundation of samānubhūti is the knowledge that the same Self resides in all sentient and insentient beings in this universe. The more we are able to perceive oneness between ourselves and other people, creatures, and things around us, the more we can grasp what it means for this entire world to be interconnected. We also reflected on the necessity of cultivating balance of the mind and creating a state of equipoise for samānubhūti to spring forth from within.
As we continue to study what samānubhūti is, we can see how each aspect of this virtue builds on the others and how all of these aspects, taken together, help us move closer to acquiring a more complete understanding of the virtue. For us, Ami and Garima, this process of ongoing discovery brings to mind what it’s like to visit a temple in India. When you first enter the temple to have darshan of the deity, you see only part of its form—a hand or the feet or perhaps a glimpse of the face. This alone is enough to fill your heart with devotion and the longing to behold the deity’s full form. As you get closer to the garbhagriha, the inner sanctum, your yearning grows, and then, at last, the moment arrives when you are in the presence of the deity in its entirety. What happens in this moment? Darshan—the recognition of the divinity within. Complete engrossment in the light of the deity draws you, magnetically, toward a silence in your being that is so sweet, so great, that you just want to be with it.
In the same way, as we uncover and learn about each aspect of samānubhūti, as we make the effort to study and understand all of its nuanced meanings, we come closer to experiencing the virtue in its full glory.
Let us now look at the fourth aspect of samānubhūti mentioned in Part I.
Samānubhūti is the awareness of parity that leads to deep empathy, compassion, and understanding.
You learned in Part I that the most immediate translation of samānubhūti in the English language is “empathy.” In this part of the commentary, we’ll probe deeper into exactly what empathy is, where it emerges from, and what it looks like in practice. (To this end, we’ll begin by honing in on the first part of this statement, on samānubhūti and its connection to deep empathy; we’ll be looking more closely at compassion and understanding in Part IV.)
When we, the writers, think about the kind of “deep empathy” that is associated with samānubhūti, we’re reminded of a story that an elderly Siddha Yogi once shared with us. Many years ago, in the early 1970s, she was sitting in the courtyard of Gurudev Siddha Peeth while Baba Muktananda was giving darshan. One of the people in line for darshan was a woman who lived in a nearby village. As this woman approached Baba, she began to cry softly. Baba gently asked her what had happened. She shared that she had recently lost her only son. The woman continued to weep; her sadness was beyond words, yet it was so very palpable in her expression, in her being.
As Baba held the woman’s hand and listened to her tell her story, tears rolled down his cheeks. Baba was simply there with the mother, with her pain. His presence, his love, was profoundly healing and comforting to the grieving woman. Those who were present for this darshan were deeply moved by what they were seeing.
Empathy, like most other virtues, is not obtained from the outside. It is innate to our very beings. Yet the effort to uncover it within ourselves can sometimes feel fraught.
We have learned from our Gurus that as we progress in our sādhanā and become aware of who and what we are, we come across both the vault of virtues and the vault of vices. In any given situation, we may be attracted to either one of these vaults, and if we’re not mindful, our mood—our outlook—will shift and morph accordingly. Which vault will I bump into today? It is an ongoing question in sādhanā, and it necessitates an ongoing process of adjusting and readjusting, calibrating and recalibrating in order to ensure that no matter which vault we encounter, we maintain a fine balance within ourselves.
What’s important to remember is that we always have a choice. When we come across the vault of vices, we can choose whether or not to open that vault. We can choose whether or not to indulge in our vices, to let them subsume us, to respond from a place of anger or fear or pride.
We can develop the strength and presence of mind to resist the ensnarement of the vices and pivot away from them. When we pivot, we step off the Lazy Susan, so to speak—the turntable that’s constantly revolving inside, bringing us back again and again to our vault of vices.
We can also decide not to identify so much with the vices—not to think, in resignation mingled with defiance: Well, this is me. This is who I am. I am just an angry person. Our choice in these moments is directly related to how, through our sādhanā, we have made the self-effort to discipline our minds and our hearts.
It is similar with the vault of virtues. Now, you might be thinking: Isn’t it advantageous to open up the vault of virtues? Shouldn’t I endeavor to embrace the virtues? Of course, we learn from our Gurus to nurture the virtues that are within us, as they fortify and propel us in our sādhanā and help us to become better human beings. What we need to be watchful of, however, is becoming attached to those virtues. Just as we might identify with the vices, we can also identify with the virtues. We can start to think, I am so kind. I am such an empathetic person. I am a compassionate human being. When we identify with the virtues in this way, we pull ourselves back into the limited self. We are using the virtues in service of our ego, as a means of boosting our pride. In reality, the virtues are less a label or identity that we assign to ourselves than they are an action to take, a way to be. A person who is empathetic just is empathetic; they demonstrate empathy. They don’t sit around talking about how empathetic they are.
So, yes, it is beneficial to open up the vault of virtues. But once we do, we must remain vigilant, conscious of how we honor those virtues, relate to them, and use them. This is why balance is necessary, why centeredness in our own Self is essential, why we must make sure not to be thrown off course by what we deem to be bad or good. Instead, we can bring wisdom and discernment to any encounters we have with the vaults of vices and virtues. The vices we can steadily uproot, as we come to understand that they should not be used against others. And the virtues we cultivate, specifically so that we may use them in support of others.
Through our study and practice on the Siddha Yoga path, we come to both an intellectual and visceral understanding of how empathy is intrinsic to us. It can be useful and interesting to look at how this knowledge is corroborated in the wider world as well. For example, we can look to science, and to history.
Scientists have found that our ability to feel with one another is associated with neural responses of the brain. There is increasing evidence that this association is part of our evolutionary history as humans and that it exists in some form in many other animals as well. The development of empathy is associated with survival in many species because it motivates parents to be attuned to the needs of their offspring.
On a collective level, humanity clearly benefits from demonstrations of empathy. Since prehistoric times, humans have recognized that there is safety and security in staying together, in looking out for and helping one another. It was surely this understanding that led to the formation of the first, primitive societies, with people hunting, gathering food, and creating shelter together. Our present society, though much evolved and changed, emerged from this model of cooperating to survive and eventually to thrive. When we extend empathy to one another, this helps us to cooperate with one another and foster harmony in our various groups and packs, in our circles of family and friends, and in our wider communities.
Moreover, the way many of these groups are structured—whether we’re looking at an individual family unit or an entire society—does in theory lend itself to the blossoming and sharing of empathy. There is typically some kind of order to these groups, a hierarchy or a designation of what positions people hold. There are matriarchs and patriarchs and leaders on different levels. When this structure is accepted and respected, and when it is not abused by those who are assigned roles of authority, the group can function far more smoothly and efficiently.
Respect, therefore, is often built in to such structures as it is vital to their success. We see proof of that respect in the language people use with one another and in the manner with which they comport themselves in relation to others. In many cultures, for example, there is the custom of using specific titles or epithets for elders (or anyone older than oneself). In the Kannada language spoken in South India, the word akka is used in reference to an older sister, or any woman older than oneself. In Hindi, the suffix jī is an honorific for both elders and formal address; this is similar to san in Japanese. In French and Spanish, formal pronouns (vous in French and usted in Spanish) are used when addressing someone who warrants particular respect, either because of the social or professional position they hold or simply because they may not be someone with whom the speaker has a familiar relationship.
Another example is the dynamic between a teacher and student. Here, too, respect is expected—and, in fact, is required for learning to happen. The student must respect the teacher’s knowledge and authority. And the teacher must respect the student—their unique capabilities, the context they’re bringing to their learning, their impressionability and their nascent understanding. In the martial arts in particular, a sensei (the teacher) will explicitly teach students how to show respect to their teacher and to one another. And in institutions of higher learning around the world, respect is often taught as a value to new students upon their arrival. The concept of respect has even made its way into a few of these universities’ slogans and mottos. For instance, the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, a neighborhood in the capital city of Honolulu, welcomes students with the greeting: Welina Mānoa. Literally, this means “Welcome to Mānoa.” However, the school gives an elaborated meaning, which is this: “Mānoa simply greets us as we greet Mānoa.” The school appeals to its students to live in harmony with nature, specifically with the land, and to embrace this perspective of shared respect.
Those students who learn the value of respect possess a talisman, an anchor, a tangible support to turn to long after they complete their schooling. They remember the mottos and slogans they were taught, and those words may come alive for them once more when they are in situations that could be improved if someone acted with just a bit more respect. Respect becomes a guiding principle for these people, a kind of belief system that even those who do not otherwise consider themselves to be “believers” can seek out and rally around.
It is unfortunate that far too often in this world, the structures that define and govern various types of groups are misused, manipulated, and changed to suit the whims of those who wield power within them. The thing is, if the original and ostensible intent of these structures—that is, creating and maintaining social order—is fulfilled, it does very naturally encourage a culture of respect. When people hold a baseline of respect for one another, an understanding of who the other is and how to be with them, there can be harmony. And when harmony reigns, the virtue of empathy is allowed to flourish.
When people don’t feel the need to continually gauge and defend their position in relation to others, they can see other people for who they are—and other people can truly see them. Each person can then demonstrate empathy in a manner that is specific to them, to their position in the group, to their life experience and aptitudes. The empathy extended by a parent to a child will be different from the empathy extended by a child to their parent. The empathy extended by a teacher to their student will be different from the empathy extended by a student to a fellow student. In fact, it is when empathy is expressed across these stratifications, when oneness is experienced as permeating the difference and variety of this world, that it has unique potency. We, Ami and Garima, are reminded of the story of Baba Muktananda giving darshan to the woman who lost her son, of how the tears rolled down Baba’s cheeks. Here was the Guru—the sadguru, the jagadguru—so visibly sharing in the grief of this anguished mother. Additionally, we understand that, since the Guru’s tears arise from an immortal realm and not from a place of emotion, those tears have the power to wash away the karmas of many lifetimes—in this case, the karmas of both the mother and her son.
As we conclude Part III of this commentary, we want to leave you with these words from Gurumayi:
When we are in harmony with the universe—
breathing becomes easy,
living becomes graceful,
and everyone thrives.
Click here to read Part IV