In Part III of the commentary on samānubhūti, the virtue that Shri Gurumayi has given us for her birthday on June 24, 2022, we—Ami and Garima—had begun leading you in an exploration of the following aspect of the virtue:
Samānubhūti is the awareness of parity that leads to deep empathy, compassion, and understanding.
We looked at how samānubhūti leads to deep empathy. In this part of the commentary, we will delve into another of the qualities of samānubhūti that we have identified in this statement: compassion.
On the one hand, compassion is similar to empathy, and on the other hand, it is markedly distinct from it.
The Sanskrit and Hindi words for compassion are karunā and dayā. The meanings of these words include “tenderness” (or “tender-heartedness”), “mercifulness,” “sensitiveness,” and “kindness”—in addition to “compassion.”
Both compassion and empathy arise from the awareness of the oneness and interconnectedness that exist among all beings in this world. (We explain what exactly this means in Part I of the commentary.) Now, if you just go by what empathy and compassion feel like, they may seem extremely similar. For example, they can both feel like a tenderness stirring up within you, kindling a desire, an inclination to reach out and help those in need. You may think of empathy and compassion as sahachar, close companions of each other, or as humrāhī, fellow travelers—and from time to time you might even hear these words, empathy and compassion, used interchangeably.
However, you, as the reader of this commentary, have come a long way in your understanding of samānubhūti—just as we, the writers of this commentary, have continued to develop our own! You won’t be surprised, then, to learn that when you begin to parse the meaning of these two words and take a closer look at the nuances specific to each one, the distinctions between them become more evident.
One clear and easy way to perceive these distinctions is through the external impetus that elicits a response of either empathy or compassion within you. Empathy, as stated in Part I, can encompass feeling someone’s pleasure or their pain; it can involve celebrating their joys or feeling their suffering, depending on their situation.
Compassion, meanwhile, has a slightly different scope. Often people will feel compassion when they see someone undergoing some kind of hardship, some trial or tribulation. But we also can—and do—feel compassion when we see someone longing for something which they have yet to attain; or when we see them working hard, toiling away, making sacrifices in pursuit of some noble goal; or when they’re grappling to know or understand something that’s unfamiliar to them. Compassion arises when we perceive the distance between where someone is and where they wish to be, or where we think they deserve to be. It is fueled by our sense of shared humanity with that person (or, if the recipient of our compassion is an animal or a plant or some other part of the natural world, a broader sense of fellow-feeling). It is also fueled by our perception of their goodness—their worthiness, their sincerity, the earnestness of their efforts.
We might feel compassion for someone living in abject poverty because we know that, just by virtue of their being a person on this planet, they deserve better—they deserve food, shelter, a sense of security. We might feel compassion when reading the histories of people who were oppressed, time and again, by their leaders—and who were consequently deprived of the right to lead their lives in the manner in which they would have chosen. And we might also feel compassion when someone shares with us their wish to have the kinds of wonderful experiences in meditation that they hear other people do—even though they themselves must be having great experiences in meditation! It is apparent to us, as we listen to them, that they are not recognizing and valuing the power and beauty of their own experiences.
Ami—one of the writers of this commentary—has a story to share with you from her own life about the virtue of compassion. In the years since it took place, it has set Ami on a path of discovery that’s been by turns mysterious, revelatory, and fruitful. Ami says:
One morning in the early 1990s, Gurumayi was giving darshan to a group of some fifty Gurukula students in Gurudev Siddha Peeth, which included Trustees, managers, and department heads. We had gathered in Swagatam, one of the Ashram’s serene meditation halls. I was offering sevā as a darshan assistant, and I was also one of the department heads.
During this darshan Gurumayi invited us to share about our experience of offering sevā in the Ashram. One of the people present stood up and shared about a situation in which she had to interact with many people. As this person was sharing, it seemed to those of us listening that she had exhibited a certain brusqueness in her manner as she was interacting with them.
At that point, Gurumayi spoke about the importance of demonstrating the virtue of compassion when offering sevā. She asked the group, “What does it mean to be compassionate?” Gurumayi then sat quietly, giving all of us time to ponder this question.
After some time, people began to give different answers, such as “Compassion is love” and “Compassion is kindness.” Once we had all gone around and shared, Gurumayi gave her answer: “To be compassionate is to be nonjudgmental.”
“Wow!” I thought to myself when I heard Gurumayi say this. It was a new perspective for me. As I was processing the deep meaning of Gurumayi’s words, I glanced around. I observed that the others looked pensive and, like me, seemed to be making an effort with every fiber of their being to understand Gurumayi’s answer. I had never, in my seventeen years of life up to that point, thought about compassion in this way.
As I was teasing out the meaning of Gurumayi’s teaching—“To be compassionate is to be nonjudgmental”—it dawned on me that so often I could be quick to judge others and even myself as “good” or “bad.” My worldview was shaped and colored by all these ideas and concepts about what was right or wrong, what was acceptable and what was not, and by the judgments that I’d then make (often unconsciously) based on those criteria. As I continued my Siddha Yoga sādhanā, I became more aware of how these rigid concepts were my own creation. I made it a joyful practice to begin to question these concepts one by one and to see if they held up in the light of the Truth.
In view of this story, we (Ami and Garima) discussed what it means to be nonjudgmental. Our first thought was: it’s not easy! And why not? Well, it is in the very make-up of humans—and many animals—to think, to analyze, to interpret, to evaluate, to assess, to scrutinize, to make assumptions, and to come to conclusions. On a primal level, we do this to ascertain if whoever or whatever is before us poses a threat—if they are friend or foe.
Now, our mechanism of judgment can certainly be faulty. It’s not that we always accurately assess whether or not someone is a threat, and our gauge for such assessments is informed by our own preconceived notions, conditioned responses, what we’ve learned and experienced and been taught over the years. Nonetheless, the instinct kicks in. We make our judgments—often in no more than a split-second—and we respond accordingly.
There’s also the fact that difference can be a good and welcome thing. Everyone on this earth has been endowed with their own unique traits and personality. Everyone has a different background and life circumstances. This is what makes life so interesting, so phenomenal, so worth living. This is what brings a kaleidoscope of color to this whole manifestation. This is what makes the world go round.
Nonetheless, at our core—at our essence—we are all the same. On the Siddha Yoga path, our Gurus have continually encouraged us to cultivate and maintain this awareness of our oneness. By following their teachings, we have learned how to rein in the mind—how to keep bringing it back to the awareness of oneness, so that we can enjoy the diverseness of this world without forgetting the source of that diverseness, and without using our perceived differences as fodder for division and conflict.
Kashmir Shaivism explains that all this manifoldness is the Lord’s creation. Once we become established in this knowledge, we realize the futility of judging each other or ourselves. Think about it this way: if we are all fundamentally one, then there is nothing and no one to judge. Right? And if that is right, then how come? Well, even judging oneself requires someone to compare ourselves with!
Admittedly, the effort to acquire and remain firm in this knowledge—to remember oneness and not be deceived by difference—can feel like a perpetual push-and-pull. It’s therefore useful to probe a bit deeper and inquire as to what it is, exactly, that keeps us so fixated on our differences and thereby habituated to passing judgment.
There are many contributing factors. That being said, one of the main vices that leads us astray is pride, ahamkāra.
The Sanskrit and Hindi word ahamkāra is a product of two words: aham and kāra. Aham in Sanskrit literally means “I.” Here kāra refers to the limited self that identifies as the doer, as the sole agent behind any action. Thus, ahamkāra is the faculty that gives us our limited sense of self—it binds us to a sense of “mine” or “my-ness.” Ahamkāra disconnects us from our own innate and natural Self, which is inherently free and limitless. When our actions are led by ahamkāra, we perform them with a sense of doership, and with egotism, self-conceit, self-absorption, and ignorance.
Where compassion arises from the awareness of sama—from recognizing what makes you the same as, and equal to, all in this world—pride arises from a sense of separateness. Pride feeds on perceived differences and leverages those differences to its own advantage. When laced with pride, what we think of as compassion is in fact not compassion. Instead, it is pity.
When you have pity for someone, it signifies that you have a “holier-than-thou” attitude, that on some level you think of yourself as better than or superior to the other person. And whether you intend to do so or not, that’s what you communicate in your behavior toward them, in your words and your actions. You therefore shouldn’t be disconcerted when the people you are trying to help resist or rebuff your offers of support. They have their own sense of dignity, of integrity, of self-worth, and they will pick up on it if you’re not recognizing the same in them. An Amish proverb puts it succinctly: “Instead of putting others in their place, put yourself in their place.”
The irony is that when ahamkāra, pride in oneself, is shed, one is left with the pure aham, the pure “I.” Usually we attach to this aham (this “I” or “I am…”) some qualifier expressing who we think we are or some marker of our position in the world—for example, “I am a doctor” or “I am good at sports” or “I am not as smart as other people.” Some of these descriptions may be accurate and useful for us as we navigate the world; others may be of more questionable veracity. In either case, they do not describe who we are fundamentally.
We begin to comprehend this truth once the Kundalinī Shakti within us has been awakened by the grace of a Sadguru. Through our sādhanā, we come to see how we have limited ourselves to the small “I,” the limited sense of self, and have considered it the “be-all and end-all” of who we are. With this new understanding comes the recognition that we can separate our identity from our limited sense of self—and that, by employing the means the Gurus have given us through their teachings and practices, we can come to perceive the supreme Self residing within us. As we continue to associate this aham, this “I am,” with the Self, it then becomes aham brahmāsmi, “I am Brahman, the Absolute Self.”
Many times, when faced with a situation that calls for compassion, people feel unsure of what to do. They may think of themselves as compassionate people because they think they are good-hearted and have good intentions. But when the time comes to actually demonstrate compassion—to put the virtue into action—they find themselves hesitating. Or else they act in a way that communicates something other than compassion to the person they’re wanting to support. Their apparent uncertainty, their seeming discomfort, and possibly their own thoughts and feelings about similar experiences they’ve had in the past wind up being on display.
Why is this? And what can any of you, if you can admit to seeing yourselves in this example, do about it?
As you know, one of Shri Gurumayi’s teachings is “Practice, practice, practice. Abhyāsa, abhyāsa, abhyāsa.” We have learned from Gurumayi that in order to effectively implement the virtues, it is necessary to have first practiced them. Just as excellence in any endeavor requires much practice, so too do you need to practice the virtues.
Practice allows you to learn what it looks and feels like for you to express the virtues. It helps you to understand how your mind, body, and heart respond to situations in which you want to express this virtue, and it gives you the opportunity to learn how to contend with whatever comes up inside of you. Then, when the moment arrives for you to exhibit the virtue in a real-world scenario, and for the benefit of someone else, you find that your mind is clear and steady. You notice that you are grounded in strength. You are able to move and comport yourself with certainty. You simply know what to do.
Over the years, many of you have been reading the commentaries on the sadguna vaibhava, the virtues Gurumayi has given for each day of the month of June, Birthday Bliss. In doing so, you may have also read and practiced the affirmation that is included at the end of each commentary.
These affirmations are from Gurumayi. She has given them to ensure that you have a way to remember the crux of what you have read in these commentaries written by Siddha Yogis, as well as a ready means of practicing the virtue. You can repeat the affirmations to yourself. You can say them silently and aloud, feeling the energy of the virtue flow through you as you take on its qualities and recognize them within yourself.
At the same time, we have another way to practice the virtues. On the Siddha Yoga path, Gurumayi has given dhāranās as a means for people to arrive at and to usher their being into a chant, or to enter into meditation, so that they can be fully ready to experience that practice and get the most out of it. For your practice of the virtue that Gurumayi has given for June 24, 2022—the virtue of samānubhūti—we, Ami and Garima, have received Gurumayi’s blessing to write a dhāranā about compassion, one of the qualities that samānubhūti encompasses.
The instructions for the dhāranā are below. You may practice it along with the audio recording on this page. Please be sure to give the practice your full attention; you will want to do it in a quiet and private space, and you should not do it in the midst of any other activity (such as walking or driving).
Take a comfortable posture.
Visualize the natural flow of your breath.
You may close your eyes.
Now, envision a scenario in which you are with someone who would benefit from your compassion.
It could be a person.
It could be an animal.
It could also be a plant or a tree.
Take a few moments to visualize the details of the scene.
Where are you? What is the setting?
Observe the situation.
How does this person—or animal, or plant—appear to be feeling?
What is their need?
What is their state of being?
Now, visualize yourself expressing your compassion for them.
What do you say?
What do you do?
How do you do it?
As you are in this scene, extending compassion,
notice what is going on inside of your being.
What do you feel in your body?
Survey your body,
from the top of your head
all the way to your toes.
Witness what is happening in the different parts of your body.
As you are in this scene, extending compassion,
what is happening in your mind?
Are any thoughts moving across the screen of your awareness?
As you are extending compassion,
what is happening in your heart?
What feelings are arising within you?
Witness what other emotions are welling up within you.
Witness what other sensations you feel under your skin.
Witness whether your mind is numb, or percolating with energies.
Witness whether your eyes are moist with tears.
Witness whether silence is coming over you.
Just witness—it is for you to recognize what you truly experience within your being when you are extending compassion.
Each experience is unique, and each experience is your own.
Stay with what is happening inside of your being.
Now, once again, bring your attention to your breath.
Visualize the natural flow of your breath.
Observe your in-breath and your out-breath.
You may open your eyes.
Thank yourself for practicing how to extend your compassion.
Do reflect on what you have learned about yourself from doing this practice.
Do reflect on what came up for you about compassion in general.
You may find it useful to continue practicing this dhāranā to strengthen your ability to express compassion—a key aspect of the virtue of samānubhūti.
Click here to read Part V