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Maitri Karuna: Compassion through Yoga

Maitri Karuna: Compassion through Yoga

One of the worst feelings for us humans is that of feeling angry or upset by another person. We instinctively seek love and human connection and when things go awry this can have a disastrous effect on our mental health. A lot of contemporary literature around yoga points at the fact that yoga, like life, does not happen in a vacuum. We are not sanyasin (renunciates) and even they in the high hills of the Himalayas would surely have found there were networks of connection in their lives that affected their mental steadiness. For us, in the era of overstimulation, we interact with others at work, home, over the internet and in social spaces (less so at the moment of course). With the rise in virtual social environments,  people even find themselves interacting in more than one space at the same time. This web of interactions has a huge impact on our states of mind. The more we interact the more opportunities to laugh and love, but also there are more opportunities to be jealous, let down, angry at perceived injustice, to be disgusted by another’s thoughts or behaviour or to experience loss.

Often after an argument we say ‘they made me feel’, before we consider that we may have some control over our feelings in response. I personally believe a certain amount of righteous indignation at injustice is good, however this should be distinguished from our volatility. Imagine the case of road rage. A person, angry and red in the face, shouts rudely at you from their car window in spite of their being in the wrong. What if, instead of getting angry, you consider that you only had to engage with this person for a few moments – they have to be them. Then imagine what it would be like to live inside that hot angry head. When we take this view we are sometimes able to settle our immediate reactivity into tolerance. Remember that when you get angry or jealous, more than anyone else, you hurt yourself. We all know that anger feels toxic, but when we store up these negative feelings they can truly become poisonous.

This is one of the profound psychological insights in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. Whilst the sutras are classified as philosophy, their subject is often the workings of the mind that inhibit meditative states and so they often share psychological insights. Patanjali explains that whilst we cannot change people’s behaviours toward us, we can control our responses to their behaviours. In sutra  I.33 Patanjali states:

maitri karuna muditopeksanam sukha duhkha punyapunya 
Visayanam bhavanatas citta prasadanam

By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who 
are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward
those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those 
who are non virtuous lucidity arises in the mind. Edwin Bryant Translation

This sutra is often thought to represent the influence of (probably contemporaneous) early Buddhist thought in Patanjali. It certainly seems more than coincidence that the four Brahma vihara outlined in many Buddhist writings are presented here in the same format as transformative tools for the mind. These are: 

Sanskrit         Pali                English                                           

Maitri             Metta             Friendship/loving kindness        

Karuna           karuna          Compassion

Mudita           Mudita          Joy

Upeksanam Upekka           Equanimity/tolerance 

I have always loved Edwin Bryant’s translation, he follows the commentator Vyasa in pairing these qualities with those we should meet them with – the happy, distressed, virtuous and non virtuous. Vacaspati Misra goes further to suggest that the traits we remove in doing this are envy of those who are happy, anger at those in distress, disdain for the virtuous and the desire to inflict harm or to express intolerance toward those who are not virtuous. 

The sutra promotes the notion of response rather than reactivity. Of course, in our day to day upsets we all probably agree. However, what do we do in cases of extreme injustice for individuals – in the case of trauma survivors for example, or as a community or country – in the case of social injustices? 

Well as the Bhagavad Gita tells us it is our Dharma (our moral duty) to take a community role in fighting for peace, justice and right action in the world. So compassion is not ignoring injustice.

 in the case of severe harm to an individual their learning about compassion might be to learn to care for themselves through practices that cultivate emotional resilience and whilst they may never tolerate the person who did harm to them, they might be able to find ways to build relationships with other people of friendship, compassion, joy and equanimity. 

In the social justice case, exercising compassion does not mean not engaging socially. Consider Gandhi and his adherence to methods of nonviolent civil disobedience. We can engage without causing ourselves anguish and without immoral behaviour.

So if we consider tolerance as a minimal form of compassion, we serve our communities small and large by not coming to blows, but we also serve ourselves by cultivating a capacity for equanimity and a lucid, quieter mind.

In the Buddhist tradition there is a wonderful meditation practice called the Metta Bhavana that cultivates loving kindness. My experience of it was that it was a struggle to visualise myself with loving kindness, something many experience. However, for others it might be a person of conflict that is hard to offer loving kindness to. It is important to visualise the person in your mind’s eye as you offer them loving kindness, this becomes easier with practice. You might choose different people each time

Toward ourselves

May I be happy and free from suffering

Toward a loved one

May you (their name) – who I love – be happy and free from suffering

Toward a neutral person

Toward a neutral person

May you, who I see – but do not know – be happy and free from suffering

**Nb. This should be someone you see regularly but don’t know, your post person, a bus driver, a person in your local shop

Toward those with whom we are in conflict

May you (their name) – who I struggle with – be happy and free from suffering

**Nb. This person should not be too challenging, as this will ruin the meditation

Toward all beings

May all beings be happy and free from suffering

For further discussion of the Metta Bhavana read here:

Listen to and practice the Metta Bhavana with Amy here: