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Karuna — Compassion

Illustration of Avalokitesvara from, used by permission from the artist, pavari. Find her beautiful work at

When I was a teenager my dad used to talk about "the human condition." At 18, the height of my wisdom, I had no idea what that meant. I knew that I wanted to be kind to people who were suffering — to others — but I didn't know how to care for myself. I didn't recognise my own suffering, I wasn't present with how it felt to experience the human condition.

When we are feeling hurt or angry, when we have experienced trauma, we often look for ways to not feel the "bad" things. We do whatever we can to avoid it. It's awful to sit in our own discomfort. When we have experienced trauma, it might be nearly impossible to be present with what has happened to us. But everything that has happened to us affects how we interact with others. It informs every decision we make. And when we are hurt we will do whatever it takes to make ourselves feel better — not to necessarily resolve the situation, just feeling that hurt. From the outside, it doesn't always make sense. People do terrible things to each other, to themselves so that they can avoid those feelings: grief, loneliness, anger, sadness, shame, fear, doubt (not a complete list). Obviously, people are always still responsible for what they do, but when we are trying to see the world through compassionate eyes, we need to see the person as a whole, as one who is suffering.

​I've been reading What We Say Matters by Judith Hanson Lasater and Ike K. Lasater. It's a book about non-violent communication, about how to talk to others without using our words as weapons. In yoga we follow the Yamas and Niyamas, our ethical code of behaviour, and the first two are ahimsa (non-violence) and satya (truth). It's important that we speak truth, but satya is governed by ahimsa first and foremost. I'd like to say that I follow this always, but it's actually really hard. We see the world through our own eyes, from our own perspective, from our own narrative. We walk into a room, into a relationship, with our own baggage, our own karma, our own trauma. So when we open our mouths, it can be difficult to speak in a way that doesn't use our perspective as a justification for hurting others, sometimes unknowingly.

Compassion is embodied by the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, also known as Quan Yin. Avalokitesvara looked down on the world and saw the suffering of others. Struggling to witness all of the suffering, his head exploded into eleven pieces. Amitabha took those pieces and gave Avalokitesvara eleven heads so that he could see more people. Wanting to help everyone, his arms exploded into a thousand pieces. Amitabha took those pieces and gave Avalokitesvara a thousand hands so that he could help more people. Compassion has two parts: the witness and the action. Compassion is not just a feeling, it requires that we do something to help others. But when people are suffering, they often behave in difficult ways, and it can be so hard to see past behaviour to the suffering.

It's important that we don't put the suffering of others above our own needs. In fact, to learn true compassion, we need to start by looking at ourselves. We need to begin by sitting with our own discomfort, with our own struggles, and have compassion for ourselves. Who knows better what you are feeling and how you have behaved badly than yourself? Who is more judgemental of you than yourself? Who needs compassion from you more than yourself? We have to start inside, to look at our own suffering, and find ways to help ourselves heal our hurts. Only when we have been able to sit with our own discomforts with compassion will we be able to show true compassion to the rest of the world.

I'm now 44, and I have a much better understanding of the human condition. I have experienced loneliness, shame, fear, anger (not a complete list). I have hurt other people because of my unresolved traumas, my own karma, my experiences. I know I still have much to learn about being human, about this journey. But at the start of a new year, I am going to take this opportunity to cultivate compassion for myself, and for those around me.

Below is the mantra om mani padme hum, the mantra of Avalokitesvara. Om, the jewel in the lotus, hum.

​The 14th Dalai Lama said:

"It is very good to recite the mantra Om mani padme hum, but while you are doing it, you should be thinking on its meaning, for the meaning of the six syllables is great and vast... The first, Om [...] symbolizes the practitioner's impure body, speech, and mind; it also symbolizes the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha[...] "The path is indicated by the next four syllables. Mani, meaning jewel, symbolizes the factors of method: (the) altruistic intention to become enlightened, compassion, and love.[...] "The two syllables, padme, meaning lotus, symbolize wisdom[...] "Purity must be achieved by an indivisible unity of method and wisdom, symbolized by the final syllable hum, which indicates indivisibility[...] "Thus the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha[...]" ~ H.H. Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama, "On the meaning of: OM MANI PADME HUM"

I'm hoping to find a jewel in a beautiful flower growing in the muck.

​Blessing to you all. Happy New Year.

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