Karuna, in Sanskrit, literally means “to suffer with” although it is generally translated to mean compassion. The Buddha described karuna as the “quivering of the heart” we experience when we are able to truly see and act on the suffering of other beings.
Patanjali of the Yoga Sutras, states that karuna is to be practiced when encountering one who is suffering. To practice compassion when a being is suffering seems fairly obvious but the question is – What exactly is compassion and what gets in our way from practicing it?
Compassion focuses on the needs of the one who suffers. We let the person know we are right there with them. We share our understanding of their pain, loss, and fear. Whatever the cause of their anguish, we attempt to understand it deeply. We become fully present to this being. Compassion allows us to be with the one suffering. In addition, we explore in what way we can assist the wounded. Sometimes, our way of helping is simply to be there, to hold their hand, or to keep them in our thoughts and to wish their pain be lifted. We may be able to help in a much larger way, but don’t discount the small ways in which you can be present in the action part of practicing compassion.
It is vital that we learn to be aware of and quiet our own fears, reactions, judgments, and opinions, and simply try to understand from the other’s point of view. It is not our job to fix the situation. It is not our place to judge how someone arrived in that place of hardship. Beware of a fixed idea you have kept in your mind on how this could even have been avoidable. Being fully present, understanding, and helpful doesn’t require the other person to admit wrongdoing. Just be there, with your heart open.
Thich Nhat Hahn sums up karuna beautifully: “If we love someone, we should train in being able to listen. By listening with calm and understanding, we can ease the suffering of another person.” And remember that you are deserving of compassion, too. We often have the most difficulty practicing compassion towards ourselves. If you are suffering, be fully present to it. Feel what you feel in your body. Open your heart to it. Listen to yourself and try to understand the nature of your pain.
Karuna calls us to feel our united spirit with all life. Their suffering is ours. Realizing that, the ego softens and we feel more One with all. Yoga, meaning union, is that Oneness. In that place, true peace lies.
Josyln Shehab, M.D., RYT-200