In Ashtanga we often talk about the transformation that comes through practice. Transformation. What do we mean by that?
I think the biggest meaning comes in the form of a shift in perspective — a change in the way we see the world. It can be a subtle as the thought patterns that come when we witness someone toss their litter on the ground or as magnanimous as our ability to share in the suffering of others — to feel the discomfort one feels when attempting to open their heart and share a painful experience they’ve endured.
This past Sunday as I was undertaking my usual struggle with a backbend posture called kapotasana, a rush of emotion came forward. I felt trapped. I felt vulnerable. I flashed back to being balled up on the floor with my face in my hands while fists and feet pounded on my body. It brought tears to my eyes, but I didn’t run from it. I felt it. And I realized in that moment that I haven’t fully processed what happened to me so many years ago. I still have work to do.
I didn’t get up from the mat upset about this revelation. I got up from the mat with a newfound freedom in my heart. A freedom to feel what others have felt, to stop hiding from my understanding that yoga postures and human touch are incredibly powerful. Just as they can serve to bring great awareness, knowledge and joy, they can also bring on the opposite.
A few years ago I taught a workshop at Flow wherein I implemented a teaching technique at the wall. I was taught this by my teachers and had practiced it myself many times. There was a person that seemed a bit resistant to engage in the exercise, but I didn’t think that much of it. A short time later I learned that someone in the class had complained that my teaching had caused an emotionally painful experience that was characterized as abusive.
I was shocked, hurt and confused. I can honestly say that in my nearly 11 years of teaching I have never once had a purposely negative thought in my mind while teaching. As I write that sentence, I myself am questioning “really, Cory?”. Yes, really. So, when I received this information it was quite a blow. And since that time I’ve struggled to understand how my teaching could have brought about such a negative experience.
I now understand.
And I’m, well, honestly, excited and a bit relieved. I’m emotional and I’m definitely going to continue to explore and consider, but more than that I’m excited and relieved. Excited that I understand and can apply this understanding and do better by those that I work with; and relieved because I understand and can relate to what happened in a constructive way.
To now, I’ve carried some level of denial, thinking that my actions were misinterpreted and/or somehow the person’s experience was not valid. The truth is, their experience was completely valid and THEIR experience. If I don’t ask or somehow come to a mutual agreement on how we engage, there’s no way for me to appreciate the inner circumstances of that experience.
I’ve also thought that there was no way that’s what actually happened because anyone who knows me knows that’s not who I am. But, you know what? This person didn’t know me at all, nor I them.
Compassion means “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it” according to Merriam-Webster and Bhikkhu Bodhi has this to say about it:
“Compassion develops out of our spontaneous feelings of sympathy with others. However, as a spiritual virtue compassion cannot be equated with a sentimental effusion of emotion, nor does it necessarily imply a dictum to lose oneself in altruistic activity. Though compassion surely includes emotional empathy and often does express itself in action, it comes to full maturity only when guided by wisdom and tempered by detachment.”
It’s amazing how things come together when you let them. Last year I decided to make a concerted effort to develop greater compassion. I had just had a private audience with my Buddhism teacher and he emphasized to me the importance of cultivating a balance of wisdom and compassion through our practice. Even though I know I still have a long way to go in both departments, something in my gut perked up when he spoke about compassion. And now as I read what Bikkhu Bodhi has to say, it’s clear to me that a key piece has been missing with regard to this issue at hand. DETACHMENT. I clung hard to my ego, my sense of righteousness and pushed back hard against the notion that I had done anything “wrong”. Well, you know what, it’s not about me. And it’s not about “wrong”. It’s about suffering and the pursuit to alleviate it, not cause it.