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Ahimsa: Having Compassion for Difficult People

I spend a lot of time in yoga classes talking about showing ourselves kindness and compassion. I do so because I think that is where compassion and kindness must begin. However, the ultimate goal is, or course, to have compassion for ourselves and others.

Sometimes it is easy to bring to mind all of those beings living on this little blue dot we call earth and to wish them well. Other times, we are confronted by terrible acts perpetrated by individuals and feel a sense of anger, disillusionment, hopelessness. It’s like Linus says in the Peanuts cartoon, “I love mankind... It’s people I can’t stand.”

It can be so hard to have compassion for individual people. We can feel like we don’t even want to have compassion for certain people, as we may feel like we are being asked to excuse their behaviour. However, compassion is not supposed to turn one into a doormat, someone who accepts everything that is thrown at them. Rather, it is supposed to help one step back and get an accurate picture of the situation, to recognize that no matter what a certain person or group of people is doing, they are people like us: they suffer; they have friendships and family relationships; and they wish to be happy, even if it seems so clear to us that they are going about it the wrong way.

We certainly don’t need to accept bad behaviour, and we can't help but feel emotions such as anger, fear or hurt when we witness it. However, we can ensure that we don’t react based on these emotions. When we are able to look through the eyes of compassion, we can condemn bad behaviour without condemning and dehumanizing others. We can set boundaries that will help protect us without setting up impenetrable walls that will forever keep others out.

While it may seem that some people are beyond redemption, we cannot know what the future will bring. I just finished reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who spent years in Nazi concentration camps. Frankl ends the book with an anecdote about a “Dr. J.” who was known as the “Mass Murderer of Steinhof.” Dr. J was a psychologist who was infamous for finding and exterminating anyone he determined to have a mental defect. Years after the war, Frankl found out from a colleague that Dr. J. had been captured by the Soviets and had spent the rest of his life in prison. The colleague had served time with Dr. J. and reported that as a prisoner, Dr. J. behaved heroically, helping other prisoners and giving them hope in their darkest hours. Frankl asks the reader, “How can we dare to predict the behaviour of man?”

If you are interested in working toward cultivating compassion, I would recommend working with the metta or lovingkindness meditation. While there are many variations, the classic meditation works with offering compassion to yourself, a benefactor, someone facing difficulty, someone you find difficult or challenging and all beings. Click here to listen to one led by Sharon Salzberg.

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