Jai Ma said there’d be days like this…
People can be mean. No, really! People can be just no-good, down-right, don’t-care-who-we-hurt, mean. People can take a simple request or statement and turn it into an attack by simply altering their tone of voice. And for some reason, they can be the meanest on the days when I really need someone to be kind.
Like Monday, perhaps. I was having the sort of Monday morning that follows the sort of weekend you have following the sort of week that you wished didn’t exist. The last thing I needed was unnecessary drama. I was just beginning to get my confidence back, to get into my groove, when a complaining acquaintance knocked me right out of my disco-shoes and onto the floor.
Needless to say, my initial reaction was to get caught up in the negativity of her comments, crumble up, and be swept away by the broom of blame and self-pity. I haven’t been practicing yoga long enough to not have those feelings. The good news is that I have been practicing yoga long enough to be able to have those feelings and not say or do anything stupid.
Finding the right Key.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which is basically a handbook for yogic living, we are advised with four unique methods of approaching four particular personality types. We sometimes call these the four “keys” of yoga.
“By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.” Yoga Sutras 1:33.
Patanjali is very specific in saying that this sutra is addressing types of attitudes, not types of people. As people we have all of these qualities: happiness, unhappiness, virtue, and, indeed, wickedness. No one person is all of these things all of the time.
In the past I have seen my acquaintance happy. That was clearly not the attitude she was displaying at the moment she was complaining! And although I certainly didn’t want to admit it at the time, I’m sure that my acquaintance is sometimes virtuous! But that was not the most suitable key for me to use with her on that particular day. And even though I felt hurt, angry, and annoyed, it is not wicked to complain. Clearly this acquaintance was simply unhappy, thus the appropriate key was compassion.
Just like me.
I can be mean. No, really! I can be just no-good, down-right, don’t-care-who-I-hurt mean. I can take a simple request or statement and turn it into an attack by just altering my tone of voice. And for some reason, I can be the meanest on the days when someone really needs me to be kind.
We often think about the second key in terms of “being nice to sad people.” It is easy to be nice to a sad person! That does not exactly display the pinnacle of spiritual development. Unhappiness takes many different forms. Yes, sometimes to be unhappy is to simply be sad. Other times unhappy people seem angry, grumpy, or unkind. Unhappiness can also come across as brusque, selfish, or stand-offish.
Compassion is more than just “being nice”.
When people are unhappy, we may feel they are personally attacking us, and we put up our defenses. The Yoga Sutras advise us to do otherwise. We must shift our perspective from one of defensiveness to one of compassion. In doing so we change the energy being given to the situation at hand. For example, when I encountered this acquaintance on Monday, I could have argued with her and insisted that she was being neurotic and unreasonable. Regardless of whether my assessment was right or wrong, that would have done little to help the situation. In fact, it would have made things ten times worse. Instead, I held my tongue. My silence does not mean that her behavior was right or appropriate. But in that particular situation, arguing would have done no good. Compassion does not lead one to become a doormat. It gives us the wisdom to not do or say things that will fuel a negative situation, which we will inevitably later regret.
Compassion also allows me to acknowledge that in that particular moment I was encountering a human being who, just like me, is flawed. In that moment, she was not being her best self. I, too, have had those moments. Compassion is not an act of overlooking someone’s poor behavior from a place of spiritual superiority. It is seeing that we are all complex human beings. We are capable of being quite mean when we are acting from our woundedness, but we are also capable of incredible love when acting from our true nature. Instead of attaching myself to her momentary slip, I could just let it go.
We each have within us the capacity to hurt or heal those around us. Sometimes hurting others may mean brushing them off when they are already having a rough day. Sometimes healing others may mean not saying something that will make an already negative moment worse. Bringing healing to a situation is sometimes what we do, sometimes what we don’t do, and always the way we do it. This is why it is best that in all things we be kind.