Maitri karuna muditopeksanam sukha duhkha punyapunya visayanam bhavanatas citta prasadanam.
“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 of Patanjali 1:33, translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda
“Through compassion you find that all human beings are just like you.”
–HH The Dalai Lama
At London Bridge station today, during rush hour, there was a diversion at the gates between the Tube and the main railway station. When I realized this, I turned around and nearly bumped into a man who was behind me. He slurred, “Fucking idiot.” Then as we were all syphoned outside, I saw him from the back. Gangly, too-long arms, an unsteadiness about him. And I thought, Oh – you’re lost. Really lost.
He was looking confused about where to go. I said, “It’s this way,” as warmly as I could, and as we walked up the stairs, he said thank you. “I called you a name,” he said, “I’m sorry.” And I said, “It’s okay, it’s such a kerfuffle.”
He told me he was trying to get to Platform 1, so I walked with him. He said he was on his way to visit his dad, who would give him a hundred pounds. He said his wife had died. That he has two sons, one who’s 28, the other 30. “That’s good, isn’t it?” he said. And he said that people make assumptions about you, if you’ve got a drink in your hand… But that he’s always worked as a painter and a decorator. I said, “We’re all just trying to do our best.”
When I see someone who is feeling lost – when I have my eyes open – it touches my heart and sometimes makes me want to cry. It makes me think of the times in my life where I’ve felt truly lost. That’s a hard place to be – lost.
We have choices. We can do things that aren’t part of our day-to-day flowchart. We can do what we’re embarrassed to do, or something we’ve never tried. The teacher David H. Wagner is good at encouraging this (you can watch his talks on his Facebook page if you’re interested). Sometimes supporting others requires a little vulnerability on our part – we don’t know what’s on the other side of the unknown.
When I saw this man in all his vulnerability, I physically felt my heart move. I think we all experience this, from time to time – maybe when we see someone do something lovely in the street, or we see terrible suffering on the news. Pema Chodron talks about this feeling, really powerfully, when she describes boddhichita, here.
And in talking with this man, exchanging kindness, I became aware of my own relatively newfound ability to be kind to myself when things aren’t going so great. To forgive myself when I don’t do something in what I thought was the ideal way. When I’m just doing my best. “It’s okay. You’re fine. We’ll get there.” The way we relate to ourselves can have a huge effect on the way we relate to others; and indeed to our very understanding of "others". Asked how we should treat others, the sage Ramana Maharshi replied, "There are no others".
Karuna means compassion in Sanskrit. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali tells us that our physical practice can be strong and sweet at the same time: Sthira sukham asanam. And so it is with the heart.
We went our separate ways, the man and I; the better, I think, for having met.