The Tension That Supports

31 08 2008

By Derek Beres

In The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong’s illuminating memoir (in which she details her transformation from being a nun to one of the world’s most renowned religious historians), she writes, “Compassion has been advocated by all the great faiths because it has been found to be the safest and surest means of attaining enlightenment. It dethrones the ego from the center of our lives and puts others there, breaking down the carapace of selfishness that holds us back from an experience of the sacred.”

A few pages earlier, she had mentioned that she would never be suited for the demanding meditative disciplines of traditional yoga practice, but could find freedom in her studies, as well as her general attitude and behavior. (Mythologist Joseph Campbell once stated that his yoga was underlining sentences in books.) Of course, this is jnana yoga — the discipline of philosophy, or the yoga of knowledge. She takes the knowledge that the Buddha realized — that compassion is the highest quality to develop — and applies it to her own life and work.

This philosophy is not unknown to the bhakti yogi, who in his or her devotional practice applies compassion to all relationships. As a philosophy on paper, or taught in the yoga studio, this makes perfect sense. The hard part is realizing it when you’re not in a yoga studio, or reading a blog, or studying scripture. The challenge comes when you’re called to put compassion into practice at exactly the moment you’d rather do anything but — like, for me, every time I’m bumped and pushed on a subway car.

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