I’ve been thinking recently about the moments in my life when empathy appears for those living through some sort of challenge or adversity. This internal analysis really started up recently when I saw a 3-legged dog hopping down the street on its leash, and my heart immediately jumped into my throat. The owner of the dog saw me looking at them as they walked by, and as they stopped at the traffic light before crossing the street, she said to me, “Don’t pity him – he is so unaware of the absence of the fourth leg.” We both smiled and they continued on with their walk.
Having been a dog owner for years, I know that they have this instinctual ability to motor on with whatever hindrance they may be afflicted with, as long as it doesn’t cause them ongoing pain. I found it so interesting that the owner of the hobbling Jack Russell saw pity in my facial expression, because in my limited frame of reference, pity is an emotion that includes a sense of condescension, of superiority, and there was absolutely no patronizing element to what I was feeling. I simply had a moment where I imagined what it would be like to be that specific dog with that specific physical difference, and I felt a surge of warmth, love, and empathy for him. So I started thinking about how I defined pity…and whether I needed to re-think that definition.
My favourite novel, Shantaram, is full of timeless truisms written by the brilliant author Gregory David Roberts, and one of them is the most succinct summations of the essence of pity (and one that I would now like to think that dog owner would identify with) : “Pity is the one part of love that asks for nothing in return and, because of that, every act of pity is a kind of prayer.” Having remembered that quote after the incident with the dog, I realized that from this moment on, I will define pity differently – forget the condescension, forget the feeling of being able to judge someone or something else from a place of superiority and inflated sense of self – pity IS empathy. It’s the ability to tap into the essence of other beings and proverbially walk in their shoes (or paws). My personal yoga practice is constantly infused with the intention of embodying all the beings that the asanas are named after, and I occasionally mention this in the classes I teach. By allowing ourselves to feel what others are feeling, to catch a glimpse of their joys and sufferings, we allow the differences we tend to focus on to dissolve. In the place of those differences, we are left with a clear, unobstructed, and visceral view of how we all are pursuing the same things in life: happiness, contentment, comfort, stability…in word, love. To tap into the essence of others is to let go of the selfishness of one’s ego and really approach our collective experience with an open heart. To do so tells us more about universal law and this life we’re living than any textbook possibly could. So give it a go. If you practice yoga, infuse your practice with the intention of really feeling what a tree feels like in the wind as you take Vrksasana. Tap into the strength and certainty that the mythology behind Virabhadrasana I, II & III recounts to us. More importantly, though, try this exercise without being on a yoga mat. Look around you at the events unfolding as you make your way through each day, and see who and what you share your space with. As massive and relevant as we think our own individual lives are, we are but specks in the universe, along with the trillions of other specks, ever one of which is existing in as relevant a condition as we are. Take a moment to see what those specks contain. You’ll learn more about yourself than you think.