Empathy, the gateway to our essential nature.
When this body was ﬁrst hit with advanced cancer in 2010 the shock of the news and the severity of the treatments shook my world, my footing.
At the time, I was reading Jeremy Rifkin’s book Empathetic Civilization (see video below) while experiencing an outpouring of caring, love and support as I faced the news of having cancer and having to step out of work and life as I knew it.
Both practicing and teaching asana were not possible for a time, and so my personal relationship with the teachings of yoga, with teaching itself, and with students all shifted.
Amidst the chaos and the sense of loss and uncertainty, something else came to overshadow that sense. I felt at the time that I was basking in the most glorious side of humanity, and wrote about being witness to something so true to our nature:our impulse towards compassion and empathy. There was something potent in feeling such a collective, essential drive in the world around me. Family, friends and yoga students came out in kindness and generosity, as did yoga studios and people I hadn’t even met in several continents. In France, Turkey and elsewhere teachers I had met were dedicating their classes to me and my healing—offerings of group song were especially powerful. All I saw of people was their compassion, kindness, support, care, humor and passion for life.
Though the bottom had fallen out in my world, I found my attention was mostly on the honest human connection and interaction right in front of me.
Immersed as I was in a collective empathetic embrace, Rifkin’s book and Swami Dayananda’s Bhagavad Gita home study course colored my daily contemplation upon the nature of empathy and our own essential nature. I no longer was able to practice yoga asana or teach and so the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, the contemplation, meditation and pranayama naturally drew my focus.
I now say cancer ripened me, I assimilated teachings on acceptance, empathy and our very being like never before.
Both Rifkin and the Bhagavad Gita arrive at conclusions about our essential nature, and both models conclude empathy is at the heart of that nature. This has powerful implications not only for personal, emotional and spiritual maturity, but for our social, civic and economic life as well.
“You see, we believe ‘we are all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘you are on your own.’ ” ~ Bill Clinton, DNC 2012
This deceptively calm, simple and beautifully crafted sentence lays out the heart of our national rift, a tear polarizing our society and darkening our collective American psyche. While this rift occurs across all parties, religions, races and so on, Clinton was likely referring to the partisan manifestation. It is no secret that much of the right has identified with various forms of individualism in contrast to collectivism.
Anti-government sentiments, consciously and conspicuously contrast to some form of collectivism or some form of empathetic, cooperative, interdependent model. Ryan’s national budget is steeped in such an ideology, and the ripples go out into the legions who follow, often without validating or debating the policy, much less the underlying ideology, nor questioning the messenger. And while these general and visible partisan distinctions exist, I would say those of both philosophies are found across all parties.
We each have in us both views at different times, maybe the same time, and so we experience inner conﬂict. We then take out this inner conﬂict on others and the world around us.
Different views, respectful debate and compromise can be healthy for problem solving and governance. However, what Clinton and others have also addressed is the malicious, even venomous hatred that has come along with that philosophy.
Jon Stewart’s crew did a segment interviewing folks at the Democratic National Convention on how inclusive, welcoming and “big tent” the Democratic Party is—with a grace and panache unique to that crew. Next thing you know is that those same people are vilifying the Tea Party or the Evangelical right with disdainful and offensive stereotypes. So all parties are subject to painting the “other” as dismissible or loathsome.
This venom makes the rift something altogether different emotionally and viscerally. Clinton pointed out that disagreeing with someone need not require hating them, demonizing them nor dismissing everything they say and do.
Why is this view of the “other” signiﬁcant? What does this have to do with yoga?
In spring of 2010, when I ﬁrst learned this body had cancer, I faced over 15 weeks of on-again off-again grueling chemo, five days in a row, six hours a pop, then break, and then again. The treatments led to months of recovery, all with uncertain outcome. Then in spring of 2011, the cancer came back and I underwent more high dose chemo and bone marrow transplants, leading again to months of weakness, pain and fatigue. Again, I had time to contemplate.
The cancer has returned, now my third summer opening the space for these lessons again. That ﬁrst summer, when too lightheaded or nauseous and weak to sit or stand for days at a time; I would lie in contemplation of all that was occurring—sometimes reigning in the wandering mind by doing japa, the practice of repetitive mantra contemplation, or by doing pranayama (breath awareness and control exercises) usually also with an internal, unspoken mantra to pace the breath (the Maha Mrtjyunjaya Mantra). Sometimes I would lie staring at the wall just following the mind’s meanderings.
At the time, I was also reading Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s four volume Bhagavad Gita home study course and a book on Emerson. The empathy ﬂame was somehow at the heart of it all in all these books. I was also reading news often and found myself meandering around in memory as the body lay in pain and nausea. I would revisit different periods of my life, and replaying my years as an activist had me further contemplating empathy and values.
The activist mindset had so much “us” and “them” embedded in identity and worldviews, as well as so much anger and fear. Certainly we were motivated by hope, inspiration, the desire to contribute, the joy of working together and so on. Truth be told, we ran ourselves ragged, dropped self-care and people were often not nice to each other, under the pressure of internal stress or in the name of furthering personal agenda, fame and name. Butting up against the military industrial complex and its scouts and enforcers all the time, feeling like all we do is never enough, and learning about all the ways future generations, our planet, ecosystems and living creatures suffer—sometimes it weighs heavy on the heart and hope does not come easy. I know in the face of 9/11, of climate change, of local hostilities and world conﬂicts I have felt at times afraid and sad for my species and for our home.
As I lay that ﬁrst summer, watching this body in decline, not knowing how long the body could abide either the treatments or the disease, I felt that sadness. I remember smiling then as the decades and moods, the people and places, the ideas, the dreams, the marches and the songs all drifted by. I remember feeling the spontaneous care shown me daily, now, from so many sides, and realized how I was seeing, feeling the most glorious side of humanity.
For the most part, every human interaction was warm, kind, colored by humor and the need to do nothing else than whatever we were doing. As I lay there soaking this all in, I thought, and said out loud (I was alone) almost laughing and crying: “You know, we’re gonna be okay. This is who we are as a species.” This compassionate being, this empathetic being, this curious, generous and social being, so bright and beautiful.
Understanding the spontaneous, genuine, collective care, compassion and empathy as intrinsic to our nature I thought, “My species is gonna be okay, no matter what comes at us and no matter what happens to me is okay.”
I was struck by the felt sense of the care I received, the care I was witness to, the care directed at me and this body. That collective care magnified and had cumulative impact over time, growing like a living thing larger than all those who birthed it. It shifted my view of a wider and wider mass of humanity.
Rifkin ﬁnds in his research that human are hardwired for empathy and cooperation, in contrast to aggression and competition. We don’t stop to wonder whether we should do something in the face of suffering, we intuitively ask, “What can I do?” We act from impulse, not duty. Having the visceral experience of empathy as intrinsic to humanity, while reading Rifkin’s assertion and deeply internalizing the teachings of Vedanta was a warm and total immersion.
The force of the insight led my whole body to breath into acceptance—acceptance of external events, of my own situation, of uncertainty.
Acceptance and cultivating our compassionate, empathetic nature as tools towards understanding our essential nature are explored in depth in the Bhagavad Gita home study course I was immersed in, as well in the Yoga Sutras. This was my practice—this is what I saw in those around me.
“A gracefully accepting mind results from cultivating friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion towards those who suffer, joy towards the virtuous and impartiality towards the wrong doers.” ~ Yoga Sutra 1.33
“The one who has no hatred for all beings, who has the disposition of a friend, who is compassionate, free from possessiveness, free from doership, equal in pleasant and unpleasant situations and one who is naturally accommodative is beloved to me, at home in their essential nature.” ~ Bhagavad Gita 12:13
Beyond duty, values reﬂect our true nature.
Why behave in accordance to these values though? For many of us we see these values, these guidelines, as external rules from an authority: parent, teacher, police, judge, priest and such. The beauty in the Bhagavad Gita is the exploration of our essential nature arrives at these behaviors and values as intrinsic to that nature. All these values come naturally when we are in our essential nature, no interlopers.
This hit me like a bright bolt to my forehead one year—act not in accordance with these values as though they come from outside, act not in order to obey, or from fear of punishment, or for the perception of others, or to be recognized, but act so in order to get closer to your own essential nature—to shed what is non-essential.
Actions and values may at ﬁrst feel at odds with powerful wants, needs and emotions. At ﬁrst, acting in accordance to one’s values takes will and discernment (tapah and viveka), and by making it a practice (sadhana) the behaviors and disposition become intrinsic. This is the intention of the the practices of yoga, the eight limbs or Astanga, the yamas and niyamas.
Once at home in our nature, no striving, discernment or choice is needed—we are ourselves. I say that empathy is the gateway to our essential nature because at times it is to be willfully cultivated, however more truly said, empathy is a reﬂection of our essential nature.
When I was in deep, sick state, all else had fallen away, jobs, the teaching in classes, home, duties, wants, desires, dreams and plans all fell away and all that was left were alternating states of love and fear now.
Both Jeremy Rifkin and the Bhagavad Gita conclude through different methods that the hostile one, the proud one, the wounded one, the jealous one, the insecure one, fearful of scarcity, lashing out to protect against perceived enemies, all these are the interloping states clouding the underlying ever-present essential nature. An essential nature which is whole, adequate, compassionate, empathetic and generous, and whose primary attribute is love. Often when harboring and protecting those interlopers the predominant motivator is fear. This fear then fractals outward into actions, institutions, and policies, both love and fear.
When I was absorbed in love, receiving it from those who cared, feeling it towards them, feeling it towards the smallest things in nature, the ripening apples, the slow blooming roses I would watch daily, the red-tail hawk who visited frequently—when absorbed in love, there was no need to move towards anything, nothing to change or become.
When in the fear state, those were the times I would watch the fears and know them as interlopers, know this state was not sustainable nor desirable. Only then were will, discernment and choice the practice. We face that choice all day long, moment to moment, choosing fear or love. I saw then that these were the seeds from which all else comes, love and fear, and we each have that dance in us, folks from all tribes and all parties.
Jeremy Rifkin arrives at conclusions about the genetically predisposed disposition of the human individual, of this particular mind, body and sense complex, through biology, neuroscience, cognitive, behavioral and developmental research.
The Bhagavad Gita, the teachings of yoga, arrive at these conclusions about the essence of being itself, of consciousness, through observation, cognitive deduction, contemplation, verification and validation in experience and action.
Both Rifkin’s methods and those in the Bhagavad Gita conclude we are intrinsically and biologically hardwired for empathy and cooperation, rather than aggression and competition, as has been the ruling view in behavioral and evolutionary sciences for many decades. Each study different aspects of the story, using different methods. After studying and practicing both models for many years I see now they are different doors into the same room, so of course the conclusions point to a mutual understanding.
Below Jeremy Rifkin talks about his conclusions—with fun, informative animation from the Royal Society of Art in United Kingdom. He also discusses what I call “beyond tribal,” referenced in my article on atheism, belief and politics, an increasingly inclusive view of identity. It is in this context it is that I hear Bill Clinton’s words at the Democratic National Convention.
Citta Chat #3: The Essence of Being, the svarupa of atma: Sat Cit Ananda.
When we are compelled to simply do what is to be done, do what in our gut we know to be right, does it feel like a choice?
If you could save an infant from being hurt by a runaway stroller, do you stop to ponder, “Hmm, should I? Shouldn’t I? What time is it? I’m kinda hungry.” No, we act.
Emerson too uses the term “virtue” to open up our understanding in that “he asserts that it is virtue that subordinates the phenomenal world to the mind” (R. Geldard). In his “Divinity School Address,” Emerson deﬁnes virtue not as behavior but as “a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine (natural) laws.” Geldard writes, “Therefore, virtue is not a ‘good behavior’ as much as it is a living relationship to certain divine laws.” Said another way, values are moving with the stream of laws of nature, of “what is.”
The Bhagavad Gita and Vedanta teach us that when we experience feeling whole, compassionate and content we are experiencing our own essential nature, our essential beingness—thus morality, values and right action are not external impositions, but rather a gateway to our essence, or to the “Ground of Being,” as Emerson says, or our genetic predisposition as Rifkin says. In the yogic texts this essential nature is described as Sat Cit Ananda: existence,conscious-self awareness and limitlessness. (See Citta Chat #3: The Essence of Being)
The third Yoga Sutra of Patanjali tells us that when our heart and mind is accepting and free of the interlopers the self abides in it’s own essential nature.
All the rest of the Yoga Sutras, all the practices, inform that ultimate end; this is moksha, liberation from the interlopers, the non-essential, the not me.
Seeing the kind, compassionate person in ourselves and others is not “positive” thinking, but rather seeing who we are.
Driven down to raw essentials by the experience of ﬁghting cancer, I was unable to do anything but accept and receive, both the illness and the collective compassion.
The boundary between my internal love and acceptance, and the external collective compassion blurred and the expansiveness and inclusiveness of this empathetic nature was mind boggling. Bill Clinton appealed to that collective compassionate nature. This tense, paralyzing, conﬂict between an empathetic and collectivist understanding and untempered individualism, coupled with seeing corporations as individuals, can be seen as the heart of the divisive conﬂicts we see in our country today. They can be seen in our communities, in our politics, in our economic models, in the workplace and education paradigms, and in attitudes towards science and religion—both fear and love.
Our own emotional and spiritual maturation hinge on resolving or neutralizing this dichotomy on a personal level ﬁrst. Only then can it ripple outwards to our relationships, communities, schools, workplaces, institutions and politics. So practice asking yourself daily, “What am I waiting for?” There is only now—fear or love, empathy or “other?”
Karl Erb is a citizen of the world exploring human empathy, interdependence and values in context of the Nature of Being, and the Essence of Nature. A longtime student of work mythologies, social change, social movements and a yoga student and instructor for almost 30 years, Karl brings the teachings of Swami Dayananda Saraswati in Vedanta into context for our modern daily life on yoganexus.com.
Editor: Maja Despot
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