I’ve been thinking a lot about the coming Thanksgiving holiday. For our family it will be the first we spend without my mother’s valorously compassionate presence and so a time of reckoning and remembrance. For all of us as Americans this too will be the first Thanksgiving we will spend wondering what the changes in America will bring. I hope you can see this to the end. There's much to think about. We face a mourning not yet shared.
For some of us this coming holiday of Thanksgiving will be shared with family and friends who, how shall we put it? Challenge our emotional boundaries? Perhaps too our moral imaginations. Is that too politically incorrect or merely prosaic? How do we wish upon our gathering an irenic, even festive effervescence when our hearts are so deeply troubled--- not only by the prospects of regressive, mendacious policies targeting the most vulnerable among us, but by having to explain to ourselves how people we love can condone such ideas, values, and actions.
This week the narrative of a coming Trump Administration began to take shape in the form of policy makers and players whose menace is anything but mere hackneyed politics. We see it coming. It’s plain as day. The signs of hatred and the acts of violence are emboldened and already manifest. We gather the evidence before us and we must insist the stories be told. And to some we love, such changes inspire great promise? We should come to normalize the deliberate corruption of our shared American experiment?
People we adore and respect, who will sit with us for dinner, who we have known for years or all our lives, people we just can’t think of as racist or hateful, misogynist or blithely ignorant have cast their ballot, their lot, and ours too for a President that is, in addition to being all of those odious things, wholly unqualified, unfit, and unserious. We are not prepared to bargain with our moral sensibilities to give Trump “a chance” just because our loved ones or others making claim to some inequity are willing to endanger the future of the republic by placing it in the hands of an arrant incompetent. Generations of progress seem likely to be turned around with policies, appointments, and indifference to the majority of voting Americans. We will not normalize a man who fails so miserably every impartial test of decency.
If we cannot feel with our complicit family and friends then how do we feel for them? And how do we feel about ourselves?
When I search the lexicon of yoga culture, particularly in the sources composed in Sanskrit, the word karuna most commonly conveys our inner sensibility of “compassion.” I think we will need more compassion, but for whom and why?
Karuna describes an elemental human feeling (the rasa) that reaches into our pathos and suggests also, as Buddhist sources commend, the realization of the necessary virtue that extends consolation for our shared mutual suffering. Everyone has it and everyone will need it. But not everyone will recognize it or evolve it. Compassion is and compassion comes to mind. In other words, we innately possess this karuna as a primordial emotion and it is also a complex process of offerings we make in order to create value. However we are compassionate, we can choose to learn more about it, cultivate and create ways to live more deeply with it from the inside out. The issue at stake is not only how deeply we are willing to go. It is to recognize that compassion is not one feeling or any one kind of thing we experience. Where it comes from is not the same as how it comes forward. How deeply are we willing to go to further the examination of the source and to make more complex connections? Compassion the singular must become compassion the plural if we are to integrate our yoga into a more comprehensive sense of self.
We need not take on another’s feelings in order to suffuse ourselves with feeling that allows us to uncover our human experience. As we look carefully at traditional sources, compassion comes from within by drawing upon resources that are so deeply imprinted as to be part of our very nature--- but it is brought forth by our willingness to capture such an essential and expand it into diverse forms and expressions.
There is no guarantee everyone will take up these tasks, no matter how innate or elemental the source of experience. People can live estranged from their essentials, from their heart’s resources, not because they are “bad” or align with corruption but rather because this being human invites us to be more than it takes to be merely good enough. Just how do we succeed and fail in making those choices that would demand more of us? For that we will need to look even further.
Another comparable sense of compassion is in the word “krpā,” which appears at the crucial moment of the hero Arjuna’s breakdown at the opening of the Bhagavadgita’s second chapter. If you will bear with me, the original Sanskrit can help us sense the direction of the Gita’s conversation and what accompanies krpā, usually translated by the word “pity.” You can see the words even if you don’t know the language:
taṁ tathā kṛipayāviṣhṭamaśhru pūrṇākulekṣhaṇam
viṣhīdantamidaṁ vākyam uvācha madhusūdanaḥ
So burdened (āvishtam) with pity (kripayā), eyes filled (pūrna) with tears (aśhru), his vision (īkshanam) confounded (ākula), stricken with grief (viṣhīdantam), the Slayer of Demon Madhu, Krishna, spoke to him these words…
We may well think of “pity” as some kind of feeling for that is really quite different than compassion. After all, we don’t feel pity for our loved ones whose votes and values seem so compromised. Or do we?
In Sanskrit the sense of both karuna and krpā suggests we are grieving and mourning something lost or changed, that there is a real and palpable lamentation. We feel at a loss for just what to say or do. Like Arjuna, the entire somatic experience may be overwhelming because it is comprehensive ---eyes filled, vision blurred, the whole body feeling being at one with all of the damage done to conscience, memory, and relationship. We might find ourselves genuinely filled with (pūrna) distress and imploring within--- not only to reach more deeply inside but in asking how to make some outward gesture to affirm our relationships. However depleting these complex feelings are, we still want to love when there’s frustration, hurt, and anger. And that still-wanting-to-love: that is compassion too. We haven’t merely been let down, we’ve been brought to further questions from within ourselves: Who is this person I really love that I say I know and how then could he or she have stood for this? Compassion doesn’t just provide answers, it asks the more difficult questions more deliberately.
We know from the Bhagavadgita conversation that Krishna gives his friend Arjuna no quarter when it comes to arriving at the decisive moment of reckoning. To be compassionate then is not to linger with feelings but to act on them. How might we act? The answer Krishna gives is to be ourselves, to carry forward the person we have always been. Whatever more we will need to be, we will need the person who has been present from the start.
We’ll need especial forbearance and clarity, and a host of other virtues that can only come from summoning within the very source of courage. Remember: that source is nothing extrinsic to you because we have been born with a rich and complex resource of compassion. These fractures of feelings are parts of our elemental self. And that self always has more from which to draw.
What we can grieve for and mourn in truth is that this deed of choice and values has now been done---we are in this together however fractured we are--- and karma will have its way. There will be cause and effect, possibilities realized, abandoned, and unheeded, and consequences for all. I am not suggesting we merely wait and see, as if compassion were some passive acceptance of a tragic fact. I am instead saying that we have before us a process of recognition in which there will be facts, if only they can be told.
We will see the dreadful consequences of this new America. Its effects will be ubiquitous, even for those abdicating participation. The people who have believed this turn will bring the change they hope for will have quite a time explaining how his plans didn’t go their way. The effects of dystopic policies and contorted values will speak volumes. We won’t have much time for schadenfreude as we pick up together our shattered pieces. But that is why we will need the power of compassion. Not because compassion will somehow heal us but rather provide for us some of the pieces that can be reassembled.
I am more than disinclined to suggest that karma will provide its own recompense or that some supernal agency is at work to indemnify our efforts towards social progress. I think, in fact, there is no such promise of human progress like our innate feelings, like compassion. As much as I want to believe President Obama’s claim that great persons and events bend the arc of history towards justice, what we have seen in evidence is just as much a case for ignoble atavism. We can create progress but there are no guarantees. Still, karma will tell the tale and there is more to come,.
What we can say to satisfy ourselves of the mystery--- how our own good people contributed to this debacle-- is that we learned from yoga more about the meaning of compassion. That compassion will invite us to mourn together in the future the better America we have not chosen and so re-invite us to choose again. What we protest now, his supporters may yet be compelled to yield in time. Karma always means that facts are pesky and real. It means that our grief serves a purpose when our actions speak to loss and the need to forge a future with hope.
So, I say, there is no argument to be had at this Thanksgiving table, save the common American value that what we are free to protest with all our hearts is also yours to celebrate. Our shared consequence will be all too clear before too long. And then we will need an even greater sense of compassion. The need to mourn, to feel that grief will be a call to act in ways that will insist we join more wisely together.