Compassion Bomb

Feb 02, 2022


Compassion Bomb: A sudden explosion of awareness of and empathy for the suffering of humanity that results in a genuine desire to express goodwill and love.

It happened to me last Monday. I was spending the afternoon at a mall while my phone got repaired. I sat down on a bench to eat my burrito and began one of my favorite mall activities—people watching. As I observed the other shoppers walking by, who were few and far between that day, my first thought was, ‘So, this is who else goes to the mall on a freezing cold Monday afternoon.’

But as I continued to watch everyone, wearing masks as well as their bulkiest and warmest winter gear, I became quiet and started to think about the collective challenges, complexities, and uncertainty we are all living with right now. And then it hit me: an overwhelming feeling of radical tenderness, caring, and compassion for those strangers, and by extension, for all of humanity.

I’ve come to think of these waves of empathetic awareness that I experience as “compassion bombs.” They happen to me every so often, usually in crowded, public places like the mall, the subway, or an amusement park. I suddenly get hit with an awareness of the suffering of our collective humanity. I feel acutely that underneath the protective armor of our winter gear, our masks, and even our physical postures and the way we carry ourselves, we all live with the sheer vulnerability of just being human. I become conscious of how we all struggle, at times, to show up and meet the challenges of our lives.

That day, I felt a wave of compassion for the woman who attentively made my burrito in the nearly empty food court because of the seemingly intense boredom of her job and what I imagine to be the low wage she earns for it. I felt it for the store owner who was visibly annoyed with me when I spent 20 minutes looking around but didn’t end up buying anything because of how the pandemic has likely impacted her business. I felt it for the young man who took much longer than expected to fix my phone because it wasn’t his fault, the delay was due to a defective part. And I felt it for myself because that delay meant I would be driving home on dark and possibly icy roads during rush hour traffic, something I had hoped to avoid and was a bit fearful of doing. 

In all these instances, what I noticed was the impact my inner feeling of compassion had on the way I interacted with those around me and how I responded to my own difficulties that day. Instead of being insulted, dismissive, impatient, frustrated, or angry, it felt easy and gratifying to be kind, understanding, patient, and accepting. I wanted to acknowledge each person with kindness and respect. And I noticed that as I did so, not only did they appreciate it and somehow it made their day better, but it felt rewarding for me as well. The experience of compassion and the expression of it benefited both of us. In my own case, acknowledging my aversion to driving in traffic in the dark felt comforting and relieved my worry. I took my time, gave myself lots of encouragement, and made it home just fine.

In the Buddhist tradition, compassion or karuna in Sanskrit, is described as a state of identifying with the suffering of others as one’s own. I don’t think we need to take this to mean that we suffer too, but that our viewpoint is such that we recognize our fundamental interconnection with everyone.

In Buddhism, compassion one of the Brahma Viharas, the four states that are practiced in meditation in order to cultivate the experience of love for all beings and freedom from hatred and ill will.

Compassion also appears with the same four states in sutra 1.33 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which addresses universal kindness:

By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous and equanimity toward those who are nonvirtuous, lucidity arises in the mind.

Translation: Edwin Bryant

In this sutra, compassion is offered as an attitude that allows the practitioner to foster equanimity when encountering others who are in distress or experiencing misfortune. The understanding is that compassion for others who are in distress or somehow suffering allows the yogi to maintain a state of equanimity. For example, by feeling compassion instead of frustration for the man who was having trouble fixing my phone, I was able to remain calm and less disturbed by the situation. It’s not only about being a good person, it’s about maintaining a lucid and tranquil state of mind.

The Buddhist texts speak about compassion as resulting from the practice of metta, loving-kindness, and the recognition of our underlying oneness. I think that compassion is a natural outcome of a spiritually oriented yoga practice as well. When we contemplate the nature of the Self in yoga and the recognize that the same universal presence lives in all, we understand that someone else’s pain is in some way also our own and we can feel deep empathy for the suffering of another person.

In her book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, meditation teacher and Buddhist practitioner Sharon Salzberg writes:

To develop a compassionate heart is not just an idealistic overlay. It arises from seeing the truth of suffering and opening to it. Out of this arises a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning so strong in our lives that no matter what the circumstances, no matter what the situation, our goal or our greatest desire is to express genuine love.

 And here’s a crucial point about practicing compassion in the context of yoga: It must be expressed through action. It involves not only cultivating the inner experience of compassion but taking concrete steps to relieve the suffering of others.  

When a compassion bomb hits me what follows in its wake is the urge to acknowledge others with respect and sensitivity for the ways that they might be suffering, and to be as kind and generous as I possibly can, even in situations where I would usually respond with impatience or anger. I feel that doing what I can to make other people’s lives easier in that moment is the least I can do to help others. After all, we are all in this together.


PS: Because compassion is such a central way to bring yogic values into your daily life, next week I’ll be sharing how you can explicitly cultivate compassion, so you don’t have to wait until a bomb hits you to become a compassionate presence for yourself and others. In the meantime, if this feels like a worthy inquiry for you, you might notice: In what situations is it easy for you to feel compassion? When is it hard? What tends to get in the way of feeling compassion for others?


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