How (and Why) to Cultivate Compassion When You’re Not Feelin' it

Feb 09, 2022


Last week I shared the experience of radical compassion arising unbidden. Several readers wrote and told me that they too, have experienced spontaneous feelings of tenderness, warmth, beauty, and love at times. It’s always encouraging, I think, to hear your experiences in yoga, or those that come because of your practice, echoed by fellow seekers.

Perhaps more common than my “compassion bomb” experience, though, are the inner obstacles we all face to viewing the world, ourselves, and others compassionately. The yoga tradition tells us that aversion, which takes the form of judgement, fear, anger, and other divisive feelings, often gets in the way of acknowledging the suffering and pain of others that gives rise to compassion. Therefore, in this post, I’m going to share more insight into the nature of compassion in yoga and some strategies I’ve found to be effective in practicing compassion when it feels hard.

In the previous post I explored karuna as one of several Sanskrit words that can be translated as compassion. Another is daya. They are similar, but there’s a subtle difference between the two. Daya based on the verb daa which means "to give.” Therefore, it implies action. It’s not just feeling compassionate; it involves expressing it in some way.

In his book Exquisite Love, Prof. William K. Mahony explains that karuna connotes “a feeling of warmth, empathy, tenderness, and caring concern for another.” He goes on to explain that:

 Daya includes these same sentiments, too, and also what might be called “charity” in that latter words sense of generosity of spirit…. One can feel sympathy, pity or tenderness for another, yet if one does not in some way express this sentiment in a generosity of spirit, then one has not yet given compassion in the sense of daya.

Daya is one of the 10 yamas, or ethical precepts, that appear in numerous Hindu texts including the Upanishads, the Yoga Yajnavalka, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It also appears in the Bhagavad Gita. The yamas are qualities that the yogi is advised to cultivate in relation to others. They often appear along with a set of niyamas, which are about how the yogi relates to themselves.

How do you cultivate and express daya when you find yourself caught up in judgement, anger, fear, or other difficult emotions?  Here are three ways I have found effective to foster compassion and generosity of spirit when it feels challenging:


  1.  Practice presence and detachment.

In the yoga tradition, aversion or dvesha, is one of the main causes of individual suffering. Similarly, in Buddhism, pain and suffering are said to be at the root of what gets in the way of an individual’s ability to feel compassion.

In my experience, some forms that aversion commonly takes are anger, avoidance, fear, disgust, or judgement. What these feelings have in common in that they all lead us to feel more separate from others and, in doing so, block our experience of compassion. Therefore, the first step in cultivating compassion is simply to be aware of your own feelings of aversion and how they are manifesting.

For example, there are several people I interact with regularly that I have difficulty feeling compassion for because they hold political views that I strongly disagree with. These are views that I believe have resulted in actions that I feel cause harm to others. As a result, I have noticed that I can harbor strong feelings of anger and judgement toward them that, in the end, don’t lead to any productive or positive outcome and create suffering for me. The first step in transforming these difficult and painful feelings is to become aware that I have them and then to stay present with them. Presence means that I not only remain aware of these feelings, but also that I consciously allow and accept them. 

From there, I seek to understand the causes that may have given rise to the actions or views of the other person and discern the deeper reasons for my own reactions. The practice of detachment helps me to do both by allowing me to step back and take a broader perspective of the situation. Often, it allows me to replace my judgement and anger about the situation with some degree of compassion.

It’s important to understand that detachment doesn’t mean indifference or agreement with the other person. In fact, by practicing detachment, I find I can stay grounded in my own views with greater clarity and calmness, while also feeling greater respect for the other person.

In his book It’s a Freakin’ Mess: How to Thrive in Divisive Times psychiatrist Dr. Richard Gillett advises practicing healthy detachment as a way to protect yourself from divisive impacts  in party politics. He says:

Detachment is the ability—and willingness—to let go of (pre)conceptions and see things from a broader perspective. Detachment sometimes gets a bad press through confusion with aloof indifference. Detachment, in its best sense, does not mean being distant in the form of coldness; it does not involve being cut-off or lacking in empathy. On the contrary, detachment fosters care and compassion. A visual analogy is to imagine two arguing parties of people divided by a partition. You are in one party, and you cannot see over the partition. You can only see your side of the situation, and your point of view is partisan, adrenalized, hot. But, if you could rise up, say in the basket of a hot-air balloon, and view the scene from above, you would then envision a wider picture, encompassing the various points of view. The partition would still be visible of course, but it would no longer obstruct your view of the whole situation. With this more elevated, more detached view, you have a greater chance of being fair and compassionate to both yourself and others. Detachment and compassion go together.

Detachment and intelligent action also go together. When you can see both sides of an issue more clearly, your wider vision increases your ability to act smartly and effectively.

This analogy of what detachment is like resonates with my experience. Mentally rising above a situation to gain a broader and fuller perspective enables me to see all sides and viewpoints, including my own, with less emotional charge and reactivity. In this way, practicing presence and then detachment usually results in feelings of care and empathy for the other person. I do this not only for them, but for me as well. Even though I may still disagree with their views, it feels much more satisfying, peaceful, and productive to not let my negativity simmer uncontrollably.


  1. Act “as if”

A wonderful thing about the yogic virtues is that while they can be expressed from an inner experience, the reverse is also true—the outer expression of them can help to foster the inner experience. This is a form of pratipaksha-bhavana, a term Patanjali uses in the Yoga Sutras that means “cultivating the opposite.” Essentially, the practice is that when you are feeling negative or difficult emotions or thoughts, you consciously conjure up the opposite feeling or thought as a way of cultivating it. You can also practice this through your actions.

How can this apply to fostering compassion?

Daya is also translated as “kindness.” We can understand this to imply that kindness—actions that reflect a generosity of spirit—is the way we can most easily express compassion. As Sharon Salzberg says, Kindness is compassion in action.

I think of this as the “acting as if” approach. When you are feeling compassionate, it is natural and easy to be kind. But acting “as if” you already felt compassion by being kind can help you to experience compassion. Of course, this doesn’t mean being nice to someone while continuing to be intent on harboring ill will. In order for this to work, you have to genuinely wish to feel compassion and be willing to do the inner work to help cultivate it. 

Here's an example: In downtown Montreal, there are some intersections where homeless people approach your car when you are stopped at red light and begin to wash your windshield without asking your permission, and they expect money in return. I’ve often felt annoyed and threatened by these people, who can sometimes be quite aggressive. Even though I can see they were suffering, and I want to feel compassion, it is hard because I feel fearful of them, and angry at what I perceive as disrespectful and aggressive behavior.

One day, while I was stopped at an intersection like this, as a man approached my car with his squeegee in hand, I decided to open my window and give him an orange, while clearly signaling that I didn’t want him to wash my windows. He took the fruit and stepped back without much of a response. But the shift in me was clear; instead of feeling nervous, I felt warmth and caring. My aggravation dissipated and was replaced with good will and greater compassion.


  1. Start with yourself

The above two strategies work when directed toward feeling greater compassion for others, but they can also be used to cultivate greater self-compassion. And this is the last and maybe most important way to cultivate compassion when you’re not feeling it. Cultivating self-compassion is a prerequisite to viewing the world and others compassionately, especially when it doesn’t feel easy. For me, practicing detachment helps me to feel compassion for myself for not feeling compassionate. This is often the place I need to start. Here are some other possibilities:

  • Being kind to yourself might take the form of getting comfortable on your couch with cup of tea and feeling cared for so you can begin to practice presence and detachment to examine the inner obstacles to experiencing compassion.
  • Loving-kindness meditation or meditation with a mantra can help to generate feelings of compassion for yourself.
  • Practicing “cultivating the opposite” on the level of your thoughts and feelings is another yogic approach to fostering self-compassion. To do this, when you become aware of negative thoughts and feelings you intentionally replace them with positive and uplifting ones.
  • One traditional Buddhist practice for cultivating compassion involves breathing in negative emotions and breathing out compassion.
  • Consciously forgiving yourself and letting go of divisive feelings and actions that may have caused harm, in whatever way is effective for you, helps to foster self-compassion.

As you tune into your own self-compassion is becomes much easier to feel it with others. It’s also important to remember that in yoga, compassion isn’t only something we do to be nice people, it is something we practice because it also benefits us. As Bill Mahony says:

Yogic compassion therefore not only serves the person toward whom it is directed – it also opens the one who feels compassion to the sustaining and liberating love that is the Self’s nature. This is one reason why generous, compassionate love is transforming.

Feeling compassion and expressing a generosity of spirit is its own reward. It’s a fulfilling, enjoyable, and pleasurable way of being in the world. It brings about greater peace and tranquility. Recognizing that the fruits of practicing compassion benefit you as much as others can inspire you to become a more compassionate presence in the world, even when it doesn’t feel easy.


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