The Yoga of Relationship: See Yourself in Others
Yoga Sutra 1.33

“In daily life we see people around who are happier than we are, people who are less happy. Some may be doing praiseworthy things and others causing problems. Whatever may be our usual attitude toward such people and their actions, if we can be pleased with others who are happier than ourselves, compassionate toward those who are unhappy, joyful with those doing praiseworthy things, and remain undisturbed by the errors of others, our minds will be very tranquil.”       - Yoga Sutra 1.33, Translation by TKV Desikachar

Our many interactions with other people can bring us great joy and support, but they can also cause us a lot confusion and strife. We spend a lot of mental energy evaluating other people, judging their actions, considering their faults and merits, comparing ourselves to them, envying them, being bothered by them … the list goes on and on! We may do as many yoga poses as we want, but if the quality of our relationships doesn’t change, we aren’t truly making progress. Through others, and their response to us, we are given a mirror of our own yogic development.

During asana practice, most of us feel a combination of focus, relaxation, and concentration that helps to calm down our turbulent inner dialogues. This results in a sense of calm and clarity. In Yoga Sutra 1.33, we are given practical suggestions for maintaining this serenity of mind even during our interactions with others – whatever may be the nature of such interactions. In this way, we can act toward others with empathy and also maintain our own sense of stability. This Sutra suggests four modes of conduct, or the four Brahmavihara, according to four different situations.

The first suggestion is that we cultivate friendship and happiness towards those who are happier than we are. When we are fortunate enough to meet people who are consistently happy and content, we should seek out their friendship. In this way we can learn from them and share in their joy. Often we experience envy when we meet others who are happier than we are. We can become so busy wishing that we were happy, that we lose the opportunity to share and learn from them. It is especially difficult to celebrate when we don’t share or approve of the source of someone’s happiness. Our god-daughter was just 17 when she called to joyously tell us that she was pregnant. At first, it was really hard for us to be happy with her. We were worried about how difficult her life might be. However, we quickly realized that she was going to stick with her choice regardless of whether she had our support or approval… And how much better it felt for us to be joyful and loving with her, and to offer all the help and support that we could! Sometimes we might be so disapproving or displeased with someone’s happiness that we are determined – not only to not be a part of it – but to squelch it entirely. In these instances, it is important to simply remind ourselves that happiness is intrinsically lovely, and if we are scorning someone’s happiness, we will be communicating from a place of anger and spite. I know that we can all think of examples when someone has tried angrily to talk us out of something, and it not effective. We can sense when we are being judged and it makes us defensive and reactive. If you can be happy with someone, you will have a much better chance of communicating with them with clarity and efficacy.

The second suggestion is that we cultivate compassion for those who are unhappy. All people, and all living beings, want to be happy. When we are suffering, we are so grateful to others who offer any support – even just a friendly smile or a knowing glance. When we see others who are suffering, remembering instances when we have felt something similar helps to evoke our empathy and compassion toward them. Even if the person who is unhappy is not someone you know, or if it is someone you don’t like… their suffering is keenly felt, and finding compassion in yourself pushes out hatred and opens a place of love. Sometimes, the suffering of others can feel overwhelming, like a burden you cannot bear or like a giant mountain that you could never affect in any way. These feelings may or may not be true, but even a compassionate thought is a step in the right direction. You may find that after years of cultivating compassionate thought that you feel called to action. You may take action in your family, your community, or on a more global scale. Compassion can take the forms of thought, word, and deed. When you are suffering yourself, thinking of others who are feeling the same way – and feeling compassion for them – can help lift you out of the dungeon of self-pity and into the realm of compassion. It is worth noting that compassion is not commiseration. Commiserating with someone only serves to bring you both down into a stymied muddle of emotion. Compassion extends a hand of support from above.

The third suggestion in Yoga Sutra 1.33 is that we cultivate joy and gladness toward those who are virtuous. This Brahmavihara has two parts to it – appreciating the virtuous actions of others and celebrating the good fortune of others. Often times, it is easier to see the faults and shortcomings in others, and unfortunately, that causes our mental energy to become critical, divisive, and harsh. When we see the good in others, and celebrate their good intentions and actions… we feel a sense of unity with them, and a general sense of appreciation for others. Also, when we see other people receiving good fortune – whether it’s a promotion, a new loving partner, a winning lottery ticket – we are often tempted to evaluate whether or not they deserve what they have received. Let us save ourselves that burden! If there has been some gross injustice, perhaps you will chose to take some action… but generally speaking, if we can celebrate with them and be glad for their good fortune, we will find ourselves feeling a sense of peace, rather than one of conflict. Naturally enough, none of us is perfect, and we all appreciate it when others forgive us our shortcomings and look to our finer qualities instead. And agreeing to do this for others supports them, as well as keeps us away from the toxic mental environment caused by nasty or overly critical inner voices.

Finally, and hardest of all, is the suggestion that we remain undisturbed by the errors of others. Once you have spent a fair amount of time with someone – a spouse or family member or co-worker – you have had plenty of opportunities to see their many faults “up-close and personal.” It’s easy to start focusing on these faults, and to allow them to dominate our relationships. Annoyances, habits, irritations … they are usually minor enough and yet we can inflate them to colossal proportions. With some patience and some introspection, we’ll usually find that our annoyance has more to do with ourselves, and less to do with our companion. When my sweet little dog hurt her paw, and we were trying to look at it, she let out a little snap. She isn’t an aggressive dog, but when she was scared and feeling vulnerable, she became defensive. I have noticed this in my own experience. My least honorable utterances and actions generally occur when I am feeling hurt, scared, or threatened. This certainly doesn’t justify any old type of behavior, but these are intrinsic human emotions that we have all felt.

In his speech “Loving Your Enemies,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talks about the difference between loving a person and liking a person: “…It’s significant that he does not say, "Like your enemy." Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. … And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does.” And this is the hardest part of the fourth Brahmavihara – finding the ability to recognize the humanity in others, even if they have committed harsh or terrible actions. We do this, not for their sake, but for our own sake – so that we do not fall into a cycle of unforgiving, impatient, and vengeful behavior. This doesn’t mean that mustn’t act in the world; this is not an excuse for not getting involved in matters of justice and social progress. However, when we are able to see the humanity in others, we keep ourselves centered – and we are able to act in the world from a place of calm and stability, rather than lashing out from an emotionally reactive and defensive position. And this is when we are most likely to be effective and to change people’s hearts and actions.

These suggestions are huge, and difficult to follow. They call upon us to look for commonality and connection with others… rather than using envy, judgment, and hatred to distance ourselves from the world. This draws us closer to a state of Union – Yoga! It is very important to note that these are steps we take for ourselves, more so than for the sake of others. When we are able to keep a joyous, empathetic connection with others, we remain calm and grounded. In turn, this allows us to stay steady in our thoughts, such that we may make careful and appropriate decisions that aren’t swayed by powerful and passionate emotions. These suggestions however, are not an invitation to cast aside discriminative thought. They are not a reason to allow hurtful or unhealthy situations to continue indefinitely. We will see people expressing happiness about actions or circumstances that are ugly and brutal. We will see people suffering. We will see people who have done nasty things being promoted or put in positions of power. These fundamentals should be seen clearly for what they are; and we are most able to do so when we follow the four Brahmavihara. When we are able to see brutalities for what they are, without acquiring a sense of personal injury or offense or a taste for vengenance, we will be much more powerful and effective in creating change in the world.

“To preserve the innate serenity of the mind, a yogin should be happy for those who are happy, be compassionate toward those who are unhappy, be delighted fro those who are virtuous and be different toward the wicked.”       - Yoga Sutra 1.33, Translation by Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati
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Updated June 23, 2006