Using Yoga to Awaken Courage, Trust, and Compassion


Over a century ago an unknown plant lover attached a solarium to the south side of the building that now serves as our yoga center. Owing to architectural changes over the years, the room is no longer really usable, but its large windows still bring in warm, radiant light. To prevent intruders from entering the building the windows have been painted shut and nailed to their frames, yet one summer a sparrow managed to find its way in. It immediately began searching for a way out, flying into the windowpanes on each side and forgetting the tiny pathway it had used for an entrance.

My wife and I heard the struggle and opened a door leading outside to help the frightened creature. In its confusion, however, the bird ignored the opening and continued to fly against the windowpanes, at times hitting them so hard it was stunned by the impact. Worried that the bird would harm itself, I entered the solarium from a second door to try to shepherd it out. But it became even more disturbed by my presence, and only struggled harder to find its way through the glass. For all my feelings of compassion, I could not provide any relief.

Finally, the frenzied bird hit a pane of glass and fell to the floor. I quickly picked it up and set it down by the door. It revived, and this time, as it burst into flight, it found open space. The last I saw of it, it was perched nearby and seemed to be surveying the world with renewed confidence.

Like a Bird

According to the sages of the yoga tradition, the plight of that bird is not so different from the situation in which we all find ourselves. We have made our way into the world, they say, but we have forgotten why we have come. We search for freedom from the pains and sorrows we find here, often crashing about and further confusing ourselves. In our struggle we collide with our own expectations and illusions—images not unlike the clear windowpanes that gave the bird a false hope of freedom. We imagine, for example, that a more prestigious position at work or a prized relationship will bring us lasting happiness—only to discover later that even when these are achieved we are no closer to true joy than before.

Another bird story, a beginning lesson from a Sanskrit primer, cleverly illustrates one aspect of this situation by pointing out the ambivalence with which we conduct our lives. The lesson is presented as a conversation—beginning with simple words and gradually leading to a more difficult vocabulary. Here is the English translation:

Who is this?

This is a crow.

Is he fat?

Yes, indeed! The crow is fat.

Where is the crow located?

The crow is in the fig tree.

Does the crow understand the way of virtue and wise action?

Yes! The crow is “twice-born,” therefore it knows the way of virtue and wise action. [“Twice-born” is a play on words. A bird is first “born” as an egg, and then as a chick. The bird is called “twice-born” to mimic the epithet used for learned brahmins, who are given a second “birth” at the time of initiation.]

But the crow does not practice virtue and wisdom, nor follow the path of duty.

Do not be harsh on him! For like fat crows, we all know virtue and the path of wise action, but we look upon the protection of wisdom as a dreadful danger!

This description of the life of the fat crow reminds us that we have a source of inner wisdom available to us that can serve as a guide if we will listen. The dialogue suggests to us that doubt and unhealthy desires block our link to that inner guide and make us cling to our instincts rather than to a more mature understanding of life.

At a deep level these two stories about birds share a common theme. Both illustrate how inner fears distort our vision and make it difficult to accept the love and wisdom that surround us. The instinctive fear of the bird in our solarium was only amplified when help approached it, and it crashed into the windows with renewed force. The fat crow, caught in the grip of instinctive desires, sees its own sense of inner balance as a fearful enemy.

Yoga offers a path for the frightened heart as well as the confused mind.

In the flow of our lives it’s not unusual for us to feel trapped by similar feelings of anxiety and isolation. It would be helpful to know how to shed our instinctive fears and calm ourselves so that we might hear an inner voice of love and compassion. But is there truly a spiritual source of wisdom and guidance that we can trust to nurture us in times of trouble and suffering? The answer leads us directly to the core of the yoga teachings, for it is said that yoga offers a path for the frightened heart as well as the confused mind. How can we walk that path?

An Image of Nurturance

When we are deeply frightened or when we lack a feeling of spiritual guidance, we search for a vision that inspires genuine faith, trust, and devotion. It is often difficult to imagine what that vision might look like, and we grasp at straws—prospects that offer imaginary relief and sentimental solace. But if we are honest with ourselves, we realize that superficial answers and sentimental hopes do not lead us to peace.

For a deeper vision, let’s turn to those who have already realized a profound level of peace and self-awareness. In the earliest scriptures of the yoga tradition, the Vedas and Upanishads, the sages describe an eternal source of love and nurturance. We read in the Chandogya Upanishad that:

There is a Spirit whose emanation is mind and life—light and truth and the vastness of space. That Spirit contains all actions and desires, and every fragrance and taste. It enfolds the entire universe, and in silence is loving to all.

In the Rig Veda the seer says:

The Spirit gives wisdom to those who do not have it; and leads the wise onto the path of good.

The seer of the Mandukya Upanishad reports:

The Spirit cannot be seen or touched, is above all distinctions, beyond thought, and ineffable. Union with the Spirit is the final proof of its reality. It is peace and love.

We hear as well that the Spirit manifests in the sacred mantra OM (and also in other mantras that are passed on within the tradition). A mantra is a sound which is both the name and the living presence of God, or Ishvara. But we wonder, Who is God? Who is this Ishvara?

One answer was given by the sage Vyasa in his commentary on the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. He said that Ishvara is Spirit: inexhaustible in power, unlimited in awareness, and all-pervasive. Merely turning one’s attention in its direction is enough to acquire grace.

But is this Spirit truly interested in relieving human suffering? Does it always stand near to us, guiding and supporting us? In the Bhagavad Gita we read:

I am the goal of life and the nurturer; both master of all and the witness who watches in silence; I am a dwelling place, a refuge from pain, and a kind-hearted friend; I am the origin and the dissolution of all, a firm place on which to stand, and a place of safe-keeping; I am the imperishable seed within.

Vyasa, too, says that it is the nature of the Spirit to offer its grace and power on behalf of those who are in spiritual pain. He quotes an ancient verse: “Throughout the cycles of time…I will deliver those who are suffering.”

A Path of Stillness

If we are surrounded by compassion and grace, then how can we feel the truth of it? To answer this question in a personal way it might be helpful to put ourselves in the place of the bird trapped in the solarium. Around us, humans are preparing the way for our escape, but we are unaware of the purpose behind these actions. Terrified, we crash against the windows, becoming more and more desperate, our movements governed by fear.

If we could accept the guidance surrounding us we would abandon our frenetic activity and quietly observe the situation for a moment. Then we would see the way to freedom. Our plight has been understood and a door is open.

But as birds we cannot set our instinctual fears aside. Only as human beings can we do it—and even then we must quiet ourselves. That’s where meditation enters in. It teaches us how to quiet ourselves at every level of our being. And once we have taken the time to do that, we can sit in the presence of the Spirit. In meditation we come to know that we are surrounded and pervaded by love and that despite the complexity of life, a force of compassion and wisdom enfolds us.

By quieting our heart, in particular, we offer to the Spirit the one offering that is of value to it. Like a frightened bird, a heart that is agitated cannot perceive the help presented to it. Through stillness—inner quiet—the heart becomes tranquil and open to the possibility of what is unseen and unknown. It loses the fear and doubt that possesses it so much of the time. It senses the presence of God. And in this lies the seed of trust, love, and devotion.

Through stillness—inner quiet—the heart becomes tranquil and open to the possibility of what is unseen and unknown.

A Simple Meditation Practice

Nurture deep feelings of self-acceptance, trust, and devotion by starting simply. Sit in your meditation posture or in a comfortable chair with your eyes closed.

Let your body become still. Feel the flow of your breathing, sensing each breath as it cleanses and then nourishes you. Allow any preoccupying thoughts and feelings to become less forceful, and develop an attitude of contentment, resting in the present.

As you continue, let your attention remain on the flow of the breath, permitting distracting thoughts to come and go without giving them further energy.

Rest and recognize the changing flow of emotion in you—but don’t artificially modify your feelings. Trust that whatever you may feel is part of a flow of experience, and not a permanent state of your personality. Simply continue to follow the movement of the breath.

Now from time to time bring this thought to mind:

God is present,

loving me as I am,

and guiding me.

Other than this, simply continue to watch the breath. Make your brief contemplation of this truth something personal. Be open to it. But do not imagine that by thinking it you are accomplishing anything. Simply quiet your heart in the reality of this thought.

Then follow the breath. After a time, let the thought be in the background of your experience without articulating it very often. Watch the breath, and rest in the quietness of your focus—your primary effort in meditation.

After about ten minutes you can slowly open your eyes to the palms of your hands and bring your awareness outward again.

About the Teacher

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Rolf Sovik
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice,... Read more