Since beginning grad school in August, I ride my bike to class whenever possible. This practice has offered some surprising and meaningful lessons reflective of the yogic path. While the route is a manageable 5.9 miles, it’s characterized by steep hills occasionally punctuated by steady inclines and a few (tragically) brief, exhilarating downhills.
As I laboriously huffed and puffed my way up the largest hill last week (weaving back and forth across the road like an addled duck to avoid going straight up), wondering why the commute wasn’t feeling easier after a month, I noticed two female cyclists coming up quickly behind me, chatting easefully. As they leisurely cycled past, lost in conversation, my own envy and frustration arose. I couldn’t imagine going so fast, much less talking with my lungs and legs so overwhelmed with intensity.
But then, it dawned on me! They weren’t wearing a 10-15 pound backpack, like me. Therefore, I reasoned, I was just as potentially well-conditioned as they. Let’s just see them try and sashay their way up the hill wearing a pack this heavy!
Ten minutes later, a student cycled past, wearing a pack bigger than mine and cycling even faster. After the initial cognitive dissonance (“what the..?!”), my heart softened and a deep smile spread across my face.
This anecdote is a sweet metaphor for the importance of self-compassion—a deep and affective self-acceptance, recognizing that individually experienced challenges are commonly experienced by all of humanity. Self-compassion encourages us to observe, honor, and celebrate our limitations as some of the greatest teachings given to us in life. In other words, it’s okay to be a C or even D student at some things; this is part of being human.
Comparison to others can engender greater suffering; even if you compete and win, odds are someone out there is better still. Extending compassion towards ourselves facilitates empathy, allowing us to celebrate others as an expression of the divine regardless of where our abilities lie in relation to them.
Yet, in any arena, it’s all too easy to fall into the black/white tendency of self-judgment or rationalization. My initial inner dialogue, aimed at warding off a sense of inferiority, stemmed from rationalization. When the pack-wearing cyclist later sailed past, without a self-compassion practice my inner dialogue likely would have been one of self-judgment.
Both self-judgment and rationalization are part of being human, and shouldn’t necessarily be suppressed. But as we become more mindful and self-compassionate in our lives, awareness of these scripts increases. Thus, my self-compassionate reaction upon the second cyclist passing was a sense of deep gratitude for the reminder that I cycle as an act of kindness towards myself, rather than comparing myself to others.
That morning, my eyes opened brighter to the stunning palette of the New England autumn. While others may have cycled past, I hardly noticed, lost in the intense symphony of prana’s crescendo—lungs screaming, legs burning, eyes tearing—even as shoulders, heart, throat, eyes, and inner body softened. Because I cycle for how it feeds my soul, I will keep coming back for more.
Have you found meaningful ways of practicing self-compassion in your life?