Understanding yoga terminology helps us expand our practice while gaining better insight into Eastern philosophy. It’s easy to get confused though, especially since yoga terms are often loosely translated into English. For instance, the word “Ego” in yoga means much more than a person who has an inflated sense of self importance. The same can be said for the term “compassion”, where we mean more than feeling sorry for someone who is under adversity.
So if we look at the concept of compassion more closely, we find that it is usually being used in the context of Buddhism. Buddhism has several sects with slightly differing views, but in general, the concept of compassion is derived from Buddhist metaphysics, where all existence is seen as suffering. In order to not have suffering, there must be no existence; or to put it another way, there must be no-thing: any thing that exists does so under duress; any non-thing does not exist and therefore has no duress (Nirvana).
Because people are deluded by their Egos into believing that their lives and this world are a sort of real/permanent/ultimate reality, they remain stuck in this duress and labor their lives away in the anxiety and pain that existence brings, never knowing that they can be freed if they simply see our reality for what it really is– fabricated by the Ego, impermanent, etc.
So at the highest level, Buddhist compassion means that we feel for anyone who is blind to the truth and perpetuating their own suffering. But notice a subtle implication here. If you are feeling compassion, it means you are aware—at least to some degree—of the truth. You are approaching Nirvana just by the fact that you can see and feel the world for what it is. All at once, you are becoming aware of your own suffering, the suffering of others, and that all of this duress is built on a self-constructed delusion that we can be freed from. If you can see these implications, you see that compassion becomes a vehicle for liberation: your ability to engage compassion is elevating you out of the delusion that causes suffering in the first place.
All of that is the highest level, but it works its way down into our everyday lives as well. We feel empathy and concern for those who are struggling. And whenever we stray off of our own spiritual path, we can stop with the self-incrimination and simply feel compassion for ourselves–compassion for the fact that we still, at times, lose sight of the Truth and join in the delusion that weighs so heavily on our world. From this understanding, we can gently turn our attention back to the true reality of peace and joy (God, Tao Brahman, etc) that truly lies at the root of all existence.