A few days before the indescribable devastation began in Japan, I watched an emotionally provoking documentary called “Reporter." The film profiles two-time Pulitzer Prize winning op-ed columnist for the New York Times Nicholas Kristof’s efforts to generate global concern about the ravaging humanitarian crisis in the Congo. Towards the beginning of this tragic account, the narrator referenced the following quote of Susan Sontag:
“Compassion in an unstable emotion.”
This citation, which resonated within me, is from Susan Sontag’s final work Regarding the Pain of Others, which examines how “we” are impacted by the bombardment of images of devastation and suffering (particularly in war) thrown at us by modern media. The quote in entirety is, “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. People don't become inured to what they are shown — if that's the right way to describe what happens — because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling.”
There have been many times when I’ve felt overwhelming compassion after seeing an image or video of victims of far-away trauma. However, too often that very genuine sense of empathy becomes a fleeting spark of an emotion. There is no obvious action I can take… I leave the story, illuminated on my computer… normal life resumes… I become passive and forgetful. I find myself indulging in petty or unnecessary drama, I forget to appreciate the opportunities I have.
Perhaps you, too, can associate with this experience?
In my opinion, one of the most driving forces behind our ability to exercise external compassion is gratitude. It is gratitude that births and nurtures self-appreciation. It is gratitude that fosters pure altruism and the desire to be our best and embrace inevitable mistakes. Sadly, however, it often takes severe events like the disaster in Japan to remind us of all we have and all we’re capable of doing.
I strongly believe that there is a powerful practice that can sustain and elevate our compassion and overall sense of self-appreciation. It’s a tangible form of action to take when there is no way to be out in the field. In fact, it can inspire ways in which we can get more involved in our local and global community.
This is a simple, daily practice of gratitude.
Reinforce or begin a gratitude practice today. Try to do at least one of the following once a day.
1. If you have a yoga practice, preface it with a 1-5 minute gratitude meditation. Consider how fortunate you are for the social ability to practice, for your body, breath, and mind. When you feel fatigued or challenged, recall this appreciation. Repeat at the end of your practice.
2. At least once a day before a meal, remind yourself of what your grateful for. You might even find that the food tastes better.
3. When you wake up, take a brief moment to breath deeply and cultivate thankfulness for the day ahead.
4. Before you go to sleep, reflect upon the day and gives thanks.
Note: A few months backs, I wrote a blog about tips to begin a gratitude practice. Please visit for more info.
Sophie Herbert is an alignment focused yoga teacher (and perpetual student), a singer-songwriter, and a visual artist. She has lived, studied, and volunteered extensively in India; teaches yoga in Brooklyn and Manhattan; and recently released her first full-length album, "Take a Clear Look." Please visit her website at SophieHerbert.com.