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The Compassion Bucket

As I look back on my life, I’ve come to understand how much I’ve been shaped by violence. I’m not talking about domestic terrorism or anything on that scale of personal drama. I’m talking about my ongoing professional relationship with it.

When I was a rather young adult, I wore combat boots to work. I spent five years in Canada’s military service, partly involved in a set of experiments that lead women to being permitted to take combat roles in Canada’s military. The other part was planning what the heck would we do if the unthinkable happened and we really were in the midst of a nuclear war.  What can I say other than it was the Cold War? It was aptly named, I might add. I remember lying for hours in a snow bank in the middle of somewhere NB (possibly the range in Tracadie) for hours guarding a birch tree. It was the local strategic stand in for a radio transmission tower. As my cheek was freezing to my rifle, I can remember wondering how cold was it in Poland? Those were the days where Solidarity were raising hell and scaring the crap out of the Communist party establishment. I lived in shielded bunkers where one literally didn’t know if the world outside still existed.

When I finished that gig, I joined the police force as a 9-1-1 operator and have spent the last 20 some years listening to people pound the crap out of each other. I’ve listened to heads being cracked against tile walls. I’ve listened to an 8 year old girl being raped. I’ve listened to an old woman after she was strangled with her stockings and left for dead, trying to explain to one of my colleagues where she was and what had happened to her. These voices, these screams, these strangled gurglings for help will never leave my brain.  At least the Cold War had the benefit of being merely theoretical.

It doesn’t shock me anymore. In twenty years, I’ve made the transition from vicarious traumatization to compassion fatigue. Now it just makes me weary. Believe me when I say I’m all for a global moratorium on violence. Bring on the ahisma. That is something I can totally get behind – except I don’t know how to get behind it or in front of it or where ever it is I’m supposed to be standing. The damn thing has me surrounded. It’s in the warp and weft of my culture.

And as a society, we’re really bad about talking honestly about the situation. “Violence never solves anything”. How many times has some woe-begone dreamer trotted that cliché out? News flash for ya: we have a 10 000 year history with violence because it solves a lot of stuff. It’s a very effective strategy. It’s still around after 10 000 years or so because it bloody works. Battered spouses learn not to rock the boat. Battered children learn to hide and be quiet. Terrorized citizens learn to speak softly and don’t make things awkward for the authorities. The reason we live in a violent culture is because violence works. It’s very, very effective in controlling people and situations. I wish it didn’t but I was not consulted on the matter at the time.

One of the things I’ve always loved about yoga is that two things are at its core. One, it’s incredibly honest. Yoga trains us to deal with the world as it is – not the way we wish it was. Yes, we all wished we lived in Mr. Roger’s neighbourhood. Most of us don’t. Yoga gives us the strength and the courage to look at that without flinching. We might not like what we see but we’re not allowed to hide behind our dreams and our fantasies. To my mind, it’s only when we come to grips and honestly examine the roots and seeds of violence in our world, in our communities and in ourselves, that we have any hope of finding better solutions. Sweeping it all under the rug with the Pollyannaish nonsense that “violence doesn’t solve anything” is not just utopian. It’s counterproductive and frankly, insulting to those who find themselves caught in the maelstrom of violent events.

The second thing that yoga does for us is it teaches us the value of practice. “Practice, Practice and all will come” were the words of wisdom from Sri Pattabhi Jois. I like to think he was talking about more than the shoulderstand. Every day I have an opportunity to sharpen the skills of peace and non-violence when I step on that mat. Treating myself – my mind, my body, my spirit – with loving kindness is a start for me. It gives me a foundation from which I can turn to my family and be more open and forgiving with them. I take that same attitude of into my work place, my community and like the pebble thrown into the pond, the ripples move outwards. I start developing appropriate responses in the face of violence that are effective and lasting. I don’t have the luxury of running from violence or pretending it doesn’t exist. It’s an integral part of my world. So I need to learn how to manage it and not allow it to manage me.

Again, I come back to this idea that I practice every day because I need to keep my skills sharp. Life does not announce in advance when it’s going to be “game day”. I don’t know when I’m going to be called upon to reach way down to the bottom of my compassion bucket and find that last inkling of human kindness. Nobody is going to kindly call me up and tell me that on March 17, at 3:15 in the afternoon, I’m going to need exercise detachment and discernment, that I’m going to be called upon to be a peace-maker or at least, a referee.

My only solution is to pretend that every day is going to be “Game Day”. Maybe I won’t need my ahimsa skills today. It’s almost 2 pm and so far, it’s been a pretty straight forward, non-violent kind of day but if I do need to step up to a situation, I want to have a full bucket. And the only way I know to fill the compassion bucket is to put my feet on the mat and practice. Reading about it; talking about it; thinking about it. None of that stuff works for me because that’s all cerebral. I need to bring it down to my feet and ground myself in it. I need to practice non-violence by respecting my body and its limits, by honouring my spirit and my Godliness. I need practice, not just theory.

Thanks for reading and Namaste,



About Kate MacKay

I'm a certified Viniyoga teacher, in Fredericton, NB. I was a 9-1-1 operator and emergency services dispatcher for 22 years. Surprisingly, the two worked well together, or as I liked to put it, from the sublime to the ridiculous -- all in a day's work. I'm currently off work as a result of a stress-induced cardiac condition that's thrown a few crimps in my lifestyle. I'm not actively teaching yoga in the classroom right now and probably won't for several more months. That said, this blog is one of the forms of practice I can do and I thank you for joining me in this exploration of all things yoga.

2 responses »

  1. You consistently astound and amaze me. Thanks.

  2. This is a very powerful post. It truly addresses the harsh reality of our world and how Yoga helps us to awaken not transcend. This piece should be published–it’s honesty and truth speaks out and provides a necessary message. Your life experiences and journey into Yoga gives you a unique perspective. Keep writing!


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