The Yoga of Exchanging Self and Other

One of my favorite forms of yoga comes from the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life by Shantideva.  It is called “The Yoga of Exchanging Self and Other”.  You do it by imagining that you are somebody in your life and feel what the world would be like if you were that person. So for example, supposing your child did not do his homework.  You might have an immediate response of anger.  But if you perform the yoga you will imagine what it is like to be a child who has a bad homework grade and is waiting for her father to come home.  You will experience the huge size of events in childhood, and also what it is like to find something difficult.  You will remember how as a child the stink of the classroom and the heat of the blood in your ears made the mathematical symbols on paper foreboding, and how your mind ran away with you into vague fantasies and fears, and the reality of having to do work and time passing seemed so hard to believe, and behind in the back of your mind was a feeling of guilt or shame, not being good enough.  If you perform the yoga of exchanging self and other you will feel ow the world feels like to your child and you will in a sense be your child — you will feel how the particular configuration of tendons and ligaments and fat and skin and hair — the bald patch peeking through the hair — is just an eddy of froth and soda-pop in a stream, a chunky sworl of dough in the baking bowl of days — yesterday a child looking forward to Halloween — I can’t believe it’s two weeks away! — today an adult of fifty looking back at being a child — I can’t believe it was only forty two years ago, it feels like right now. Maybe it is right now.  It is always right now for somebody, isn’t it?

I was getting beaten up by a co-worker who raged at me, and I thought — wow, that guy is unfortunate — nobody ever taught him the yoga of exchanging self for other!  Here I am sitting here, a perfectly calm guy, and here is this other man jumping out of his chair every ten seconds, cursing, yelling. He must be so uncomfortable in his body.  Every thing that doesn’t go as he hoped activates him and makes him feel unsafe, and his mind is assaulted by fury.  The poor man does not know the yoga, I thought.  And I performed the yoga myself, exchanging myself with the self of someone who doesn’t know how to exchange self with other.

That’s probably the only difference among people.  Some people know how to perform the yoga of exchanging self for other, and some don’t.  And if you are one of those people who does know how to perform the yoga of exchanging self for other, the yoga of Shantideva, from the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, for you it is no difference at all.  At least not now.  At least not anymore.


2 thoughts on “The Yoga of Exchanging Self and Other

  1. It sounds like good common sense. I do wonder if all the visualization is needed only for people who have trouble empathizing with others. Your co-worker could use it.

    Of course if we’re committed to doing the right thing and know what it is, empathetic feelings are helpful but not essential. Sometimes, all of us choose to do the right thing even if we don’t feel like it.

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