In January, I went to water aerobics for the first time in years. High impact exercise has been causing me some knee pain, and I was looking for a way to get intense aerobic exercise without injuring myself. Back in my twenties, I took water aerobics three days a week. That class made me strong while being gentle on all my joints, so it made sense to try it again. That first morning, I got up extra early, anxious that I would be late, not have the right equipment, or otherwise look stupid. As soon as I was in the water, I stopped worrying about what others thought of me, and I started making judgments about everyone in the class. I want to blame this on a friend who recently told me that water aerobics was just a bunch of lazy old ladies floating in the pool. I want to believe that I wouldn’t have jumped to conclusions about complete strangers so quickly if I hadn’t been pre-programmed. But I know myself better than that.
The pool at my current gym is much bigger than the one I worked out in back in the dark ages, so there’s plenty of room for the class to spread out. As a result, there seem to be clusters of people sprinkled about. Down in the deep end, I saw a group of women who looked like they were just floating there. I couldn’t tell if they were doing any of the exercises and it was easy to think they’d just strapped on a floatation belt so they could hang out for an hour and tell their doctors they were attending classes.
Another group of women who were closer to the teacher were definitely moving, although not all that fast. They had a non-stop conversation going on and often turned away from the teacher so they could hear each other’s gossip. I don’t know how they managed to keep up, because it was hard enough to hear the teacher over the music and the splashing without holding a conversation at the same time.
The last group was the handful of teacher’s pets — my group. We were closest to the teacher and dutifully followed instructions. When she said, “Faster!”, we did our best. We made waves, splashed, and got red in the face. Before class was over, I realized I was sweating in the pool and remembered that yes, water aerobics can be a great workout.
Despite the intense exercise, I was able to look around and think awful things about other people. Why weren’t they working harder? Didn’t they want to be strong and healthy? What a bunch of lazy, gossipy bums! If they weren’t going to do what the instructor said, they should just stay home. I was a good student. I paid attention. I was working out the right way.
Then the instructor had us do a side kick. The very first one made my knee twinge, and I had to stop. I tried smaller motions, but that wasn’t enough. I just couldn’t do what we were supposed to be doing. I switched to a jog and waited for the next movement to come along. I lost my perfect student status and was humbled. I wasn’t better than everyone else. I was human, just like them.
When I looked around the class again, I saw everyone with new eyes. The women in the deep end had bad knees and hips. They were moving when they could, how they could, without hurting their joints further. The women who were talking had found a way to work out that they enjoyed. The teacher’s pets were obviously serious about getting everything they could out of the workout, but I think that was true of everyone in the pool. Some of us had more limitations than others. We were all adjusting the workout to our fitness level and what our bodies could handle. We were all doing it right.
Why do I bring this up? Because I’ve been thinking about compassion lately. My tendency to make assumptions about others, especially judgments about them, is a huge obstacle to my ability to feel compassion for others. Judgment leads to dismissal and scorn. If I think the women in the deep end are there because they are lazy, I ignore the fact that they got up early, drove to the gym, put on a swimsuit, and got in the pool on a winter morning. They could have stayed in bed. When I think they aren’t doing it right, I assume I know what’s best for them even though we are complete strangers. I don’t know their bodies, their struggles, their needs. I am still figuring out mine.
Compassion is on my mind because of Yvonne Spence who is behind the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion movement. Disturbed by the constant news of violent acts around the world, she started blogging about compassion and asking others to join her. Her dream of a world where people are kind to one another is my dream, and I know that if I want to change the world, I have to start with myself.
I want to see other people clearly, with a kind and loving heart, not with a harsh, judgmental one. Letting go of the illusion that I know what is best for other people and focusing instead on what’s best for me is a good first step.
For bloggers who are interested in posting about compassion, you can read about Yvonne’s inspiration on her blog and join her Facebook group 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion. (By the way, she already has more than 1000 bloggers signed up. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if 10000 Voices Speak for Compassion?)