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How to Grow Genuine Compassion: Begin with Impartiality


Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and it’s beauty. – Albert Einstein

Discovering true happiness and freedom depends entirely on developing an all-encompassing compassion.

Genuine compassion is said to encompass four qualities:

  • Love (sometimes called “loving kindness”)
  • Compassion
  • Joy
  • Equanimity

When these qualities are developed to their fullest, they are known as the Four Immeasurables or Four Boundless Attitudes, meaning that we extend them to all without bias.

As you cultivate these qualities and make them more immeasurable, negative emotions like anger, attachment, jealousy, and partiality will gradually diminish. In their place, you will uncover your kind heart and a more enduring sense of happiness.  At the same time, your relationships with others will come to be characterized by greater warmth, friendliness, and clarity.  Sounds good, don’t you think?

In this new monthly series, I will be writing about one of Four Boundless Attitudes on the first Sunday of every month.  Then, if you wish, you’ll have a whole month to practice it before we move to the next one.

The Intelligence of Impartiality

We’ll begin with impartiality, which is sometimes called equanimity, lack of bias, or impartial equanimity.  Normally, when you speak of the Four Boundless Attitudes, they are listed as love, compassion, joy, and equanimity in that specific order.  However, when you practice them, equanimity comes first.

Why is that?  Without impartiality the other three qualities of love, compassion, and joy will be limited in scope, reserved only for those you hold as your dearest friends and relatives.

Impartiality means feeling the same degree of benevolence towards everyone, regardless of whether they appear to be a friend or enemy.  It means letting go of aggression towards adversaries as well as giving up our obsession with family and friends.

That doesn’t mean impartiality is a bland state devoid of feeling.  Quite the opposite, when you cultivate love, compassion, and joy for all.

The Fleeting Perception of “Friend” and “Enemy”

Impartiality is predicated on the idea that our perception of “friend” and “enemy” is highly changeable.  Take a moment to recall for yourself instances when you’ve become estranged from a good friend or have developed a close-knit relationship with a former enemy.  Divorce is often one of the best examples of love gone sour.  And, it’s not unusual to feel alienated from your children or parents at one or more points in your life.

Thus, the notion of “friend” or “enemy” has no permanent basis whatsoever.  It’s just a fleeting perception that is likely to change as circumstances transform.

Consider this ironic twist:  In Eastern religions, it’s believed that those closest to us have been reborn into our lives due to “karmic debts” we’ve incurred as a result of negative actions in the past.  Ironically, your beloved may have been your worst enemy in a past life.

Regardless of whether this is true or not, you can see the flimsiness of the concept of “friend” and “enemy” by examining your own life.  Think of all the suffering and disappointment you’ve endured by attaching too strongly to the belief in the permanency of “friend” or “enemy”.

“Consider carefully what you mean by friends and enemies.  When you look into it, it is obvious that there are no such things as permanent, enduring friends or enemies.  Those you think of as friends have not always been so.  Indeed, they may well have been your enemies in the past, or they could become your enemies in the future.  There is nothing certain about it.  Why should you be so compulsively attached to particular people?  Are not all your relationships temporary?  In the end, whatever may happen during your life, the time will come for you to die.  Then you will have no choice but to part from everyone, regardless of whether you feel attachment or aversion for them.  But everything you have done in your lifetime, all those actions motivated by attachment and aversion, will have created within you a force that will then propel you to the next life, in which you will experience their result.” – The Heart of Compassion by Dilgo Khyentse

The long-term consequences, you see, of indulging in preferences is not a positive one.  Instead, wouldn’t it be wonderful to feel close to everyone?

In this week’s Big Island Weekly, a story about the Slack Key Guitar Master, George Kahumoku Jr., said he exudes “aloha” in everything he does, and he instantly treats everyone he meets like “ohana”.

“Ohana” means family.  There are many deep meanings to the word “aloha” – beyond hello and goodbye – but simply said it means treating everyone with love, respect, and compassion based on recognition of our interconnectedness.  This is impartiality in action with the flavor of aloha.

Just imagine what the world would be like if, like George Kahumoku Jr.,  we aspired to treat everyone as family or as our closest friends.

Training the Mind In Impartiality

Most of us are riddled with attachment to friends and aversion for enemies.

Just think for a moment what happens when you go to a party.  Do you see everyone equally with the same affection or do you gravitate towards some and avoid others?

What happens when you see someone walking down the street?  Do you immediately form concepts about the way they look that are tinged with either like or dislike?

That’s the case for almost all of us if we don’t actively train our mind in impartiality.

It takes dedicated training to see everyone as equally deserving of your love and compassion. But, when you do, you will begin to interact with everyone in a friendly and respectful way.  And, don’t you notice how people tend to light up when you embrace them with a warm smile?

You can cultivate impartiality by meditating on it everyday for a stretch of time.  Quiet your mind, and then recall people you consider as enemies. Question that designation.  Give them the benefit of the doubt.  At first, practice seeing them in a neutral way without aversion.  Then, gradually see if you can raise the bar, and see them with love and compassion.

There’s no need to stop loving your family or friends.  But remember, attachment only causes suffering as it’s so entangled with hope and fear, expectations and disappointments.  So just practice seeing these close relationships in perspective, and try to loosen the stranglehold of attachment.

There’s no greater time to practice genuine compassion than right now when the world is so filled with turbulence, stress, and distress.  Start by cultivating impartiality, the first of the Four Boundless Attitudes.

Please join me!  Compassion is my 2013 word.  Writing about it helps me stay on track with softening my heart.  I’ll be practicing impartiality this month.  I hope you will join me.

Do you consciously cultivate impartiality?  What do you think about the idea?

Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious!  Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free self-development resources (e-books, mini-guides + worksheets) in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always.  With love, Sandra


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  1. I think by nature I have a deep affinity for impartiality… the near enemy of that, though, is apathy, which is what I have to watch out for in myself.

    However, as a general rule, I do think that finding a place of loving acceptance for whatever and whoever comes our way is a pathway to deeper serenity. One way I do that is by constantly inviting myself to imagine that I am walking in someone else’s shoes, seeing the world through their eyes, and imagining what that might be like. I remind myself how much the conditions of our lives affect how we see things, and that helps me to cultivate greater empathy for another who may respond to something quite differently than I do.

    Sandra, I just have to say again how much I love the way you translate Buddhist teachings for a wider audience, and still keep to the integrity of the teachings — with a bit of aloha thrown in the mix : ) I am so looking forward to the rest of this monthly series. A deep bow to you!

    • Maia,

      How wonderful to have a natural inclination to impartiality. But, you’re right, in this context impartiality does not mean apathy in the least.

      These are great suggestions for cultivating more partiality: putting yourself in other people’s shoes and remembering how much our conditions influence our perspective and actions. Those are important skillful means.

      Thank you so much for your kind words. My spiritual teachers emphasize authenticity so I always try to keep that in mind. I was very happy to see how congruent “aloha” is with the essence of the Buddhism teachings. I’m happy you are looking forward to the rest of the serious.

  2. Without doubt we create the friend or enemy label between out ears. It’s partially rooted in species survival for human beings would not have survived without the ability to judge who was friend or foe, who would cooperate and assist them to survive and who was a threat to their existence. If we remain unconscious we are bound to cling to attachments and aversions that give rise emotions that range from apathy and/or affection to outrage.

    In reality there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies. All things, beings and states of mind/heart are subject to change. Our unconscious mind is clouded by delusion giving rise to fear and false perceptions. And, once we recognize we are creating the perceptions that give rise to judging and labeling we also recognize we become empowered with the knowledge that we are able to change them.

    In truth none of the emotions, either negative or positive exist by themselves; they have their base in self cherishing. I am learning the nature of the mind/heart that cultivating equanimity is a conscious choice to acknowledge that endows me with compassion and the courage I need to face the suffering in my own life and the suffering in the lives of others.

    I have been observing my feelings of fear, hostility and anger ie. all of my negative emotions. They are secondary to and arising from my primary self cherishing thoughts. I have been observing my feelings of empathy and compassion. And I am training my mind/heart to gradually let go of attachments and aversions through different forms of meditation practice. When I meditate and extend what I experience in meditation into my every day life it clears and opens my mind/heart. Love and compassion that helps me see others as they are; human beings just like me, caught up in the net of cyclic existence seeking freedom from suffering, seeking love, peace and understanding.

    Those are the life lessons I’m learning.

    CONSCIOUSNESS overcomes ignorance;
    IMPARTIALITY overcomes judging;
    COMPASSION overcomes ill will;
    LOVE overcomes fear and anger;
    JOY overcomes jealousy;
    EQUANIMITY overcomes pride rooted in self-cherishing.

    Thank you so much for your timely encouragement as cultivating impartially is where to begin.

    • Thank you so much, timethief, for adding such richness to this post. It all comes back down to cherising a self that ultimately doesn’t exist in a permanent, singular, or independent way, doesn’t it! I admire your willingness to look at your negative emotions and see their rootlessness. You are proof that we can change our mind and recognize how everyone is alike in wanting happiness and avoiding suffering helps us to do so. Thank you so much for sharing your process and wisdom with us.

  3. Sandra such a thought provoking post thank you. I was reflecting on how I feel have become less judgemental when an image flashed through my mind where i saw I had been judgemental, totally not impartial.
    I was then reminded that we are all a work in progress.
    So while I am focussing for May on being magical I will add impartiality onto the plate of things i need to become more consciously aware of how i am being and what I am doing. In this way I will become conscious of my thoughts and choose to change my perceptions.
    Namaste xx

    • Suzie,

      It’s so important to remember that we are all a work in progress. I’m so grateful that you mentioned that here. I’m so impressed with how you are making a focused effort to be conscious. I’m glad you are adding impartiality to your magical mix! Have a good month.

  4. jean sampson

    Awesome post and awesome comments! I have not thought much about impartiality, Sandra, but I have thought a lot about compassion and loving kindness. It always gives me a different perspective to read your posts about the viewpoints of the Eastern religions. I am a mishmash of all religions but was raised Christian and use Jesus as the example of a wise and loving being and sometimes I feel a little and confused and ignorant. I always figure that setting my compass to love and compassion will keep me on course enough and maybe with time, I will get a handle on the rest of it 🙂 Great post and comments!

    • Jean,

      Setting your compass to love and compassion is the perfect solution. That will tend to include impartiality too, although now you can be especially conscious of it. It all comes down to having a good heart and I appreciate your dedication to this.

  5. Sandra,
    I am so excited for this series. I appreciate your reminder that it takes dedicated training to cultivate impartiality, to see everyone as equally deserving. Our conditioning becomes so ingrained into our subconscious. Most often, we are not aware of the subtle judgments, the many ways we create separation. Impartiality gives us permission to shift our perspective, to step into the shoes of empathy, as mentioned. What a gift to sit with this month!

    • Hi Carrie,

      I’m so happy you are excited about this series. You are so right about how deeply ingrained our responses are. Even when we want to be conscious, we will find ourselves reverting to old patterns. But, it’s a wonderful path and change awaits us every step along the way. Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. The Bible and A Course in Miracles also teach this same wisdom about impartiality. And it is so true, as you say, that the line between enemy and friend is often fluid.

    I don’t even have to go into past lives to see this. The two people whom I have hated most intensely in this lifetime were people that I had formerly loved just as intensely. Getting to the point of releasing that hatred and finding love again was an enlightening path.

    This is an issue I have been discussing just recently with my Course in Miracles group, so your post is timely and I will pass it on to the group. Thank you!!

    • Hi Dear Galen,
      Thank you for drawing from these other wisdom traditions. Makes you think there must be something to this! Most of us don’t have to look very far to see this principle of partiality and it’s harmful effects in action. Thanks for sharing your example.

  7. Aze Hannum

    Hi Sandra,

    I’m so grateful to read about impartiality. Thank you. There’s no need for you to respond to this. I just wanted you to know how much I liked your article.


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