The Practice of Compassion

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Partial and non-partial equanimity

Our compassion can arise without any effort, is unconditional, undifferentiated, and universal in scope. Ethics for the New Millennium

We feel close to people for reasons that are often quite unstable. When:

  • we look to people to meet our expectations, then our compassion lasts only as long as they do so. Inevitable they will not.

  • our love for someone is based largely on attraction, we know that allure will fade or end sooner or later — this despite their being the same person.

  • our feelings depend on other's circumstances, circumstances are always changing. If we sympathize with those less off and envy those who are better off, we forget that we're all the same, that we all aspire to be happy and not to suffer.

So ordinary love is quite partial and biased, and it is tainted with attachment — the feeling of controlling someone, or loving someone so that person will love you back.

And a relationship based on that alone is unstable. That kind of partial relationship, based on perceiving and identifying the person as a friend, may lead to a certain emotional attachment and feeling of closeness.

But what happens when there is a change in the situation? If you have a disagreement or your friend makes you angry?

All of a sudden your mental projection changes; the concept of 'my friend' is no longer there. Then you'll find the  emotional attachment evaporating, and instead of that feeling of love and concern, you may have a feeling of hatred. So, that kind of love, based on attachment, is unstable and, hence, unreliable.

In this scheme of thinking about who to love and where to be compassionate, if we think that it is logical to be compassionate with those we love and consider friends, what then is the logical response to someone we consider an enemy?

If a person is close to us or has been kind to us, he or she is a friend. If a person has caused us difficulty or harm, he or she is a foe. Mixed with our fondness for our loved ones are emotions such as attachment and desire that inspire passionate intimacy. Similarly, we view those whom we dislike with negative emotions such as anger or hatred. Consequently, our compassion toward others is limited, partial, prejudicial, and conditioned by whether we feel close to them.

Why is equanimity a factor in cultivating compassion? Why is the quality of non-partiality an aspect of equanimity?

Just as I do, so do all others desire to be happy and not to suffer.

Genuine compassion is based on the other's fundamental rights rather than your own mental projection.

Genuine equanimity is based on the rationale that all human beings have an innate desire to be happy and overcome suffering, just like myself. And, just like myself, they have the natural right to fulfill this fundamental aspiration. On the basis of the recognition of this equality and commonality, you develop a sense of affinity and closeness with others. With this as a foundation, you can feel compassion regardless of whether you view the other person as a friend or an enemy. It is based on the other's fundamental rights rather than your own mental projection. Upon this basis, then, you will generate love and compassion. That's genuine compassion.           

Recognizing and remembering constantly that everyone aspires to happiness as we do helps us steer clear of partiality and provides a steadier foundation for our relations with others than feeling close to someone. Genuine love and compassion are much more stable, more reliable, than love based on attachment.

Why might this be?

While developing genuine compassion for our loved ones is the obvious and appropriate place to start, we need to recognize that, ultimately, there are no grounds for discriminating in their favor. We are all in the same position as a doctor confronted by ten patients suffering the same serious illness. Ethics for the New Millennium

Is detachment being advocated here? Indifference?

The goal is not detachment but an equal level of intimacy with all — even-handedness in our attitude toward others.

Can you see how cultivating genuine compassion — making the distinction between partial and non-partial compassion — can be quite important in our day-to-day life?

The Dalai Lama offers marriage as an example:

In marriage there is generally a component of emotional attachment. But I think that if there is a component of genuine compassion as well, based on mutual respect as two human beings, the marriage tends to last a long time. In the case of emotional attachment without compassion, the marriage is more unstable and tends to end more quickly.

The equanimity of compassion independent of one's relationship to the other is an ideal difficult to attain. But, as the Dalai Lama says:

I find it one which is profoundly inspiring and helpful. Ethics for the New Millennium