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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Modern Adaptation of Buddhism > Balanced Sensitivity for the Age of Social Media: Developing a Caring Heart > Session Two: The Need for Developing a Caring Attitude and Practice for First Quieting the Mind

Balanced Sensitivity for the Age of Social Media: Developing a Caring Heart

Alexander Berzin
Kiev, Ukraine, October 2013

Session Two: The Need for Developing a Caring Attitude and Practice for First Quieting the Mind

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:55 hours)

Why We Need to Develop Balanced Sensitivity

Last night we went through the general presentation of this training course, called “Developing Balanced Sensitivity.” We saw that it is concerned about how to develop balance with our attentiveness: how we pay attention to situations and to the effect of our behavior on others and ourselves, and how we respond. In all these cases we can either do too much or too little. It’s important in any type of training in which we want to improve ourselves to identify what actually are our problems? What is it we want to work on and that we need to work on?

As I mentioned in the last exercise in this training, we need to differentiate between what you want to do, what you need to do and what you feel like doing. Most of us don’t feel like doing anything. That’s sort of like the law of physics, our energy level just goes down to the lowest level. But if we examine our lives, if we examine our relationships with others, then we might discover that they really aren’t very satisfactory. We’re not really terribly happy people and we need to do something about it.

Initially we want to do something about it because we see that, “I’m unhappy,” and then we go a step further, that “Really, I do need to do this, otherwise it’s just going to get worse.” Because if we’re oversensitive and overreact to everything, people don’t want to be with us because it’s just too much. If we’re totally insensitive to others and are just caught up in our own little narcissistic world, again, what is the effect of that? We feel very isolated and, again, nobody really wants to be with us because we’re totally unresponsive.

Overcoming Disturbing Emotions

Unless we really want to change and we see that we really need to change in order to improve the quality of our lives, we’re not going to do anything about it. What we always have to work on is overcoming feeling like not doing anything, because that is what is going to prevent us, really, even if we feel motivated, “I just don’t feel like it.” We can see this very clearly with the example of, for instance, going to do physical training. We all know that for our health we need to do exercise, but most of the time we just don’t feel like doing it, do we, despite wanting to do it and understanding that we need to do it.

The way to work with that is to analyze what are the reasons why I don’t feel like doing it? What are the reasons – the emotions – behind why I want to do it? Then you use your discrimination to see, which is more important? What do I want to be under the influence of? Do I want to be under the influence of laziness, which is why I don’t feel like doing it? Or do I want to be under the influence of a state of mind in which I want to improve myself? Which is more important to me? Laziness or wanting to improve?

This is what the great Indian Buddhist master Shantideva was always emphasizing, He’s saying that these disturbing emotions, like laziness, they’re the real enemy. These are the things we have to fight within ourselves, and not be a slave to them. Even if you don’t feel like doing it, do it anyways. Doing it anyways, once you actually get into it, you find that training yourself is really worthwhile. If we’re doing this training in order to improve our relationships with others, especially if we are interacting a lot with others, then the motivation and the drive is much stronger.

If you have a baby, you don’t feel like getting up in the middle of the night to go feed the baby. You don’t feel like getting up at all, but you do it anyways because of the need of the baby. It doesn’t have to be in terms of a baby. If you have a dog, you don’t feel like taking the dog for a walk twice a day, but you need to do it and the dog is really going to complain if you don’t, so just do it. It’s the same thing at work, most of the time we certainly don’t feel like going to work and we certainly don’t feel like doing the work, but you do it anyways.

Then you can experience doing that work either with complaining, either out loud or in your mind, and be completely miserable while doing it, or you could try to get involved with it. See that there is some benefit to doing this, either to yourself or to others, and then you can immerse yourself in it. And after a while it becomes okay and maybe it’s even enjoyable. I have a friend who is very, very fat and doesn’t do exercise, but he has a dog. And even though he doesn’t feel like taking the dog out, that’s his exercise. When he actually is going for the walk with the dog, he understands that he is benefitting from it himself as well, because at least he’s getting some exercise.

Benefits of Sensitivity Training

We saw that sensitivity training is something that, actually, when we examine ourselves and see “How do I pay attention to others? How do I respond? How do I pay attention to myself and how do I respond?” we find that there’s a lot of imbalance there and we develop some sort of motivation that, “I really do want to change; I need to change.” And when we do the training in a group, even if it’s a very small group, usually people find that they feel like going much more than if they’re just doing it by themselves at home, because of the social interaction. It shouldn’t just be a social club in which you come together and just gossip and drink tea, that type of thing. But you’re doing something constructive to be of help to each other. It gives more energy to the whole group and to each individual who is participating.

Stages of Sensitivity Training

We then saw in our general overview that any type of training that we do is progressive. This is the case when we learn to play a musical instrument; it’s the case when we train ourselves in a physical type of way. It’s also the case here, when we train ourselves with sensitivity issues. It’s important to understand the structure of how this training works in terms of gradual steps so then we have a little bit more confidence in what we’re doing; we see where it’s going. We see that the issues are paying attention and responding; those are the basic issues.

We see that the foundation for being able to deal with these issues is to quiet our mind, so that we’re not judgemental and we’re open, and to care about others and to care about ourselves. We’re going to follow basic ethical principles and we understand that we are capable of gaining this balance, that we have the abilities. Then we learn how to uncover those abilities, how to access those abilities by understanding the way that the mind works and the emotions work. Then what is preventing us from really using these basic factors that we have effectively is that we have all sorts of projections. We’re not paying attention to the actual situation because we’re just paying attention to our projection and we’re responding to the projection, not to the actual situation. We learn how to deconstruct these projections and get to reality, and then we learn how to cultivate these basic talents of our minds and our emotions to be able to develop balanced sensitivity.

That’s the training, so you see that it is in steps, it makes logical sense and we have some idea of how it’s going and how it will work. When we have that understanding of the structure of what we’re doing, of how we can do it and of what the goal is, then you can put your heart into it.

What I’m explaining are basically the instructions of how to successfully meditate. Meditation is all involved with how to bring about a positive transformation of ourselves, of our personalities and so on. That’s the whole point of meditation.

Two Ways of Approaching Self-Development

These basic instructions of knowing what you’re doing, how you do it, how it’s going to work, what are you aiming for... they’re applicable in any type of training, because there are two ways of approaching any type of self-development.

One is based on just faith. “I really don’t know what’s going to be and how it’s going to work, but I have faith and I just do it.” For some people that works, but it’s not very stable because if a teacher, or whatever, turns out to be abusive or they act in some strange ways and so on, you lose all your faith.

But if you approach self-development, whether it’s in a spiritual way or whether it’s just in an ordinary secular way, based on understanding and confidence, then it doesn’t matter whether the person who is leading is a good example of what you’re doing or not, because you’re confident in the method and you know what you’re doing. Of course it’s helpful if the person who is leading is a good example of this, but it’s very hard to find really very inspiring, highly developed people; they’re rare. They exist, but they’re rare. There’s a difference, when you think in terms of therapy, psychotherapy, and a spiritual teacher. A therapist doesn’t need to be a living example of what they’re trying to help you to achieve, a spiritual teacher should be a living example.

But it’s when the spiritual teacher is not a living example that there’s really a problem. It’s very disappointing. Since it’s not so easy to come by a really good living example, we need to place more emphasis on gaining confidence in the method, because this training in balanced sensitivity could be done in the context of a spiritual path, but it could also be done in the context of a therapy.

Dehumanizing Effect of Modern Technology

Now, today we are only able – because we have a short time – to have a taste of what these exercises are like. One that I’ve chosen is “Developing the Caring Attitude,” or “Caring Heart,” or whatever you want to call it. I think with the current social development that’s going on in the world, with social media and social networks and so on, that the need for the caring attitude is getting stronger and stronger.

So much of our interaction with others is now through the media of some sort of technology, rather than person to person. That tends to be very dehumanizing, because people start to become like characters in a virtual reality computer game. At best, you see them on – let’s say Skype, a Skype telephone call – but often you don’t even see them if you’re text messaging or just interacting through Facebook and so on. You just see maybe some photographs from when they’re on holiday.

We judge people by their profile on Facebook and we lock them into that profile and we ourselves get locked into our profile and you don’t really see the person behind that. That’s why this caring attitude is so important, because this conditioning that we get from the social media to dehumanize others makes us more and more insensitive in real life as well – real life, meaning not in front of your computer or cell phone.

It’s very interesting to observe a group of people on a bus or on a subway, in the car. So many people are lost in their own little worlds with their earphones and they’re playing with their cell phone. Either they’re texting other people or they’re playing computer games. But there’s no real sense that there are other people sitting next to you or sitting in the car.

Now we had this phenomenon already, before all this social media and cell phones, in terms of traffic. We’re stuck in traffic and we don’t really consider the people in all these other cars as real human beings with feelings and they’re as uncomfortable and unhappy as we are. So traffic dehumanizes others as well, doesn’t it?

What is the result of this dehumanizing process? The result, the effect of it emotionally, is that we feel more and more isolated and more and more lonely. In order to compensate for that, then we have this tendency now that, “If I tweet, if I put this tiny little message up and broadcast it to the world or put it on my Facebook page, somehow it makes me significant.” We’re very alone, we feel very isolated and somehow broadcasting what I feel will connect me with others. But it doesn’t really, does it? The response that we’re looking for is such an unsatisfying response, which is the number of “likes” that we get on our Facebook page. That’s totally inhuman. It’s not a human response, that’s a mechanical response. It doesn’t mean anything, when you start to really think about, “Does it satisfy me? A hundred likes doesn’t satisfy me; but if it’s a hundred and one, it will satisfy me?” It doesn’t work, does it?

The Caring Attitude

This caring attitude is so helpful to open us up from our isolation, from our feeling of loneliness to the realization that, “Everybody else is a person, is a human being and has feelings just as I do.” So we’re not alone and we’re open to others and to interaction with others – and not just a business interaction, but an emotional, positive interaction with others.

What is the basic idea here for the caring attitude? First we have to quiet down; the caring attitude comes second usually in the process. If we’re distracted, if we’re listening to music or even without the earphones, if music is going on in our heads or chatter or things like that, it’s very difficult to develop this caring attitude. If we’re not focused, we have so many other things going on in our head. If we’re being judgemental in our interactions with others, or bringing up old history or old stories about people or prejudgements, preconceptions, that also interferes, it’s a problem in developing this caring attitude. So we have to quiet all of that down, which actually can be a bit frightening.

How We Shield Ourselves

If you think about it, all this music that people are listening to and so on is in a sense a shield or a protection, so they don’t have to think. They don’t have to face this situation or face difficulties in life. You just drown it all out with music. The music usually is one that is going to create a certain mood that you want. It could be techno type of stuff, so it gives you a lot of energy, or something like that. Again, we are now relying on some external, causal factor – not really a causal factor, but some external mechanism to be able to develop any feeling, even. So we are dehumanizing ourselves even further. Here in our training, it’s not that we want to have some music of some caring ballad with some beautiful voice singing, “Love, love, love,” this sort of thing. In order to develop a caring attitude it needs to come from our heart.

Once we have quieted down, which as I say is frightening because you don’t have that shield up, you don’t have the protection up, then you can start to develop this caring attitude. The basis for it is to recognize what absolutely is reality. The reality is, “You are a human being and you have feelings, just as I do. The mood you are in will affect our interaction, just as my mood will affect it.”

You have to reflect on that, is this actual reality? And it is, isn’t it? You’re a human being, I’m a human being. In a real interaction, real life, not virtual interaction, your mood will affect it like my mood will affect it. In virtual reality, if you’re in a bad mood you just shut the machine off, don’t you? But that’s not real life. Your mood doesn’t really get communicated very well, even with an icon of a smiley face, if it’s on the basis of an SMS message which has to be just very cryptic and short, or a tweet, which is what is it? A hundred and sixty characters.

Participant: Same as SMS.

Alex: Same as SMS. There the mood, the feelings, are not really essential. All you’re doing is transmitting some basic information. As I say, it’s very frightening, when we’re so used to being behind the shields of our technology, to actually encounter somebody in real life. We may not be experiencing this yet, but we can see that this is the trend that is happening in the world.

Cause and Effect

Why am I afraid to actually encounter another human being? This becomes a very interesting question. We feel vulnerable or we don’t know what to do. We’ve lost our social skills and so this caring attitude becomes even more essential to see that there’s nothing to be frightened of. You have feelings, I have feelings, we’re going to affect each other, but the next point here is how I treat you and what I say will further affect your feelings. So now a sense of ethics comes in that we don’t want to make this an unpleasant encounter with another human being; so “cause and effect.”

You’re in a certain mood, I’m in a certain mood. I have to respect that, acknowledge that, but how we interact with each other will affect each other. It says here, how I treat you will affect your mood and how you treat me will affect my mood. I care about that. Care ... I’m using a Tibetan word, a Sanskrit word actually that I’m translating here… has the connotation of, not that I’m worried, but that I take it very seriously.

What do I take seriously? That you’re a human being that has feelings. That how I treat you will affect you, so I take that seriously. And I therefore am concerned about what will be happening in our interaction and how it will affect you and how it will affect me. This word also has the connotation, you have this in English – “care” and “be careful” – the two words are related. I don’t know if it works like that in Russian. I’m careful in my interaction with you. That doesn’t mean that I’m stiff, it doesn’t mean that, but careful like you’re walking on a very, very narrow path and you’re concerned not to fall, so you’re careful. That concern and care and being careful work together.

The conclusion that we have here is therefore, “Just as I hope that you will care about me and my feelings in our interaction, I hope that you’ll be like that and not in the middle of our conversation just go off into an SMS and speak on your phone and so on and ignore me. I care about you, I care about your feelings, I take you seriously. I’m actually with a human being, I’m not by myself in front of a computer screen.” Okay, you get the general idea?

Maybe there are some questions about this.

Participant: What is the term you are translating as “care?”

Alex: The Sanskrit word is pramada; bag-yod in Tibetan. It’s a very common word. There’s a whole chapter on that in Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. That’s where I’m taking it from. It is a basis for ethics, actually: care about the effect of your behavior. That’s its context.

Line of Reasoning

Then when we go through this line of reasoning, “You’re a human being and have feelings just as I do,” etc. – through this line of reasoning you would come to a conclusion. You see, in order to generate a state of mind and a feeling, there’s a process. Of course, eventually we don’t need to go through the process and the stages for building it up, we’re just able to always be like that and to remind ourselves and then we generate that state of mind.

But initially it doesn’t come to us so easily, so you work yourself up to having a certain feeling. That’s why I call this a “line of reasoning.” “You’re a human being. You’re a human being and have feelings just as I do. The mood that you’re in will affect our interaction just as my mood will affect it.” So this is a line of reasoning or steps of thinking that will lead us to generate a certain feeling. The conclusion, the state of mind that we’re trying to generate and feeling, is “I care about you, I care about your feelings.”

Concentration and Mindfulness

Then in the instructions on concentration that we find in the great meditation texts, Buddhist meditation texts, we have the following guidelines. This guideline concerns mindfulness. Mindfulness is a mental factor that is basically like a mental glue. Nowadays the word mindfulness has been taken over by the vipassana and mindfulness movement and there it has a different meaning from its original Sanskrit term.

Nowadays mindfulness, as in mindful meditation, generally has the idea of just being aware of situations, aware of our feelings, aware of our body sensations, etc.. That’s a different word, actually, in Sanskrit and Tibetan. Very good, but the terminology tends to get a bit mixed up and you lose some of the precision. The actual word, the original term for mindfulness (dran-pa, Skt. smrti), is the same word as remembering. It means to keep something in your mind. It’s like mental glue. When you are actually focusing on something, it’s the glue that keeps you there so that you don’t forget.

That’s essential when you are trying to gain concentration, that once you generate a state of mind or a feeling, that you don’t lose it. That’s this mental factor of mindfulness. It keeps you glued there so that you don’t lose that feeling or that understanding or that focus, whatever it is that you’re practicing. How do you maintain that mindfulness? And this is the guideline that we find from the ancient Buddhist texts and it’s by using keywords.

Using Keywords

It says that this is not mental wandering; this isn’t starting to go, “Blah, blah, blah,” in your head again. That would be just a distraction, you’re not paying attention. But using keywords is just to help remind you to stay focused. So from time to time you use a keyword to keep that mental glue there when you notice that that mental glue is going and you’ve lost it or degenerated again.

First you build up, through a certain line of thinking, to a state of mind. It doesn’t come naturally yet. And then as you try to maintain that state of mind and that understanding: “You’re a human being and have feelings just as I do,” then occasionally you remind yourself with a keyword: “human being,” “you have feelings,” just like that.

If we accustom ourselves to that – which is actually what the word “meditation” means, namely to accustom yourself to build up a positive habit – then in our ordinary life we will remember this. Again, that’s this word mindfulness. We will start to actually interact with others on that basis of you’re a human being and have feelings. So we take others seriously and how I treat them, how I speak with them has an effect; it’s not that I’m in some virtual reality computer game. You will have feelings in response to this.

And during that interaction, when we find that we are dehumanizing the other person, use a keyword. If we accustom ourselves (to this kind of practice), the keyword will come up if we start to become annoyed with a person and feel:“I can’t be bothered to talk to them and I wish they would go away and leave me alone,” all of this stuff. Use a keyword – “human being,” “feelings.” Remind yourself. This guideline is just so, so helpful if you really understand it and apply it.

For instance, you have a child, you have a baby, and you get really annoyed. It’s crying and complaining and so on, but you remind yourself, it’s a baby. What do you expect? What’s happening is that you’re projecting onto the baby that the baby should be an adult, and that’s ridiculous. You have to remind yourself, that’s this practice of mindfulness by using keywords. It’s a very profound guideline, really.

The keyword can be a phrase, it doesn’t have to be just one word. The first one is from the first preliminary, “I’m not going to make up or tell any stories about you.” In other words, not be judgemental, not complain and criticize you in my head, “Oh you’re so stupid,” and stuff like that. We remind ourselves, especially when we start to do that, to go off into judgemental stories about the person in our head while we’re interacting. We could just use the words “quiet down.” Make up your own keywords, whatever helps, whatever works.

Then “You’re a human being, you have feelings,” so you just say “human beings,” you just say “feelings,” whatever you want to use. Maybe that’s enough, maybe you need to say more, “I care about you, I care about your feelings.” Eventually maybe you need only one word to remind yourself, “human,” “human being.” It’s like for instance to remind yourself of your posture. When you’re with somebody and you have some horrible look on your face and your shoulders are all up at attention and you’re tense and so on, just to remind yourself: “let go,” “posture,” “relax.” I find this very, very helpful actually.

Now we’re getting a little bit off topic, but I find it very, very helpful during the day when, for instance, I find that my face is in a very tense type of position like this – especially you find that with your eyebrows and so on – to just remind myself “relax.” Relax the muscles of your face. Or if your teeth are very tightly clenched, “relax.” So you use a keyword to remind yourself. And you’ll only remember to use the keyword if you have accustomed yourself to this. That’s what meditation is about, thinking about it over and over again.

Any questions before we proceed? Digest what I said, which means don’t just sit there and be blank-minded, but try to say in your own words, in your minds, just one sentence that summarizes what we’ve been talking about. My teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, when he would teach – particularly when he taught Westerners – he would often stop and ask the people to repeat what have you understood from what I’ve said? Which actually was very effective, because once he did it once, then everybody paid much more attention because they were afraid that he would call on them to repeat later on what had he said. You had a question?

The Effects of Practicing Balanced Sensitivity

Participant: Is there some ultimate level of sensitivity that I need to develop so that...

Alex: Now you’re speaking in English.

Participant: I’m trying.

Alex: I had to turn my mind to “pay attention.”

Participant: Is there an ultimate level of sensitivity that can be developed so that we don’t have to make the effort, as it’s the nature of mind?

Alex: Is there an ultimate level – I’m repeating the question – in which we will have this sensitivity in which it is natural because it is part of the main talents of the mind? That’s exactly what I was saying when I was going through the general structure of the training. I wouldn’t use the word “ultimate” since that’s a technical term that has its own specific meaning but it doesn’t matter what we call it. The point of how the training progresses is that we realize that we are capable and then we uncover these basic talents that are there in the mind. You get rid of the projections that are preventing them from operating fully. It’s like a purification. And then we work on how to cultivate and have these natural talents of the mind function. It’s a straightforward Buddhist process.

It will become something that is perfectly natural and so on. If you can quiet down enough and access the deepest level of the mind and the emotions, then naturally there is warmth there, naturally there is openness, naturally there is the ability to understand and empathize. These are parts of the – in Buddhist jargon – Buddha nature. Yes?

Concentration and Meditation

Participant: What is the difference between concentration and meditation?

Alex: Concentration is a factor that is part of meditation. But concentration can be found in any activity, not just meditation. Meditation is literally to build up a positive habit, a positive habit of the mind and the emotions; we’re not talking about a positive habit of playing a musical instrument or a sport. In order to develop a habit, that word habit – to habituate ourselves – is the same word as to accustom ourselves. And that means through repetition. You generate a certain state of mind, a certain understanding or love or whatever it might be and you do it over and over and over again so it becomes a habit, a natural habit. Or quieting down over and over and over again until that becomes a natural habit, that you’re quiet in your mind.

Now, concentration is a general mental factor which is when your attention is placed on something, then it stays there. You have that in various levels in just the way that the mind functions. You’re chopping vegetables: you need concentration otherwise you’re going to chop your finger. That’s not meditation. So whatever we’re doing we need to be concentrated so that your attention stays focused on what you’re doing. And it will vary in strength from very, very little concentration to perfect concentration.

When we are practicing in meditation to develop concentration then we’re working on basically avoiding two obstacles, two hindrances. One is that your attention flies off so you get distracted: mental wandering. The other one is getting dull, so you’re not really paying attention, your hold of the attention on the object becomes too loose.

Concentration is absolutely essential in this sensitivity training. You’re talking with somebody or somebody is talking to us, you need to be able to concentrate. You have to keep your attention and continue to pay attention to what they’re saying and not have your mind start to think about something else and to wander off, or to make comments in your head, and not to become so dull that you’re just sort of spaced out and, “What did you say? I wasn’t paying attention,” You’re not even lost in your thoughts, you’re just dull because you’re bored or whatever.

Another indication of the mental hold being too weak is that you hear the person’s words, but the English expression is that “It goes in one ear and out the other.” You’re not really giving any meaning to what they’re saying.

The concentration meditations that you have with so-called “mindfulness training” have you focus on the breath. As one of my teachers said, it’s not that you’re training to be a lizard on a rock just standing there, or sitting there and breathing. But it’s to develop a skill that you will use in your interactions with others, so that you are concentrating and paying attention to the other person, to what they’re feeling, to what they’re saying, to what they’re doing and paying attention to how I’m acting.

Proper meditation has to have concentration. You use it to develop your skills in concentration and then you use that concentration. You improve your concentration in all areas of life, because we all have the basic mental factor of concentration, otherwise you can’t do anything. Animals have concentration when they’re hunting or when they’re digging a hole or whatever; they have concentration. There is a general mental factor of concentration, it’s one of the talents of the mind. Good question, very good question. Anything else?

Cultural Considerations for the Practice

Okay, so let us try this. As I outlined yesterday, in any particular exercise, we train first with people who are not here because that’s easier emotionally; then it really is dependent on the culture, whether you first do interacting with others in person and then with yourself, or yourself first and then with others. In some cultures it’s very difficult for them to interact with others, they’re very shy, like Germans. And so it’s easier to work first with yourself and then with others. Whereas Latin Americans are very, very much open with others and very, very at ease with others. but it’s much more difficult to look at themselves. Training always needs to be adapted to the culture and the individual people in the group.

Interacting with Other People in the Age of Technology

But again, I’m thinking that in the current social trend, that working with people who are not here – what I was thinking originally was just of a general training – will be emotionally easier. I think it becomes more and more relevant, because it is, in many ways, the way that a lot of people have contact with others, it’s either on the television or in Skype or in some sort of computer or cell phone interaction.

I think it becomes even more important in that type of context to develop this understanding that, “You’re a human being, I’m dealing with a human being here, I’m not just dealing with pixels on a screen.” It’s a very interesting question: is this person just pixels on a screen or is this an actual human being? Is it just these, again, pixels on a screen of an SMS or is there an actual person behind this? This gets into the whole voidness meditation and these things in Buddhism: are we identifying the person with the pixels on the screen of the SMS message? Is that the person? It’s very interesting actually.

Anyways, it’s not our topic, but one which is very, very essential to realize that we are confusing the person with the pixels on a screen and therefore that’s just pixels, so who cares? If I’m not interested, I can just press the button and turn it off, it’s just pixels.

Beginning the Exercises

Let’s work then with these photos here that I’ve put up, which are strangers. These are just taken from a magazine and I have chosen. This is a variety of different people. I forgot to bring a picture of a baby, of a small child, I usually bring one of those as well, but in any case we have men and women in different ages and different races. What we do is first of all we need to be able to look at them without commenting in our head. That’s not so easy. That’s the first step. And we do that looking at just one person at a time and then we try with another person and another person in the pictures.

Most people find that there are more comments about one type of person than another. You might have more comments about the women or more comments about the men or more comments about those of a different race or more comments about someone we find sexually attractive. There are many, many variants there, and that also helps us to understand the type of verbal garbage that goes on in our heads, basically.

Although I didn’t plan to spend our time here together on the first foundational practice, which is “the quiet mind,” we need to do that a little bit in order to generate “the caring attitude,” because if we are looking at these people here and commenting, you’re never going to get the caring attitude. The simplest method for quieting down is the letting go method. Just let go of the verbal stuff that’s going on in your head. What we do as an aid for that is you have your hand in a fist. It doesn’t have to be a very tight fist, but closed and you open it up. There’s that. And just let go and you can use the keyword to remind yourself, “let go.”

Let us try that for a moment looking at the photos and just quiet mind, nothing judgemental, no comments, just be open to the person. We’ll do that for maybe two minutes, something like that. And as I say, start the practice with focusing more on one photo and then if we’re able to quietly look at that person, then focus on another person, another photo.

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Comments? Were you able to do it? A little bit? Yes?

Balance Between the Quiet Mind and the Caring Attitude

Participant: What I was surprised about when I tried to stop commenting, the irrelevance appeared.

Alex: Irrelevance?

Participant: Yes. Irrelevance to a person, when we don’t feel that much.

Alex: Well, that’s a very good point, that when we just quiet down we don’t feel very much. That is why we have the two legs here. One leg is the quieting down and the second leg is the caring attitude. You can’t just quiet down, because then exactly, the person becomes totally irrelevant, they’re just pixels. On the other hand, if you try first to develop the caring attitude, then you’re being judgemental and commenting on the person, you can’t really develop the caring attitude, so you need the two. There’s balance and it’s very helpful to realize that through your own experience in this exercise, that just to quiet down is not enough. But it is the basics for then being able to develop some positive feeling. Yes?

Participant: I noticed when I look at the photo, I start to feel the same emotion that the person is showing in the photo and the same happens in life, so what does that mean?

Empathy

Alex: There is the biological mirror effect that is there, so “nothing special.” That’s why when people are laughing, you laugh; when people are crying, you cry. It is a feeling of empathy, which is okay, but if the other person is depressed and then we just get depressed, that is not going to be very helpful.

If you recall in the sequence of our training exercises, there was one which dealt with feelings, which is when we are with somebody who is depressed or very unhappy, you need to feel that unhappiness in order to empathize with it, so not be afraid of it. But if we have already trained ourselves so that we can quiet down and gain access to that deepest level, what you called the “ultimate level of the mind,” then we let that sadness and depression that we feel of the other person quiet down internally in ourselves. Then we’re able to access the warmth and understanding and comfort and the positive feelings that will allow us to comfort the person. That’s the secret of how you do it. Then obviously, to be able to do that requires quite a bit of training, but at least the fact that you feel something is a very, very important first step.

But that can be an extreme imbalance of being oversensitive and we just get carried away by the person is hurt and crying and then panic and then we get in a panic and we can’t help them. It’s like for instance, when you are with a nervous person, if you get nervous it’s going to make the situation worse.You can feel their nervousness, but you internally have the ability to calm down that nervousness, and then by your calmness it acts like a mirror effect to help calm the other person down. It works.

That’s very different from when you’re with a nervous person and you yourself just don’t feel anything. Not feeling anything, just being a blank doesn’t help the other person to calm down. If you’re able to access the basic calmness of the mind, together with that will be the other qualities which are warmth, understanding, affection. That’s effective. Yes?

Participant: How to hear yourself if I’m unable to calm down myself when I speak or try to have some relation with a neurotic person?

Alex: You practice by yourself, whether you call it meditation or not doesn’t matter, to just calm down yourself. The more that you are accustomed to that through that meditative process of repetition, then you’ll be better able to deal with the other person, to maintain that calmness with the other person.

Participant: [Russian]

Alex: Pardon?

Participant: Some people can affect you more than others.

Alex: Right, some people affect you more than others. That is because of the relationship, the history that you might have with that person, karmic reasons, there are so many different factors. Not all penguins are the same! It’s usually members of our family that are the most challenging. Yes?

Calmness While Interacting with Others

Participant: I’ve had a rich experience in traveling and seeing different cultures and a lot of people from different cultures in the photos. And in some cultures it’s rude to be calm while you’re trying to speak with other persons. For example, with Latin Americans you have to be more emotional. My question is how to keep the balance between being calm and being emotional when it’s proper?

Alex: I’m reminded of a type of training that I used to do for a martial arts group; with this martial arts group it was a type of martial arts, ninjutsu, which is a very aggressive, fighting type of martial art. What I tried to train the people to do was to be very calm inside but very strong outside and to try to make a very strong gesture or shout “Hah!” and to practice trying to do that while having calm energy inside. Because that’s the only way that you can succeed in a martial art, is if you’re calm inside. So you train.

But in terms of being very, what should we say, emotional with Latin Americans; I also have quite a lot of experience with Latin Americans and what I find is that there’s a difference: you have to differentiate between being calm and being stone-faced. Being calm actually helps them and it makes them feel comfortable. If they’re “Ah ah ah!” Like that, excited, then if you’re calm but you’re showing expression, you’re in fact showing emotion – but it’s a calm emotion. Not all excited the way that they are.

But it has to be sincere, these emotions. If you’re just pretending and they can sense that you’re pretending, then it becomes really quite unpleasant, actually. And again, the more relaxed we are, the more able you are to generate emotional feelings, actually. This is the art that is involved: the more relaxed you are, the easier emotions come, the easier for instance that you can cry if you’re somebody that doesn’t cry. You find that it comes much more easily, plus you’re relaxed; it’s not that you’re this tense type of “holding everything in” type of person.

And this caring attitude is very important, as we started to discuss, with members of our family, who can make us the most nervous and the most upset. If we can have a little bit of calmness (it will help.) And concerning that calmness, we’re just talking on a superficial level here, which nevertheless is not a very easy level: stopping complaining in our heads and calling them bad names, etc. If we can just quiet that down, we might not be emotionally calm, but if we at least stop that, then you can develop this caring attitude, that my mother or my father or aunt or uncle or whoever it is that really gets on our nerves, “You are a human being and you have feelings and you want to be happy, you don’t want to be unhappy, you’re trying your best.” It might not work, what they’re trying to do for making themselves happy, but you’re still a human being. You’re just trying your best like I am.

Letting Go of Preconceptions

In one of the later exercises, I mentioned it last night, where we quiet down on a much deeper level than just quieting the voice in our head, one of the things that we really have to let go of are preconceptions, particularly in terms of what role we expect the other person to play and what role we expect that I’m supposed to play. “You’re supposed to be the mother, you’re supposed to be the father, mothers and fathers should be like this and like that, but you’re not” and so that’s very annoying. That’s why people who are in our family annoy us more than strangers or just friends, because we have the expectation of the role that we project onto them. That you have to let go of in order to have a real human interaction with the person.

Good, so that brings us to the end of this session and then after lunch we will do the second part, this caring attitude. Thank you.

Participant: [Russian]

Alex: What did she say?

Participant: The question is can we concentrate on Buddha?

Concentrating on Buddha

Alex: Well, yes actually. Can we concentrate on Buddha? That’s a very good question because in the visualization meditations that we do for gaining concentration that Kamalashila, a great Indian master who brought Buddhism to Tibet, emphasized in his texts on meditation, he said that if we don’t have any strong disturbing emotions – in which case, if you do have them, you use objects for gaining concentration that specially deal with those disturbing emotions – but if we don’t have such disturbing emotions, we’re a fairly emotionally healthy person, then to gain concentration we focus on a visualized Buddha. You don’t stare at a statue, but a visualization.

And concerning the Buddha that you are visualizing, you’re not visualizing a picture, you’re not visualizing a statue, it is a three-dimensional being and it’s not a cartoon. It is a living person. That’s what I find the most difficult aspect of that meditation, because we always see Buddha like a statue or a painting, therefore when you try to visualize that, what happens is that it becomes a cartoon, a three-dimensional cartoon, because no human being looks like that. Buddha is not a cartoon, just as in our exercises, people are not some image on a computer screen. And it’s very difficult – I find it personally very difficult – to get that Buddha that I’m visualizing to be a real person, a real human being. Obviously a Buddha is still a human being; it’s not a dog, but a human being with... I mean appearing in that image of a human being, a Buddha can appear in any image, let’s not go in that direction, but that it is alive, so how do you do that?

When we focus on a Buddha, the benefits of it are that you are then mindful and remember the qualities of a Buddha and that helps with refuge, “This is the direction that I want to go in.” It helps with bodhichitta, “I want to become a Buddha myself.” There are so many benefits, but that is because the Buddha is a live being that has all these qualities and not a cartoon. And so I think that, “You’re a human being, you have feelings, you have qualities, just as I have qualities I can become like this,” etc., that will help to, in a sense, humanize what seems to be a cartoon in our visualization. It is analogous to how we could humanize the pixel representation of people that we’re interacting with in Facebook and Skype and all the other technological media. You have to humanize them. So working with the Buddha, if that is helpful for you, no problem. Just as Buddha is not a cartoon, other people are not cartoons either. Okay? Thank you.