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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Modern Adaptation of Buddhism > Exercises For Integrating One's Life > Session One: The Conceptual Framework – Mental Labeling

Exercises For Integrating One's Life

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, November 2008

Session One: The Conceptual Framework – Mental Labeling

Unedited Transcript
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This weekend we are going to discuss and practice methods for integrating our life. This is a series of exercises that I developed. We don’t find them actually in the Buddhist teachings or elsewhere. And they’re an extension of a training program that I developed called Developing Balanced Sensitivity, which is published in a book and also you can find on my website. It’s a series of twenty exercises that are all based on the Buddhist teachings, and it’s taking a wide, wide variety of Buddhist meditation methods and teachings, and putting them together in a slightly different form, in order to help us overcome problems of either being insensitive or oversensitive. And this is in respect to situations of others and of ourselves – either we are insensitive to it or oversensitive to it. Or it is dealing with the effect of our behavior, either the effect of our behavior on others or the effect of our behavior on ourselves – either we are insensitive to that or oversensitive. So, that obviously is the Buddhist approach.

When we speak of the true cause of our problems in life, it’s unawareness, and specifically unawareness of cause and effect, so the effect of our behavior and unawareness of reality of situations with ourselves and others. And although the training program, going through these twenty exercises, are based on a Buddhist set of methods; nevertheless, it is not presented in a Buddhist context or with Buddhist terminology, and requires no Buddhist background or Buddhist context within which one works with them. The training program in this, if done in a full manner, one session a week with people, takes three years.

And having taught it a few times in its complete form, and taught abbreviated forms of it here and there, it struck me that there could be more that could be added to it, different aspects. Because you see, what motivated the creation of this program was the fact that there are many people who practice Buddhism for a long time, but reached a certain plateau in there practice and weren’t getting any further. The problem was they didn’t really have a clear idea how to apply the Buddhist teachings to their own lives and the type of problems that they had, emotional and psychological problems. So, this was something that I observed quite in a widespread manner. And analyzing the situation, what I realized is that the conceptual framework within which we conceptualize the type of psychological problems that we have is completely different from that with which the Buddhist teachings conceptualize them.

So, we think of problems – and experience them, because we conceptualize them this way – in terms of certain issues like, for instance, insecurity – “I’m insecure” – or insensitive, or oversensitive. And we experience alienation. We say, “I’m out of touch with my feelings, out of touch with my body, and even out of touch with myself.” We say, “My feelings are blocked,” for example, and such things. And the problem is that none of that can easily be translated into Tibetan. And so that’s the difficulty here is how to make the bridge between the Buddhist Tibetan conceptual framework and how we conceptualize and consequently experience our problems.

So, then, of course, we might think that the Buddhist methods aren’t really effective for these types of problems that are characteristic of us in the West. But, if we really take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha; that means that we are confident that the Buddhist methods and teachings that Buddha taught will eliminate all problems, including the ones that we Westerners experience. So, with that confident belief that the Dharma is broad enough to encompass these types of problems as well, the only challenge was to deconstruct the type of syndromes that we experience, so that if we deconstruct them and see the various components of it, that then we could see how the various Dharma methods would apply to it. I’ll just give two very simple examples. There is no Tibetan word for “emotions” and, what we translate as “mind” doesn’t mean what in Tibetan what we mean by “mind.”

So, I developed this program; and it seems to be quite effective from the people who have gone through it. And what I saw was that, as I said, more can be added, and one aspect that was not treated fully in the program is this feeling of not being a whole. In other words, our lives are not really integrated. And so we experience our lives being very fragmented. And of course, that leads to a lot of difficulties. We can’t really integrate our professional business life with our family life; and none of those with our sports life or our hobbies or vacations or things like that. I mean, everything is very fragmented; it doesn’t fit together as a whole. So, to see the type of method that I think can help with that, let’s turn to the Buddhist theoretical framework from which this comes.

And the main point here is the Buddhist explanation of the conventional “me,” the conventional “I” or self. And when we speak about the conventional “me,” the conventional “me” is – to use the jargon – something which is imputed, or imputable, on a continuum, individual continuum of aggregate factors. Now, when we talk about the five aggregates – I don’t want to go into the listing of what they are – but just the general idea here is that each moment of our experience is changing; it’s going on, one moment to the next. Each moment is different; each moment is not the same as the moment before; but neither is it totally different and unrelated either. But, there is a continuum here, and one moment follows from the previous one. We would call that it arises dependently on the previous moment.

It’s like a roll of frames in a movie. But let’s not take that analogy too literally, because obviously each little frame can be cut out and be by itself. So, we’re talking not about the frame, we’re talking about the actual movie that plays based on the film. And even that can be edited, so don’t take the analogy too literally. Now, in one moment of our experience, although that experience might seem like some sort of solid entity or thing, we can deconstruct it into many component parts. So, we have obviously our body, which will be in different positions, or whatever, getting older. And we also are going to have some sort of consciousness, in the sense of either visual consciousness, or hearing or smelling or tasting, or feeling a physical sensation or mental consciousness. And usually all of them are operating at the same time; so it’s a matter of how much attention we pay to each. When we are with somebody, we’re seeing that person and at the same time hearing what they are saying. But we also can be simultaneously feeling the temperature of the room, it’s hot or cold; we pay attention, feel the sensation of the clothing on our body. If you pay attention, there is the taste in your mouth just from your tongue and the saliva, and the air has a certain odor. And we might be thinking something or etc. at the same time. And each of these types of consciousness has an object that it is perceiving, and here we can either speak of the external object or we can speak of the perceived object of what we call the appearance, like a mental hologram that is involved.

There are different interpretations by different Buddhist philosophers and schools about the fine points of these; I’m speaking in general here. And we have various emotions, both positive and negative, that are accompanying every moment. We are always feeling something on the spectrum of happy or unhappy, in each moment; although it might not be very traumatic, but it’s somewhere on that spectrum. When the word “feeling” is used in Buddhism, that’s what it is referring to, this spectrum of happy or unhappy. And we also have various mental factors that help us to connect on an object. Like, for instance, different levels of concentration, different levels of interest. And all the various factors that are involved with what we would put together into this general word of “understanding.” How do we understand the sounds that we hear in terms of a language, for example? It’s a very complex process, obviously. So, we have a continuum of moments of experience, and in each moment it’s made up of all these different components; and each of them is changing at a different rate. So, when we ask in terms of this complex of things that’s changing all the time, well, what is the “me,” where am I in all of this? Then, Buddhism has a lot to say.

And, it’s our unawareness about this “me,” how I exist and what I am – or who I am – that is one of the most fundamental causes of our problems. Either we don’t know how we exist, or who am I as in “I have to find myself” – which is, if you translated that literally into Tibetan, it would sound like a meditation process of analysis. Whereas somebody goes off to India to find themselves, that’s something quite different, isn’t it? So, here we are; we just don’t know how we exist or we have a completely incorrect understanding of it.

There are two levels or aspects here, and we tend to go to one of two extremes: Either we identify me with some aspect of our experience. This could be our role; for instance, being a mother or being a father, “That’s who I am.” Or our nationality, or our gender, “I’m a woman,” “I’m a man”; or “I’m the type of person who has a bad temper, or sickness.” We tend to identify with one thing – at best, maybe a couple of things – but we identify with something. Either we identify with one thing all the time, which may be the dominant identity of who I am. It could also be our religion, of course.

Or, in different situations, we identify with one thing. Then we get a very disintegrated type of feeling of our lives. “In business I’m one thing; at home I’m another thing; at the sports club I’m yet another person, etc. So we can identify with different things in different parts of our life or different moments. So, that’s one extreme, that we identify with one or more aspects of our life, our experience, which of course leads to many problems because then we’re not very flexible at all. We get very defensive about this identity, or we feel guilty about this identity. We can be very proud, very arrogant, like identifying with our great looks or identifying with our great intelligence, and then be very arrogant about that and be very proud.

The other extreme is when we imagine that there’s “me,” that I exist totally separate from all of this, from all the various aspects of my existence. When we have that type of belief about ourselves, the type of problem that manifests is a feeling of alienation. “I am alienated from my feelings; I am alienated from my body and alienated from myself.” As if there was a “me” separate from all of that that felt alienated.

What I’m explaining here is a very very important principle that I can’t emphasize enough – it is essential for the study of Buddhism – which is namely, when we learn about all these philosophical positions, things that are being refuted and all of that, don’t just believe it as information like that. But then say, “What would it be like if I thought like that and what problems would I have if I thought like that.” Then you see the whole point of why Buddha’s pointing out the mistakes of these views. Otherwise, it just becomes an intellectual exercise. It is, as my own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, pointed out, extremely arrogant to think that only stupid people would think like this philosophical system that’s being refuted in the Buddhist texts. It’s very, very arrogant to say only stupid people would think like that.

You know, there’s a point that comes up in the teachings – I point this out because it’s not usually discussed. You know, when we talk about disturbing emotions, there are those which are doctrinally based and those which arise automatically. The doctrinally based disturbing emotions are those which arise based having learned a non-Buddhist Indian doctrinal system. So, based on that system – having learned it and accepted it – then what happens is you get attachment to it: “This is my system.” You get angry with anybody else; you know, “You have the wrong view,” and then “You’re heretics,” or whatever. You get angry with others who disagree; you get arrogant about it, you know, “This is my system, etc.” If we are naive, we don’t want to consider anything else. You’re jealous of members of another belief group make more money or stuff like that; you have to compete with them to get members. So there’s a whole cluster of disturbing emotions which arise based on having learned and accepted a certain system and identified with it.

So, when we first understand voidness nonconceptually, and we become convinced that the teachings about reality that these other systems offer are incorrect, then, of course we no longer accept that doctrinal system. Therefore we get rid of being attached to it, and angry if someone disagrees with it, and so on. That’s how you first get rid of these doctrinally based disturbing emotions. That’s what it’s referring to. We learn that with a seeing pathway mind – it’s usually called a path of seeing but that doesn’t convey very much – when you develop this type of mind, the pathway mind which is a seeing one, which sees nonconceptually the four noble truths, basically, if we want to put it in the most fundamental way, then it rids the mind – actually translated as “abandon,” as if you put it somewhere like you abandon a baby – that it rids the mind forever of the doctrinally based disturbing emotions.

So, then the question arises naturally, “What happens if I never studied any of these non-Buddhist Indian systems, and I achieve a seeing pathway mind, then what do I get rid of, if I’ve never learned these doctrines that it’s talking about?” This is a very important question, actually, a very relevant one, particularly for us Westerners who certainly have never studied these Indian systems, for the most part of us. So, a “Dharma Lite” version would be that, “Well, when you talk about doctrinally based, it could be doctrinally based on any propaganda system;” on the propaganda or learning or teachings – propaganda is a heavy word – of any non-Buddhist system, whether we are talking about a Western religion or we’re talking about communist philosophy, or whatever. That would be a “Dharma Lite” version. The real thing Dharma version is: “No, sorry, we’re talking about only specifically the non-Buddhist Indian systems.”

And from the Prasangika point of view, according to Gelugpa, “doctrinally based” includes all the lower tenet systems as well. If we speak about desire that arises based on the propaganda of television commercials, we would have to say that’s something which is seemingly doctrinally based, but it’s not the actual “doctrinally based.” Fit it into the conceptual framework of Buddhism. So, Tsongkhapa addresses this question, because certainly most Tibetans did not study these Indian systems. Like most of us Westerners, they never even heard of them. And Tsongkhapa answers that everybody has doctrinally based disturbing emotions, whether or not we’ve studied that system in this lifetime. Because just as the teachings of the Buddha have no beginning, and all our mental continuums have no beginning, likewise all these other Indian systems have no beginning. So, everybody has, by that logic, studied these systems at one time or another in the past, and have the imprints or tendencies based on them from previous lives, even if they haven’t studied in this lifetime, and that’s what you get rid of with a seeing pathway mind. Very interesting answer.

Now, that could not really be referring, then, only to… Well, if you think about this. You read this – because it’s a puzzling question – you read this and try to figure out, well, “What in the world is the significance of this to me?” Because if there’s a tendency there that’s so unconscious and I get rid of that, what difference does it make? I don’t even know that I have that tendency.” There just has to be something more than that to it. So, it’s certainly not manifesting – these tendencies – in this lifetime, going around and saying, you know, “Samkhya philosophy is the best and everybody else who thinks otherwise is wrong,” because I’ve never even heard of Samkhya. How much less so could I go around and identify with it, like, you know, this is my football team.

So, what it must be referring to is a way of thinking that would be shaped by this school, for which I would have certain tendencies in this lifetime, and that also would produce problems. So, when I teach about the refutation that Buddhism has in these various Indian systems, then we spend a great deal of time trying to identify in ourselves the tendencies that we have to think like that. In other words, what would it actually mean, in real life terms, to think like that, to feel like that? What emotion would that bring up? What emotional problem would that bring up, which would prompt Buddha to want to identify this as a source of suffering, this belief as a source of suffering? If you really take refuge, then the imperative is to analyze like that. Otherwise why did Buddha bring it up?

I’m sorry, this is a very, very long explanation of why I am explaining here that, or taking one step farther then we find in the text. The refutation that we have of the “self” or the “me” either being one with the aggregates or different form the aggregates, so what in the world would that mean? And as I said, what it would mean is if we identify with anything in our lives, then we become very, very inflexible. Or, we’re identifying with several different aspects in our lives and then we can’t integrate it at all. Or, on the other hand, if we imagine that “me” is totally different from everything in my life, then we experience alienation. And so these are the problems.

The problem is not merely that the conceptual belief is illogical, you know, and therefore Buddha said, “Everybody has to be logical,” and so the source of your problem is that you are illogical. But Buddha’s talking about the emotional problems that arise in addition to the faulty way of thinking. And unless we’re able to transfer the illogical way of thinking to what type of emotional problem that generates, we will not be able to relate the teachings to ourselves, to our lives, and how to use them to help us to overcome our psychological and emotional problems.

So, when we approach the Buddhist teachings, in terms of what it is intended for, which is to help us overcome our problems, then the first step is to identify what emotional problems we are facing, and then try to see what is the misconception that is behind it. That’s what we do in therapy anyway in the West. So, it’s that what we will discover behind them will be various aspects of the views that would refute it. In our study, since this has not been worked out very well – the relation between the doctrinally based incorrect views and what emotional problem it generates – then in our study, at this stage in the development of Western Buddhism, we look at the doctrinally misconceptions, and then we try to identify – this is what I tried to do in Developing Balanced Sensitivity – try to identify the emotional problems that come from that. So that in working with people, that then when you are only looking at the emotional problem, you can identify that, and if you understand – and even if you don’t understand what is the doctrinal basis of that – nevertheless, Buddha taught methods for overcoming that misconception so that you can then apply it to the emotional problems. So, it gives you the method for being able to tackle the way that we experience our problems. Therefore, the Dharma teachings are referred to as the “wish-granting cow,” because we can milk from it a tremendous amount of nutritional food: the milk. So, the point is that when you receive all these teachings and read all these teachings, you have to milk from it as much as you can; and we in the West haven’t milked enough.

There’s another good example, I think, of the arrogance that many of us would have in reading the Buddhist literature. And you read images like the “wish-granting cow” and you say, “Oh, come on, this is completely ridiculous!” It’s not ridiculous. There’s meaning to that image. So one has to look deeper and try to understand it, take it seriously. OK.

So, to finally get back to our topic here, which is that the “me,” the “self,” is neither one with any of our different aspects, nor is it different from it. What Buddhism says is that the “self” or the “me” is what can be imputed on the continuum of these ever changing aggregates. The aggregates, every moment in all these components are changing; they are all changing at different rates. That is the basis of the imputation or labeling. “Me” is the label; that’s a word or a concept. What is the actual “me?” The actual “me” is what the word or label “me” refers to, in terms of this basis. How do you establish that there is a “me?” The only way that you can establish that there is a “me” is in terms of this mental labeling. It’s not that it is created by the mental label, and if you didn’t say “me” you didn’t exist; that’s absurd. But it’s merely what the word or concept “me” refers to on the basis of this. We have nothing on the side of the basis that is standing there and saying, “Call ‘me’ ‘me.’” There’s nothing like that; there’s nothing on the side of the basis that is holding up or supporting your focus when you are focusing on “me.”

The example that I would use to illustrate this is that of a movie. So, the classic movie Gone with the Wind. We have a movie; it’s playing. So you have one scene after another scene after another scene. Every moment of it is changing. Right? So that’s the continuum; that’s the basis for labeling the movie. Right? And all the characters are changing and doing things at a different rate. And it’s a pretty good story, so there’s continuity. So, what is Gone with the Wind? Gone with the Wind, well, that’s a title, that’s a word; it’s a name. But the movie Gone with the Wind is not just its title. So, what is Gone with the Wind, what’s the movie? It’s what the title refers to on the basis of this continuum of every moment, of every scene. Gone with the Wind is not just one scene or one character in one moment of a scene; nor is Gone with the Wind something completely different from the continuum of all of these scenes. And there’s nothing on the side of each moment of the scene which has like a little label there, or a little stamp: Gone with the Wind, Gone with the Wind, Gone with the Wind, like that, that allows us to identify that this is Gone With the Wind. So, what’s Gone with the Wind? It’s what the title refers to on the basis of this continuum.

So, the same thing is true in terms of “me.” Who am I? What is the “me?” What establishes a “me?” It’s merely what the word “me” refers to on the basis of this whole continuum. So, our problems arise … well, first of all, we identify the “me” with some aspect of the continuum; some aspects of our experience. Or we don’t identify it at all with that. You see, the problem here is the basis for labeling. How much of a basis do we label the “me” on? We often tend to label the “me” on just some aspects, but not all aspects, and so we leave out certain parts of our life: “That wasn’t me; I wasn’t myself.” Or we deny certain aspects of, you know, what we would say in Western phraseology, “some aspects of myself.” So we’re leaving out part of the basis for labeling. So, here we have a combination of both identifying being one with certain aspects of our experience, and being totally different form other aspects.

So, this entire system of exercises dealing with this particular problem – and there are several exercises that deal with this in Developing Balanced Sensitivity – all have to do with becoming aware of the entire basis for labeling “me.” Not just identifying with some and ignoring others. So, in the exercises that are already there, in the Sensitivity Training, we look, for instance, in terms of not identifying just with the present moment, but that we need to see that a person is what is labeled on the whole continuum of their life. And the example that I used a few days ago here was when you see an old person in a nursing home and, you know, they are all decrepit and with dementia and so on, to remember that that person is not just what you see in front of your eyes. But that person had a whole life, a childhood, an adulthood, probably a family, and a career and so on. And the person is what can be labeled on that whole continuum, not just what you see with your eyes now. So, the problem, then, was having too small a basis for labeling, which causes us to be uncomfortable with this person, to be awkward and afraid, not to really have respect for the person.

So, we can apply this analysis, it’s valid for both others and for ourselves. We’re not just what we see in the mirror. It’s not the totality of the basis for labeling “me.” Nor are we just that little aspect of “me,” that one time moment that we identify in our imaginations, as in we are sixty-five years old but in our minds we’re still twenty-five and think we’re still attractive to other twenty-five year olds. Obviously, that causes a lot of problems.

Similarly, we need to expand the basis of labeling “me” in terms of parts, you know, parts of the body, atoms and so on. The other person is not just the beautiful outer layer, but is all these other things. The same thing with “me.” And likewise we can expand in terms of all the different causes for why we are acting the way that we’re acting now or somebody else is acting the way that they are acting now. It’s not just, you know, “Oh, you are acting terrible,” but “Wow, you know, maybe they are not feeling well, and their friend yelled at them before and they missed the bus and they were caught in traffic” and so on. And so all of that is the basis for labeling and for understanding that situation now with the other person or with me, why I feel the way that I feel. So, we are not saying that the traffic is the basis for labeling “me,” but the effect of the traffic on my mood, that’s part of the basis for labeling “me.” So the effect of the traffic on my mood, that’s part of the basis for labeling “me.” So I need to understand the causal factors that influence what I’m experiencing now.

Then, to further deconstruct and expand our understanding of the basis for labeling, we have to take into consideration the effect on that other person, or the effect on myself, of all the people that I’ve known in my life: the way that my parents raised me, I mean, all these sort of things. And then previous generations, how my grandparents raised my parents and influenced them so that they influenced me. And then, if we have an understanding and appreciation of previous lives, then how know how previous lives’ experiences have influenced the various tendencies and interests and so on that I’ve had from early childhood that I can’t explain from my family or environment.

So, what we are doing here, in our analysis, is combing several aspects of the Buddhist teachings. One is a very expansive understanding of dependent arising; that each moment of our experience is arisen dependently on countless number of factors – all of what we have been talking about in the last few minutes – and the analysis of mental labeling. That the “me” is then labeled on each moment of experience, and each moment of experience in the continuum of my entire life has dependently arisen based on millions and millions of other factors. So, we’re wooooo, you know, expanding our whole understanding in a process of deconstruction of the solidity of anything that we identify anybody else with or ourselves with.

In Sensitivity Training, there are several exercises that I am conflating here, putting together, in my explanation. But what we are aiming at, then, is to overcome the problems of being insensitive to certain aspects of my life and experience, and oversensitive about others. So, this is the framework out of which integrating one’s life – this new exercise that I’ve developed – comes out of. This is a further step based on this type of balanced sensitivity process. If every moment of our experience, in every aspect of our personality and experience, has been influenced by so many different factors etc., how do I integrate all of that, so that I have a sense of a “me” labeled on all of it that is labeled in a balanced way? Not leaving anything out, not adding anything, not feeling alienated or whatever. So this is the next step in that process.

Starting tomorrow, then, we will work with this process. In doing this, we will spend a great deal of time in actually contemplating, actually doing the exercise. There is not that much more to explain about it. And then get some feedback in terms of how it is working, because I must confess that you will be guinea pigs. This is the first time that I have actually taught this, so I’m interested to see how it works. And it’s my feeling that this exercise will work even if you haven’t done the sensitivity training, that it can work on its own. But in order to get a little bit of confidence so you don’t think, “Oh, this is just some crazy thing that he thought up,” I wanted to give you the Buddhist background from which it arose. And in explaining the actual method, I will also explain the Buddhist teaching that each of the steps comes from.

And let’s be very clear about it. What we are going to be working with and practicing is “Dharma Lite.” This is not “The Real Thing Dharma.” “Real Thing Dharma” is talking about improving future lives, overcoming rebirth in all future lives, and helping everybody to overcome rebirth. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about “Dharma Lite,” which is how can we adopt the Dharma teaching to help us in this lifetime. So, “Dharma Lite” can be practiced in two ways. One would be just as “Dharma Lite,” think in terms of this life, that’s it. Or, we can practice it as a Buddhist method which is a preliminary step on the way to the other steps that I just mentioned, improving future lives etc., etc. And following “Dharma Lite” in either way is perfectly okay, as long as we are clear about what we’re doing.

So, let us end here, then, with the dedication. We think that whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come form this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for enlightenment for the benefit of all.