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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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Developing Balanced Sensitivity:
Practical Buddhist Exercises
for Daily Life
(Revised Second Edition)

First edition published as Berzin, Alexander. Developing Balanced Sensitivity: Practical Buddhist Exercises for Daily Life. Ithaca, Snow Lion, 1998.

Order the first edition of this book directly from Snow Lion Publications.

Part I: Dealing Constructively with Sensitivity Issues

5 Refraining from Destructive Behavior

The Need for Ethics

Responding to others or to ourselves with balanced sensitivity entails refraining from destructive, harmful behavior and engaging in constructive, helpful acts. Restraint from destructive behavior sets the foundation. For example, if we have not established a consistent pattern of curbing ourselves from making cruel, sarcastic remarks, others will not trust us with their personal problems. This will happen even if we notice their moods and show concern. Similarly, using an artificial sweetener in our coffee is of little benefit if we continue to eat rich cakes. Therefore, we need to apply our natural ability for self-control to keeping ethical ground rules for our interactions.

Definition of Destructive Behavior

Each system of ethics, whether religious or civil, defines destructive behavior differently. Some systems have a set of laws established by heavenly authority or by legislature. Destructive behavior is to disobey the law. Others define destructive actions as those that harm others or harm oneself. Knowing what is harmful is difficult, however. The same action may be detrimental to some and helpful to others. Even when directed at the same person, it may be damaging in one situation and not in another. For instance, shouting harsh words to someone may either hurt his or her feelings or rouse the person from laziness.

Buddhist ethics emphasize the importance of motivation and frame of mind in determining whether an action is destructive. Besides causing harm and suffering, a destructive action must also be motivated by greed, anger, or naivety about its consequences. Underlying it are two further unhealthy attitudes: having no self-respect or self-dignity and not caring how one's actions reflect on one's family and background. By these criteria, yelling loudly at a waitress while dining with foreign guests in an elegant restaurant, without caring that we have lost our decorum or that our guests will think poorly about how people behave in our country, is destructive whether or not it hurts the waitress' feelings. At minimum, it is a self-damaging act, which brings us suffering. We may be upset for hours.

Ten Destructive Actions

Many physical, verbal, and mental actions are destructive. Buddhism delineates ten that are the most harmful. This is because they nearly always arise from disturbing emotions, shamelessness, and lack of embarrassment. The ten are:

(1) taking life
(2) taking what has not been given
(3) indulging in inappropriate sexual behavior
(4) lying
(5) speaking divisively
(6) using harsh language
(7) speaking idle words
(8) thinking covetous thought
(9) thinking thoughts of malice
(10) distorted, antagonistic thinking.

Irrespective of one's religious background or belief, restraint from them is pertinent for anyone wishing to develop balanced sensitivity.

The ten destructive actions suggest ten categories of inconsiderate behavior we need to avoid when striving for balanced sensitivity with respect to others and ourselves. We do not need to kill to cause physical harm. Beating or treating people roughly is also destructive, as is ignoring to help someone do a physical task when the person needs help. Taking what has not been given includes not only stealing, but also keeping a borrowed item longer than needed or not returning it at all. Inappropriate sexual behavior is not only rape or adultery, but also sexual harassment, ignoring the needs of one's partner when making love, or showing too little or too much affection. When working on sensitivity, we need to think as broadly as possible about our behavior and its consequences.

Motivation for Ethical Training

In a Buddhist context, we motivate ourselves to exercise ethical self-control by thinking about the karmic consequences of the ten destructive actions, primarily in future lives. For example, we will compulsively repeat the pattern of behavior. Moreover, we will impulsively blunder into relationships in which people act toward us in the same insensitive, cruel manner as we have been acting toward others. Not wanting the unhappiness of frustrating, unfulfilling relationships characterized by a lack of kindness or consideration motivates us to avoid its causes in our behavior now.

To motivate ourselves to behave ethically, we need not think about future lives if we do not believe in them. Consideration of this lifetime alone can accomplish the same effect. We may recall incidents in which others have acted in these destructive manners toward us and remember how hurt we felt. We may then recall occasions when we have acted similarly and imagine how others must have felt in response. Noting that our destructive patterns repeat and feeling horrified at the prospect of future unhealthy relationships, we would determine to free ourselves from these painful syndromes. To do so, we would be willing to give up our negative ways. Our determination strengthens when our primary concern is to stop hurting others.

Exercise 5: Resolving to Refrain from Destructive Behavior

During each phase of this exercise, we consider the ten destructive actions one by one. The first phase has two steps. We begin by creating a quiet and caring mental space with respect to ourselves. We may use the two key sentences:

  • "I am not going to make up or tell anystories about myself."
  • "I accept myself as I am."

Then, we try to recall specific incidents in which others have acted in these anguishing ways toward us. For example, we might have been ill and someone with us walked too quickly. We try to remember the distress we felt when we could not keep up. Alternatively, we might have stoically endured the person's lack of consideration and repressed our feelings.

Recalling an incident in which we were similarly insensitive, perhaps when walking with an elderly relative, we look at a photograph or simply think of the person. Then, we consider how he or she must have felt. Acknowledging the mistake of our insensitive behavior, we regret our actions. Regret is different from guilt. Regret is merely the wish that we had not done something. We regret, for example, that we ate a meal that disagreed with us. Guilt, on the other hand, arises from a strong identification of what we have done as "bad" and of ourselves as therefore a "bad" person. With guilt, we hold on to these fixed judgments and do not let go. It is like keeping our garbage in the house and never throwing it out. To overcome feelings of guilt, we need to realize that our previous actions are in the past. We regret that they happened, but we cannot do anything to change the fact that they occurred. We need to get on with our life and no valid reason exists for having to repeat these mistakes.

The next step is to determine to rid ourselves of this destructive habit, for the sake of both our relative and others we may encounter. We must also eliminate it for our own development. Focusing on our older relative, we give our word that we shall try our best not to repeat our inconsiderate behavior either with the person or with anyone else. We do the same even if the person in our example has already passed away. To strengthen our resolve, we reaffirm the direction in which we are trying to go in our lives. We are trying to regard and treat everyone with balanced sensitivity. To clear any residual thoughts or emotions about the incident before considering another example of our destructive behavior, we reaffirm, "I am not going to make up or tell anystories about myself," "I accept myself as I am."

We repeat the procedure with the rest of the ten destructive actions. For stealing, we may recall, for example, someone using our telephone for an expensive long distance call without asking our permission. For inappropriate sexual behavior, we may remember someone making an unwanted sexual advance on us. For lying, we may think of someone who deceived us about his or her feelings or intentions in our relationship.

For speaking divisively, we may remember a person who told us terrible things about our boyfriend or girlfriend to make us break the relationship. For using harsh language, we may recall someone who yelled at us cruelly or who insensitively said something that hurt us deeply. For speaking idle words, we may recall someone who betrayed our confidence and revealed our intimate secrets to others. We may also think of someone who frequently interrupted our work with meaningless chatter or who never let us finish what we were trying to say.

For thinking covetous thoughts, we may remember someone who became jealous when we spoke about our financial success or about how well our children were doing. When the person became lost in thought about how to accomplish what we had achieved, he or she stopped listening to us. For thinking with malice, we may recall someone who became angry at something we said and then plotted revenge. Lastly, for distorted, antagonistic thinking, we may remember someone to whom we spoke about something positive or ethically neutral. It might have been something that we were pursuing to help others or to improve ourselves, such as the study of medicine or basketball. The person responded by thinking we were stupid for being interested in such things.

At first, we may choose only a light example for each category of destructive behavior, especially if we are prone to guilt and low self-esteem. Gradually, we may choose more than one person for each destructive action. We may also recall more than one form of each act. The broader the scope of destructive behavior we consider, the more effective the exercise becomes for overcoming insensitivity to the emotional impact of our actions.

The second step of the first phase of the exercise is to focus on specific persons from our life. We begin by creating a quiet and caring mental space with respect to ourselves, as before. Then, we look at a photograph or just think about someone with whom we have or have had a close, warm relationship and create a quiet and caring mental space toward the person. We may use the key sentences: "I am not going to make up or tell anystories about you." "You are a human being and have feelings."

Surveying a broad spectrum of forms that each of the ten destructive actions may take, we check one by one if we have ever acted in these ways toward the person. If we have not acted like this toward him or her, we rejoice in that fact. If we have acted destructively, we think of the pain we caused, both to the person and to ourselves in contributing to an unhealthy relationship. We acknowledge our mistake, regret our behavior, and determine to rid ourselves of the destructive habit. Not wishing ever to hurt the person, we give our assurance that we shall try our best never to act in this way and we reaffirm the positive direction we are trying to go in our lives. We wish to enjoy a healthy relationship with the person, based on balanced sensitivity. Then, we repeat the procedure with the next destructive action. If we are prone to low guilt and low self-esteem, we may clear any residual thoughts or emotions about our behavior, either after each of the destructive actions or after a few of them, by reaffirming the quiet and caring mental space toward ourselves, as before.

Giving an assurance aloud feels more committed than merely making one silently. Therefore, to fortify our intent, we conclude by repeating after our group facilitator, or by saying out loud by ourselves, key sentences regarding common examples of each of the ten destructive actions:

  • "I shall not treat you in a rough physical manner."
  • "I shall not use anything of yours without permission."
  • "I shall not push myself sexually on you or your partner."
  • "I shall not lie to you about my feelings or intentions."
  • "I shall not try to part you from your friends by saying bad things about them."
  • "I shall not verbally abuse you."
  • "I shall not betray your confidence by revealing your private matters to others."
  • "I shall not think jealously about what you have achieved."
  • "I shall not think with malice about how to harm you if you say or do something I do not like."
  • "If you are striving to improve yourself or to help others, I shall not think you are stupid, even if what you have chosen is not my own interest."

For ease of practice, we may read these words from a text before us or from a poster displayed in our practice room.

Next, we repeat the entire procedure while focusing on a photo or on a thought of a mere acquaintance and then of someone with whom we have or have had a difficult relationship. Lastly, we focus on magazine pictures of anonymous people. During this round, however, we merely repeat aloud the key sentences as before and, after each line, look at the persons one at a time and promise not to act in this way toward him or her.

The second phase of the exercise begins with sitting in a circle if we are part of a workshop and creating a quiet and caring mental space toward ourselves and toward the members of the circle. We then follow the procedure used while focusing on the magazine photos.

During the second part of this phase, we sit facing a partner and begin once more with creating a quiet and caring mental space toward ourselves and then toward our partner. First, one of the pair and then the other repeats all ten sentences aloud at a comfortable speed, pausing for some moments after each. The speaker focuses on the sincere wish to try never to harm the other person and on the person's accepting and believing the assurance and trusting him or her. Proceeding through the ten points, the speaker feels progressively more responsible for his or her behavior in the relationship. The listener focuses on feeling secure and safe with the speaker. Since many people have difficulty feeling trust in a relationship because of deep fear of being hurt, we let the experience settle by looking downward or closing the eyes and then focusing on the breath before switching roles of speaker and listener. As a final step, for each of the ten sentences, the partners alternate: first one gives the assurance and then the other repeats the same words, with both persons focusing on the mutual generation and acceptance of responsibility, security, and trust.

We begin the third phase by looking in a mirror, creating a quiet, caring space, and checking whether we have acted toward ourselves in any of the ten destructive manners. If we have not acted in that way, we rejoice in that fact. If we have acted self-destructively, we acknowledge the problems and pain this has brought and regret the foolish mistakes we have made. We then promise ourselves that we shall make all efforts to stop repeating our self-destructive behavior and reaffirm the positive direction we are trying to go in our lives. We wish to relate to ourselves in a healthy manner, based on balanced sensitivity.

Repeating after the facilitator, or reading aloud by ourselves, we pledge, for example,

  • "I shall stop mistreating myself physically by overworking, by eating poorly, or by not getting enough sleep."
  • "I shall stop wasting my money on trivial things or being stingy and niggardly when spending on myself."
  • "I shall stop engaging in sexual acts that may endanger my health."
  • "I shall stop deceiving myself about my feelings or motivation."
  • "I shall stop speaking so obnoxiously that my friends become disgusted and leave me."
  • "I shall stop verbally abusing myself."
  • "I shall stop speaking indiscriminately about my private matters, doubts, or worries."
  • "I shall stop thinking about how to outdo myself because of being a perfectionist."
  • "I shall stop thinking in self-destructive, irrational ways that sabotage my relations with others or my position in life."
  • "I shall stop thinking I am stupid for trying to improve myself or to help others."

If necessary, we may conclude with reaffirming the quiet and caring mental space toward ourselves. We may also customize the examples in the sentences to suit our personal history.

Next, we repeat the pledges to ourselves after putting aside the mirror. Then, after creating a quiet and caring space toward ourselves now, we look at a series of photos of us spanning our life, and create a quiet and caring space toward ourselves then. We may use the key sentences: "I am not going to make up or tell any stories about myself as I was then." "I accept myself as I was then."

We proceed by considering whether we have been thinking negatively of ourselves as we were then. If we have not thought like that, we rejoice in that fact. If we have thought negatively, we acknowledge the problems and pain we have caused. Admitting that our way of thinking has been self-destructive and feeling regret, we determine to resolve our emotional issues about those times. We cannot change the past, but we can change our attitude toward it and learn from our mistakes. Thus, we reaffirm the positive direction we are trying to go in our lives. We wish to relate to our past in a healthy manner, based on balanced sensitivity

We pledge aloud to try to stop thinking negatively of ourselves during those periods, by using three key sentences:

  • "I shall stop thinking with dissatisfaction about how I was then, wishing that I had acted differently."
  • "I shall stop thinking with self-hatred about myself then."
  • " I shall stop thinking I was stupid then for what I did to try to improve my lot or to help others."

At the conclusion, if necessary, we reaffirm the quiet and caring mental space toward ourselves as we were then and as we are now.

We conclude the exercise by reaffirming the ethical foundation for our behavior toward others and toward ourselves, by repeating the key sentences:

  • "I care about myself."
  • "I care about both the short-term and long-term effects of my actions on myself."
  • "I also care about being able to respect myself for how I act, speak, and think."
  • "I do not wish ever to lose my self-dignity."
  • "I care about others."
  • "I care about both the short-term and long-term effects of my actions on others."
  • "I also care about others being able to respect my family, my friends, my gender, my race, my religion, and my country for how I behave."
  • "I do not wish ever to bring them disgrace."
  • "Therefore, I shall try not to act, speak, or think out of attachment, greed, anger, arrogance, jealousy, or naivety."

This exercise asks us to confront aspects of ourselves that many of us would rather forget. Consequently, it may make us feel uncomfortable or ashamed, especially while facing a partner. If this happens, we may try to feel the emotion pass like a swell on the ocean. We then need to reaffirm our positive qualities that we discovered in the previous exercise. With proper effort, we can use them to overcome our negative ways.