The Berzin Archives

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 II: Uncovering the Talents of Our Mind and Heart

9 Accessing the Natural Talents of Our Mind and Heart

In Exercise Two, we relied on a line of reasoning to generate one of the ingredients of balanced sensitivity. In Exercise Three, we imagined our mental activity containing all the necessary qualities. In Exercise Four, we accessed a basis level of some of these qualities through memories of experiencing a certain degree of each. Now, we are ready to work with another source for the elements of balanced sensitivity.

Exercises Seven and Eight have given us the background. The former accustomed us to the general features of mental activity, while the latter familiarized us with the qualities of its clear light nature. To gain the ingredients for balanced sensitivity, we can now tap the natural talents of our mind and heart.

Clear Light Talents

According to the explanation of other-voidness, clear light mind is naturally resplendent with all enlightening qualities. These include the two main ingredients of balanced sensitivity: attentiveness and responsiveness. The fact that each moment of our mental activity engages with its object means that some level of attention is always operating. Otherwise, mental engagement would be impossible. Paying attention to something means taking it as an object of focus, whether that be through seeing it, hearing it, thinking it, feeling it, and so on. Therefore, we have the first prerequisite for balanced sensitivity: attentiveness. This basic activity is the framework on which to hang other required factors such as interest and concentration.

Further, the fact that in each moment our mental activity produces an appearance of its object - whether that object be something visible, audible, thinkable, or "feelable" – means that some level of responsiveness is part of that activity. In other words, part of the mental activity that naturally occurs in response to looking at someone's face, for example, is the production of the sight of it that we see. Since we are responding to our encounter at least in this reflex manner, we automatically have the second prerequisite for balanced sensitivity: responsiveness. We can add other essential qualities to it, such as warmth and understanding.

Natural Concern to Take Care of Someone

Other qualities that balanced sensitivity require also naturally endow our clear light mind. Noteworthy among them is concern to take care of someone. As a mental activity, it may not be functioning at its highest level now. Accompanied by selfishness and greed, our concern may be directed primarily at ourselves. Moreover, when low self-esteem also accompanies it, our concern for ourselves may not be particularly warm. Nevertheless, concern is present. Otherwise, we would do nothing to further our self-centered interests.

When we remove confusion from the basic mental activity of concern, we discover that naturally warm and caring feelings radiate to all. Selfish worry and altruistic concern are different forms of the same mental activity.

The Relation Between Concern and Appearances

From the point of view of biology, the instincts for self-preservation and survival of the species automatically lead to various activities to support life. The dzogchen system describes the same phenomenon when explaining that mind's natural concern automatically leads to the activity of producing appearances.

The appearances that arise due to concern for taking care of someone may be of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical or tactile sensations, thoughts, or emotional feelings. Specifically, these are appearances of ourselves engaging in various physical, verbal, and mental activities. Moreover, warm concern gives rise not merely to the sight, sound, or feeling of these activities, but also to the actions themselves.

These points relate to the development of balanced sensitivity. When we direct our concern primarily at ourselves and mix it with self-importance, it does not function at its highest level. When freed from selfishness, however, our concern naturally translates into the appearance of balanced and sensitive words and actions.

Natural Warmth and Joy

The Sakya system of other-voidness focuses on the "natural bliss" of the subtlest clear light mind and calls this joy the "youth of the mind." This is the bliss of that level being naturally free of conceptual thoughts and disturbing emotions. Specifically, it is the blissful joy of its being free of the work of these coarser levels. That work is to fabricate fanciful ideas and impossible roles that we feel compelled to fulfill. When our mental activity stops spinning webs of preconceptions, we experience relief and joy naturally filling our heart and mind.

Conceptual thoughts and disturbing emotions tie up our innermost energy, often manifesting in tension and nervousness. On the subtlest clear light level, this energy flows freely. When we reach this level, we regain, in a sense, the forgotten youth of our mind. The clarity, freshness, and joy that were always there naturally translate into sensitive attention and warm responsiveness.

Many Sakya adherents of self-voidness also speak of natural bliss as the source for the appearances we manifest. These masters focus, however, on the blissful joy that characterizes realization that clear light mind is naturally free of all absurd modes of existence.

This presentation of natural bliss is also relevant for gaining balanced sensitivity. Many people suffer from low self-esteem. Some even feel guilty if they are happy. Such self-deprecation blocks sensitivity to their own true qualities and prevents attentiveness to those of others. We do not exist, however, in the damning manner our confusion projects. Therefore, we have no reason to feel guilty about feeling comfortable and happy with ourselves. Happiness, in fact, is the natural state of the mind. When we comprehend this point, we automatically feel relief and joy. Feeling good about ourselves naturally leads to feeling comfortable with others, being sensitive to their situation, and being confident to help in whatever way needed.

Exercise 9: Accessing the Natural Talents of Our Mind and Heart

The first phase of this exercise begins with looking at a picture or simply thinking of someone with whom we have a close relationship. This may be a friend, a relative, or a colleague at work. Using the breathing method of letting go and the image of writing on water, we try to relax our muscular tension and quiet our mind of verbal thoughts and images.

We then try to become conscious of the preconceptions we have about the person, about our relationship, and about ourselves. We try to bring to mind any associated judgments we make, such as: "You are so lazy and inconsiderate," "You are not relating to our relationship," or "I am always right." Realizing that no one remains forever the same – the contents of experience are ever-changing – we try to drop these preconceptions and judgments. We imagine them slowly leaving us with our breath as we gently exhale. Alternatively, or in addition, we may picture them automatically dissolving like writing on water.

Next, we try to become conscious of the roles we feel that each of us must play toward the other. These may include: "You have to be the efficient secretary," or "I have to be a perfect mother to you." We also try to become aware of the expectations that we have, such as: "You must always be available for me," or "I always have to clean up after you." We then remind ourselves that living up to a fixed role is impossible. No one exists in terms of simply a role. Everyone is simply a human being. Realizing this, we try to release this person and ourselves from these projected roles and associated expectations. We do this again by trying either to breathe them out or to let them naturally dissolve like writing on water. During the process, we try to feel ever-deeper levels of physical, mental, and emotional tension releasing itself and ever-subtler levels of stress slowly lifting. We enter a state of profound and quiet relief.

Lastly, we try to notice how we naturally feel in this state that approximates one of clear light. If we have successfully brought to the surface and at least partially released our major preconceptions, we automatically feel warm, joyous, and open to the person. We are naturally attentive, concerned, and feel no hesitation or anxiety in responding with whatever words or actions seem appropriate. We try to bask for several minutes in this state. Tibetan masters call it the "resting place of the yogis."

Next, we repeat the exercise while looking at a magazine picture of a stranger or while looking at a photo or thinking of someone we hardly know. We try to bring to consciousness and then to dismiss the public image we feel compelled to maintain, especially when meeting someone new. Trying also to drop our preconceptions about foreigners or strangers, we try to rest in the naturally balanced sensitivity toward the person that this relaxing process automatically brings. Then, we follow the same procedure while focusing on someone we dislike.

We practice the second phase of the exercise first while sitting in a circle with our group. Focusing on the persons who fill our field of vision, we try to release all concepts and tension we may have toward being with people in general. Then, we repeat the procedure while facing a succession of partners. We try to release the various preconceptions, judgments, roles, and expectations that are specific to the relationship we have with each. Practicing with as broad a spectrum of people as possible is particularly important here. Best is to work with persons of each sex from three generations: our own, a younger, and then an older one. For each category, we try to practice with someone from the same and then a different social background, nationality, or race than ourselves. Moreover, within each subcategory, we try to work first with someone we know and then with a stranger. We may even practice with a dog or a cat. We need to sweep ourselves thoroughly of all fixed ideas. If we lack such diversity in our group, we may use pictures from a magazine.

During the third phase, we aim the practice at ourselves, first while looking in a mirror and then after putting the mirror aside. Trying to bring to the surface the preconceptions and expectations we have of ourselves and the roles and games we play in our life is crucial here. We need to release them all. We conclude by focusing on the series of photos of ourselves. When we let go of our judgments, we find that we are naturally more warm, open, and sensitive toward ourselves as we were in the past, as we are right now, and as we shall be in the future.