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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 II: Uncovering the Talents of Our Mind and Heart

10 Applying the Five Types of Deep Awareness

Basic Description of the Five Types of Awareness

An additional asset of subtlest clear light mind is that five types of deep awareness naturally endow it as part of our innate network of deep awareness. These five are a topic discussed primarily in the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga. The Nyingma and Kagyu traditions correlate them with Buddha-nature and provide the most detail. As crucial ingredients for balanced sensitivity, the five comprise what we have so far been calling "understanding." They are

  1. mirror-like awareness,
  2. awareness of equalities,
  3. awareness of individualities,
  4. accomplishing awareness,
  5. awareness of reality (dharmadhatu).

Like mind, the five are mental activities directed at an object. More specifically, each is a manner of engaging with an object. Thus, more fully, the five are

  1. perceiving the details of an object in the way that a mirror does,
  2. perceiving how the object is equal to others in various regards,
  3. perceiving the object as something individual and unique,
  4. perceiving how to accomplish some purpose concerning the object,
  5. perceiving the object's reality.

Like other natural talents of our clear light mind, the five types of awareness have basis, pathway, and resultant levels. To develop balanced sensitivity, we need to recognize within our experience their basis level and then cultivate pathway levels to achieve at least an approximation of their resultant state.

Mirror-like Awareness

Everyone has a basis level of mirror-like awareness. This is because everyone's sensory or mental consciousness takes in all the details of the object at which it aims. The word "mirror" in this technical term does not imply that this type of awareness is limited to the visual sphere. Mirror-like awareness also functions with our senses of hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling physical sensations, as well as with our "mental sense" of feeling emotions.

The term "mirror" also does not imply that our sensory or mental consciousness reflects information. It merely takes in information, like a video camera or a microphone. Thus, whenever we focus on a particular item in a sensory or mental field, we not only perceive that item, we also take in all its details. When we look at people's faces, for example, we also see their eyes and nose. Moreover, this mental activity does not require verbalization. We see all these features without needing to say, either aloud or silently, "eyes" or "nose."

Although we take in all the information of our sensory and mental fields, our mirror-like awareness does not currently produce the fullest results that it can. This is because the supportive mental factors accompanying it, such as attention and concern, also do not currently work at their optimal level. This, in turn, is due to little interest or weak concentration. Our attention, for example, may be divided because of self-absorbed thoughts or emotion. Further, our interest and concern may be merely curious or academic. The frequent result of these deficiencies is that we are insensitive to what we see, hear, or feel. We neither respond to it nor even remember what we have perceived.

To benefit others and ourselves more fully, we need to notice, with loving interest and caring concern, all the information that our senses and mind naturally take in with mirror-like awareness. Noticing means to understand the presence of a particular feature or detail of something. It is a mental factor – or mental activity – that may accompany seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or physically or emotionally feeling that feature.

Seeing people and noticing the presence of various aspects is an important component of balanced sensitivity and leads to further understanding. For example, we can tell a lot about people when we notice their facial expression, the lines on their face, how they hold their body, how calm or fidgety they are, and whether or not they look at us during a conversation. We can also learn a lot about them by noticing how healthy or unhealthy they look, how fresh or tired they seem, how clean or dirty they are, how they dress, how they keep their hair, and how much makeup and jewelry they wear. Whenever we look at people, we see all these details. We need merely to pay attention and notice them.

Similarly, when we listen to people speaking, we can tell much about them not only by hearing the words that they say, but also by noticing the emotional tone in their voice and the volume, speed, and clarity of expression. The person's grammar, style, and accent also reveal information. Moreover, we can learn much about ourselves by trying to notice the complex emotions and feelings that comprise our moods.

On a pathway level, we can work with our mirror-like awareness to derive the most benefit from it. We do this through extending the scope of this awareness and through enhancing our interest and concentration. Consequently, we notice increasingly more information about whatever we see, hear, or feel. On the resultant level, a Buddha notices, with all-loving concern, every detail of information that his or her mirror-like awareness naturally takes in. We aim for this ideal.

Awareness of Equalities

When we perceive something, we not only take in information, we naturally organize that information into patterns so that we can process, comprehend, and respond to it. Organizing information into patterns is the function of awareness of equalities, or equalizing awareness. We all have this awareness on its basis level. For example, when we look at people, our mirror-like awareness takes in the shape of their body. When we are aware of this physical feature, we compare it with previous knowledge and understand that this shape is similar to others we have seen. Consequently, we see people with the understanding that they fall in the common category of being thin or fat. We do not need to verbalize this fact to see people with this understanding.

Equalizing awareness functions similarly whether we focus on one person or on several people at a time and whether we look at, listen to, or think about them. However, when more than one person is involved, we are also aware that they are equal to each other in sharing some feature. We may also be aware of them and ourselves as equal in some regard. Furthermore, awareness of equalities may concern obvious physical facts, such as weight, or less obvious ones like being on a diet.

Awareness of equalities does not operate at peak level when its scope is limited. Its scope varies according to how much detail we notice and how many facts we know about someone or something. It also depends on the range of persons or objects we consider as sharing these features. For example, suppose we are standing in line at a checkout counter behind several people. When we look at them, we see that each of them is equally waiting his or her turn, just as we are. If, however, we do not note that each of us probably also has other things to do, we might think that we are the only one in a hurry. Thus, we become impatient and annoyed. Awareness of equalities allows us to see what we have in common with others so that we can relate more sensitively.

Other facts about people are more basic than their being in a hurry, and they apply to everyone. Ordinarily, we do not see everyone as equal regarding his or her wish to be happy and not to suffer. Nor do most of us see everyone as equal in having the same right to be happy and not to suffer. Consequently, we do not regard everyone with equal concern, attention, love, or respect. A Buddha sees everyone as equal in that everyone shares the same wishes and rights, everyone has the same potentials for growth, and everyone exists in the same manner. If we wish to achieve perfectly balanced sensitivity, we need deep awareness of all beings, including ourselves, as equal in these profound and extensive ways.

We also need to direct our awareness of equalities to seeing patterns in our own and others' destructive behavior. If we cannot recognize the patterns of disturbing attitudes that fuel our recurring emotional turmoil, we cannot begin to respond sensitively with appropriate steps to becoming more balanced.

Awareness of Individualities

When we perceive people or objects, we not only are naturally aware of how they are equal to others in certain regards, we are also aware of their individuality. For example, we can see a class of undisciplined teenagers as all being rowdy. Simultaneously, however, we can also see each person in the class as an individual: John, Mary, or Fred. We do not need to verbalize or even know their names to see them as individuals.

Awareness of individualities, or individualizing awareness, is essential for balanced sensitivity. Standing in a crowded subway, for example, we often lose sight of this awareness and become insensitive to others. People, however, do not exist as just another face in the crowd or as just another member of an ethnic minority whom we need to fear. Everyone on the subway is an individual. Each has a family, a private life, a business life, and a personal history. Seeing each with this understanding allows us to respect them all as individuals. This, in turn, allows a more balanced and sensitive response to each. As a Buddha, we would see all people in this way, everywhere and always.

When we are aware of the patterns in others' and our own neurotic behavior, we need also to see the individuality of each manifestation. Otherwise, we may respond with a stock reply that does not fit the particular occasion. Though two events may share a pattern, they are never identical. Different situations call for distinct responses.

Accomplishing Awareness

The fourth type of awareness is of what to do to accomplish something and of how to do it. We all have a basis level of this awareness. When we are hungry and see food on our plate, for example, we automatically know what to do and how to do it. We do not need to verbalize this knowledge to accomplish our goal.

With this type of awareness, we also know how to relate to various persons and situations. When we take care of a baby, for instance, we know how to act and speak. We also know how to comport ourselves when with adults. Not relating identically to babies and to adults, we are naturally flexible. We respond differently according to what is appropriate.

Now, however, this awareness is not working at its highest level. We may sometimes treat our grownup child as if he or she were twelve years old. At other times, we may be at a loss how to connect with someone at all. As a Buddha, we would know how to relate perfectly to everyone.

Accomplishing awareness becomes more proficient the more we enhance the scope of the previous three types of awareness. For example, when we meet a friend and notice, with mirror-like awareness, that he or she has a troubled expression, we would see the pattern of emotional upset with awareness of equalities. With individualizing awareness, we would respect this as an event in its own right and take it seriously. We would not regard it as yet another scene. Based on this and on loving concern, we would respond fittingly with accomplishing awareness, for instance by comforting and calming the person.

Awareness of Reality

Every phenomenon has two facts, or natures, that constitute its reality. These are usually called the "two truths." They are the conventional fact of what a phenomenon is and the deepest fact of how it exists. On a basis level, awareness of the reality of something or someone is awareness of what or of who it is. For example, when we see our little boy acting disruptively, mirror-like awareness and awareness of equalities provide information and patterns. These allow for the fifth awareness, namely that he is a boy, that he is a child, and that he is being naughty. Depending on how much information we notice, we may also be aware of his reality as someone who is overtired. Despite his horrible behavior, he wants love, not scolding, just as we do. Our awareness of his individuality and of how to accomplish something meaningful may allow us to relate fittingly and put our son to bed. However, to be of continuing help we need also to be aware of the deepest sphere of his reality.

As we learn more about reality, we see that the lad does not have a fixed identity as a naughty child. The situation is open. He may act differently tomorrow and, after all, he will not always be a child and need supervision. Such awareness allows flexibility to relate to the boy creatively as he grows up, without the constrictions of preconceptions or outdated modes of response. If we aim for balanced sensitivity, we need to expand the scope of our awareness of reality. As a Buddha, we would know every fact about the boy, on all levels, and remain conscious of each of them, simultaneously and at all times.

The Five Types of Deep Awareness as an Integrated Network

Anuttarayoga tantra explains that the five types of fully functional deep awareness form a network that comprises each moment of a Buddha's experience. This suggests that balanced sensitivity also requires the five functioning together harmoniously as an integrated network. A network is a nonlinear system: each component operates simultaneously, connecting with and supporting each other. The exact manner in which such a system operates, however, is difficult to fathom. Therefore, to appreciate the necessity for all its parts and the way in which they supplement each other, let us simplify the system into a linear model. When training to enhance our innate five types of awareness, we shall likewise work first with one form at a time and then try to fuse them into a network.

Consider the example of working to overcome a depression. When we are depressed, we need to take in, like a mirror for emotions, all the details of what we feel. Using awareness of equalities, we would compare this information with what we have previously experienced to see the pattern. With awareness of reality, we would identify the pattern and know that we are upset about something.

Not discounting the scene as yet another time that we are upset and depressed, we would respect its uniqueness with individualizing awareness. To identify the unique features would again entail awareness of reality. This would allow us to respond appropriately. With accomplishing awareness, we would regard our mood as something with which we wish to relate and deal. Our energy would rise to the occasion and we would rely once more on awareness of reality to identify specifically what to do. Lastly, with awareness of deepest reality, we would know that although we may be depressed now, this is not our inherent, lasting identity. Understanding this, we are nonjudgmental in trying to change our mood.

Exercise 10: Applying the Five Types of Deep Awareness

As it is difficult to direct mirror-like awareness at thoughts of someone, we practice the first phase of this exercise only while looking at photographs. We begin by focusing on a family photo or on a picture of a group of our friends. As in the previous exercises, we try to quiet our mind of mental stories, preconceptions, and nonverbal judgments. Being in a subtler, quieter state, we may automatically feel a certain amount of warm concern. We need to enhance that feeling. It forms the context for applying the five types of awareness. Best is to repeat, in an abbreviated form, the second part of Exercise Two and to try to generate caring concern through the line of reasoning:

  • "Each of you is a human being and has feelings, just as I do."
  • "The mood you are in will affect our interaction, just as mine will affect it."
  • "How I treat you and what I say will further affect your feelings, just as how you treat me and what you say will further affect mine."
  • "Therefore, just as I hope that you care about me and about my feelings in our interaction, I care about you and about your feelings."

Once we sincerely feel caring concern for these people, we try to focus on each with mirror-like awareness. Like a video camera, we try to take in all the information that we see, without commenting or making up stories in our mind. Following this, we try to look at several of them together, in different combinations, with equalizing awareness. Specifically, with joint equalizing and reality awareness, we try to see them all as equally wanting to be happy and never to suffer. Based on this caring regard, we try to feel equal love, compassion, and concern for them all. Next, we try to look at each with awareness of his or her individuality. We try to accompany this with respect for each as an individual, without voicing even his or her name.

Then, we try to focus with accomplishing awareness. Specifically, with joint accomplishing and reality awareness, we try to look with the understanding of how to relate to each. For example, we may imagine being at a dinner table with the entire group. We would have no difficulty turning from one to the next and knowing how to talk to each according to his or her age, interests, and personality. Next, we try to apply awareness of deepest reality. We try to see each not only as our sister, parent, child, or friend, but also as open to being many things. Although the person may now be a child with certain interests, he or she will grow and change over the years ahead. We try to see the child as open to all possibilities.

Lastly, we try to familiarize ourselves with these states of mind and types of awareness, by using the seven key phrases:

  • "no stories,"
  • "caring concern,"
  • "camera,"
  • "equal,"
  • "individual,"
  • "relate,"
  • "open."

First, we work with one state of mind or one type of awareness at a time, as we repeat the sequence several times. Then, we try to combine an increasingly larger number of these states, by using first two phrases, then three and so on, until we can establish an integrated network of all seven mental states.

Next, we place beside the photo of our loved ones a magazine picture of a stranger and repeat the exercise. Although we do not know the stranger personally, yet based on our mirror-like awareness of his or her appearance, we have some idea of how to relate with joint accomplishing and reality awareness. In any case, we know how to relate to strangers in general. As a final step for this first phase, we place next to these two photos a picture of someone we dislike and again repeat the procedure.

During the second phase of the exercise, we sit with our group in a circle. At each step, we try to look at each person in turn with a quiet mind, caring concern, and one of the five types of awareness, by using the seven key phrases as before. Here, repeating the key phrase also for the initial generation of each type of awareness, and occasionally alternating it with "no stories" and "caring concern," is especially helpful. In group practice, looking at each person first with caring concern helps to prevent being the object of someone's mirror-like awareness from feeling like being the object of a voyeur's stare.

For equalizing awareness, we look at two or three persons at once and merely see them with equal regard. We leave it at that, without supplementing this awareness with awareness of reality. In other words, we need not identify the ways in which the persons are equal, nor think about the ways in which they differ. Similarly, for individualizing awareness, we simply regard each person as an individual, without identifying the factors that define his or her individuality. Further, for accomplishing awareness, we merely extend our energy to each person with the deep wish to relate. We are willing to go more than halfway to meet the person. Here, we do not need to identify the way in which we can best connect. With awareness of reality, we focus not only on the fact that each person is open to change, but also on our own flexibility and openness to him or her.

When we try to combine the seven states of mind, we no longer look around the circle. Instead, we focus on a particular set of two or three people for the entire round. When we repeat this step for integration, we may choose another set of persons.

We begin the third phase by sitting with several people before a large mirror. Seeing our image in a group and realizing that we are equal to the others can be a powerful and valuable experience. We go through the steps of the exercise as in the second phase.

Next, we sit alone without a mirror. After trying to generate mental silence and a warm, gentle feeling of caring concern toward ourselves, we direct mirror-like awareness at the feelings and emotions we are currently experiencing. We try to become aware of the complex factors that comprise the moment, but without mentally commenting. This part of the exercise is more effective when practiced at the start of a new session when the feelings of the day still color our mood. We need to include as part of what we notice any judgmental feelings we might currently have toward ourselves. We also need to include feeling nothing, if that is our present state.

With equalizing awareness, we see our present feelings as equal to any others we have experienced – they are only a feeling, no more and no less. This allows us to face them with equanimity free from fear. Coupling equalizing awareness with awareness of reality, we try to see and identify the patterns in our feelings and emotions. Nevertheless, with individualizing awareness, we acknowledge the uniqueness of what we are experiencing now. With accomplishing awareness coupled with awareness of reality, we try to see how to relate to what we are feeling. Perhaps we need to be kinder to ourselves, or perhaps we need to be more firm and lift ourselves out of depression. Lastly, with awareness of deepest reality, we try not to identify solidly with our mood of the moment. We see that our moods and ourselves are open to change. We use the seven key phrases to assimilate and form an integrated network out of these states of mind and kinds of awareness.

Next, we arrange before us the series of photographs of ourselves spanning our life. First, we direct mirror-like awareness at the feelings and emotions that each elicits. Then, we repeat the procedure we used for focusing on our mood of the moment, working through the other four types of awareness. We conclude by trying to direct equalizing awareness to regard ourselves with equal warmth throughout our life.

The Karma Kagyu approach to the five types of awareness in its specific and deep awareness (namshey yeshey) system suggests a final step focused on ourselves. We may practice it while sitting quietly without any props. First, with mirror-like awareness, we open to the entire scope of our personality, in the sense that we quiet down and mirror its foundation – our clear light mind. As the clear light mind is free of conceptual thoughts, we maintain deepest reality awareness by facing our character without making judgments or stories. As we bring our personality into focus, we apply equalizing awareness to have equal regard for all its aspects. In this way, we maintain equanimity.

Next, with individualizing awareness, we focus on a specific aspect of our character. With accomplishing awareness, we extend our energy to deal with it. Lastly, with joint accomplishing and reality awareness, we see how to relate to this aspect and how to bring it into daily life in a practical way. Recognizing its assets and its shortcomings, we try to identify methods to enhance the former and to eliminate or at least to minimize the latter. We may repeat this part of the exercise by directing our attention toward other facets of our personality.