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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 III: Dispelling Confusion about Appearances

12 Deconstructing Deceptive Appearances

The Need for Deconstruction Methods

Sometimes, we discover that we are overreacting to what we see, hear, or feel because we are mistaken about what we perceived. We thought, for example, that our friend was angry with us because he or she did not call for days. In fact, our friend had no time because of extra work at the office. A telephone call easily clears up such misunderstandings.

When we discover, on the other hand, that our overreaction is due to belief in an inflated dualistic appearance, it is not so simple. Suppose, for example, that whenever we think about our friend it feels as though we cannot live without hearing from him or her each day. We believe that this person is the key to true happiness. Even if we know intellectually that this is sheer nonsense, such strong emotions are involved that we find it difficult to dismiss the feeling when it arises.

Using the images of the balloon bursting and of the storybook shutting and dissolving helps us to reject invalid appearances. Yet, the haunting feelings still return. We need additional means to handle such situations. Let us look at three methods to deconstruct the deceptive appearances and feelings that arise out of habit. Each uses a visualization to enhance our awareness of reality.

Focusing on Life's Changes

Many people are frightened, for example, to visit the hospital wards of nursing homes, even if a relative suffers from Alzheimer's disease and lives there. Convinced that they are too sensitive to handle the visit, such persons are, in fact, rationalizing their insensitivity. Remembering impermanence and visualizing life's changes may help to deconstruct their fear. The traditional meditation to overcome infatuation by picturing someone young and attractive as withered and old suggests this method.

First in imagination and then during actual encounters, we need to take a deep and compassionate look, for example at our senile, emaciated mother. Her present appearance slumped in the wheelchair is not a distortion. She looks like this now. However, when we inflate this appearance into something dreadful, it gives the impression that she has always been like that. This is a deceptive appearance. Though our mind makes her look awful and it upsets us enormously to see her this way, we know that she did not always look like this. We can easily remember what she looked like when she was younger and healthier. We can use this ability to deconstruct her present, upsetting appearance.

The practice is to see her not as if gazing at a static portrait, but as if flipping quickly through a stack of photos spanning her life. We need to keep in mind, however, that our mother is not a photograph, but the person to whom that picture refers. When we see her present appearance as merely another snapshot in the sequence – admittedly, a sad and unfortunate last one – we stop inflating it out of proportion. Consequently, we stop cementing her into an identity based solely on the horrifying sight of her as a terminal Alzheimer's patient.

According to the Gelug presentation of the prasangika (absurd conclusion) teachings concerning self-voidness, things exist as what they are in relation to the names or labels used validly to refer to them. For instance, based on the assembled and functioning parts of a vehicle, we label something a "car." The car is the object that the label "car" refers to based on all its parts. Moreover, we do not use the label "car" to refer to this object based on its parts only at the moment they are first assembled. We validly label the object as a car from its manufacture to its demolition. The same process is true of our mother.

Spreading before us an extensive basis for using the label "mother," we understand her reality more clearly. Although she became our mother only when she conceived us, yet when we look at a photo of her taken as a child, we conventionally say that this is our mother as a child. Thus, "mother" refers to her throughout her life, not just to her as she appears now. This realization helps us to continue treating her sensitively and lovingly. Imagining additional photos of her in the future, extending to her death, enables us to respect her dignity until she dies.

Seeing our mother throughout her life's changes also helps to eliminate and prevent another form of insensitivity. We may see the decrepit figure in the wheelchair and deny that this is really our mother. Identifying her exclusively with how she was in her "better days," we want to remember her only like that. The fault is attaching the label "mother" to merely part of the valid basis for her labeling. Just as "mother" does not refer to her simply as she looks now, it also does not refer to her simply as she looked five years ago. Viewing our mother in light of a stack of photos spanning her life brings us back to our senses. It enables us to deal sensitively with the person before us. Although she may have no idea who we are, she is still our mother.

When discussing awareness of reality, we noted conventional and deeper facts concerning everything and everyone. These facts are inseparable from each other. They are not like different levels of reality, with some that we can dismiss as less real than others are. Therefore, our mother's conventional appearance as she is now and the composite of scenes spanning her life are equally valid bases for labeling her "mother." When deconstructing our mother's horrifying appearance, then, we need to take care not to ignore her as she is now. Correct deconstruction leaves both her objective appearance and the deeper fact of her life's changes. Seeing the two as equally valid is imperative for relating to her sensitively in her present condition.

Past and Future Lives

An advanced level of seeing life's changes is to view people not only in light of a series of portraits spanning this lifetime. We try to see them also in the context of past and future lives. In doing so, however, we need to be careful not to fall to one of two extremes – either giving people eternal concrete identities or depersonalizing them completely.

From the Buddhist point of view, everyone – including animals and insects – has assumed all possible forms of animate life at one time or another. Although each stream of continuity of lives is individual, none has the seemingly concrete, lasting identity of any one particular lifetime. In other words, this view does not regard a particular animal or Neanderthal man as a previous incarnation of someone with the concrete, lasting identity as our mother. It sees all three as constituent lifetimes in a particular stream of continuity of lives. It calls each stream a "mind-stream" or "mental continuum." Mind-streams, however, are not anonymous. They do not lack any identity at all. Particular mind-streams serve as the basis for labeling individual beings.

This view does not contradict the fact that conventionally this is our mother that we see in the wheelchair. Our mother does not exist as an impersonal mental continuum. She is, after all, our mother in this lifetime and, at the moment, happens to be old and decrepit. Again, we need to keep in mind both facts about her – her conventional identity as our mother now and her deeper identity as an individual taking different forms in myriad lifetimes.

This understanding enables us, for example, not to be squeamish to give our mother an injection if we are a nurse. We can relate to her not only as our mother, but also as an individual who happens to be a patient in our ward. It also enables us to treat other patients with as much compassionate sensitivity as we show our mother. We do not see them merely as people unknown to us earlier in this lifetime. Since they might have been our mother in some previous life, we can also relate to them as "mother." This realization forms the foundation for many of the Mahayana meditations on universal love and compassion.

Raising Awareness of Parts and Causes

The Gelug approach to self-voidness explains that everything is devoid of existing in fantasized, impossible ways. This does not mean that things do not exist at all. They exist in ways that are not preposterous. One such way is that everything exists as what it is depending on its parts and causes and depending on its correct names and their meaning. This mode of existence is called "dependent arising."

The view of dependent arising suggests a second way to deconstruct deceptive appearances. Often, situations or people deceptively appear to exist with a seemingly concrete identity established without depending on anything but their own nature. A person may appear, for example, as someone inherently impossible to cope with. He or she may in fact be difficult to deal with right now, but this situation has arisen from innumerable factors. When we dissect the situation into its components and visualize them in an exposed form, it becomes less daunting.

Consider the example of being kept up at night by the loud music the teenage boy is playing next door. Our mind makes the sound seem to be a solid, piercing, horrible noise that shatters both our sleep and our nerves. It also makes the teenager appear as "that rotten kid next door who should be shot." We become so angry that even after he shuts off the music we still cannot sleep. To stop this hypersensitive response and prevent recurrences, we need to dissect our experience.

The teenager is playing music loudly. Our experience of hearing its sound is the result of a vast assortment of parts and causes. This experience arose from a complex interaction between a compact disc player, a compact disc, an amplifier, and speakers. It also depended on the vibration of air between the speakers and our ears, the sympathetic vibration of our inner ear, our nervous system translating those vibrations into electrochemical messages and transmitting them to our brain, and so forth. Further, the teenager turned on the player, requiring the use of his hand, which consists of a collection of atoms – as do his sound system, our ears, and our brain. Moreover, a variety of physical, psychological, and social reasons may have combined to make him play his music loudly. He may be hard of hearing, high on drugs, or depressed. He may have friends visiting whom he wishes to impress with his fancy equipment. Past life causes and simply his youthful age may also contribute to his lack of consideration. Actually, his playing music loudly has arisen dependently upon a huge conglomeration of factors.

To dispel our hypersensitive response, we need to deconstruct the deceptive appearance of the situation as an ordeal. Dissecting the teenager, his music, and our hearing of it into their component factors accomplishes this. We imagine the event opening into a network of interwoven physical parts and psychological, social, and karmic causes. We do this by visualizing the seemingly solid event becoming like a threadbare sock with holes between its weave. We see behind it a collage of parts and causes. Although we do not deny that the teenager is a person or that the music is loud, we look at him and his playing music on a different level. After all, when we look at a blood sample under a powerful microscope, we do not deny that it is still blood, despite its unusual appearance.

The relevance, here, of applying microscopic vision is that when we depersonalize the sound of the music and the hand of its player, we also divest the noise and the teenager of being demons. This helps us to deal nonaccusingly with our lying awake. Remaining calm, we can put in earplugs and, if necessary, call the police. We may still be unable to sleep until he shuts off the music, but at least we do not become upset.

Using the Image of Waves on the Ocean

Suppose we have prepared dinner for a mutually agreed time and, an hour past it, our guest has still not arrived. We call and hear that our friend met someone a short while ago who invited him or her for a meal. They are now in a restaurant. We feel extremely hurt and become furious.

The Karma Kagyu approach to other-voidness suggests another method for calming our hypersensitive response. First, we need to examine what has happened. The original experience was that we heard our friend's voice on the telephone saying that he or she was not coming for dinner. Had we left the experience at that and accepted its contents, we would have simply eaten our meal and put his or her portion in the refrigerator. We might have felt sad that we missed having dinner with our friend, but we would not have felt personally hurt or angry. However, we did not do that. Our mind tore the experience into two alienated parts. It created an appearance or feeling of an "inconsiderate scoundrel" out of the words we heard and one of an affronted, victimized "me" out of the hearing of them. Believing in this deceptive, dualistic appearance, we became upset for hours, unable to get thoughts of the insult out of our mind.

We need to deconstruct this deceptive appearance and return to the experience of merely hearing our friend's words. Remembering that experience, we need to focus on the clear light activity that produced it. In doing so, we do not divest the experience of all emotion, feelings, or meaning. However, what happened need not disturb us. Experiences are like waves on the ocean of the mind - not in the sense of a wave breaking on the shore, but in the sense of a swell that arises in the middle of the sea. Visualizing the event of hearing these words as a wave of clear light activity, we picture that wave naturally settling without ever disturbing the depths of the ocean. This helps us to calm down.

To avoid extremes, we need to experience the wave nondualistically from the viewpoint of the entire ocean, from its depths to the surface. In so doing, we neither avoid the wave, like a submarine hiding from the enemy, nor do we let it batter us like a ship on the surface. A wave is merely a movement of water. It does not constitute the entire ocean.

Three Forms of Compassion

Chandrakirti explained three types of compassion: compassion aimed at suffering, aimed at phenomena, and "unaimed." With the first, we look at animate beings in light of their suffering and develop the wish for them to be free from both that suffering and its causes. One source of their suffering is their unawareness that they even have any problems, let alone their not knowing the causes of their problems. For example, our friend becomes upset at the slightest thing that goes wrong and sees this as normal. He or she does not understand that hypersensitivity is to blame and that something can be done to remedy this. When we see this sad situation, our compassion for our friend becomes even stronger.

Compassion aimed at phenomena looks at beings in light of their moment-to-moment changes. With it, we wish others to be free of suffering and its causes based on the understanding that these both are impermanent. We also see that others are unaware of this fact and so, when depressed, for example, they make their sufferings worse by imagining that they will last forever. Realizing this further enhances compassion for them.

Unaimed compassion looks at beings in terms of their voidness. It has the same wish as the other two forms, but based on not identifying others concretely with their suffering. Seeing that others do not have this insight and that consequently they identify themselves with their problems intensifies our compassion for them even more.

The deconstruction methods we have outlined highlight the impermanence and voidness of the persons in focus and reveal the causes of his or her suffering. Practicing them provides the insight needed for developing the three types of compassion. Therefore, after gaining familiarity with the three exercises in the next chapter for deconstructing deceptive appearances, we complete the sequence with a practice for combining compassion with them. Balanced sensitivity always requires the joint development of wisdom and compassion.

Developing Compassion for Ourselves to Avoid Overreacting to Slow Progress

Deconstructing the deceptive appearances our mind creates does not instantly prevent our mind from ever fabricating and believing in them again. Both our instincts and these appearances are compelling, and can only be weakened by our development of a total familiarity with seeing reality. Familiarity, however, grows through stages, albeit in a nonlinear fashion. It does not become full-grown all at once. When we understand this, we gain more patience and compassion for ourselves as we mature in our development.

Suppose, for example, we are possessive of our computer. Despite knowing that our partner can competently use the machine, we instinctively lack confidence. Whenever he or she uses it, we hover nearby waiting for disaster to strike. Our mind makes our partner appear as though he or she will surely break it.

When we deconstruct this appearance and our response to it, we are able to exercise self-control. We do not stand over our partner and we do not yell even if he or she does something wrong. Yet, we still get angry if something happens. With familiarity, we do not become angry, but we still feel nervous. Only after a great deal of practice do we stop feeling nervous at the thought that something could go wrong. Until we completely rid ourselves of our habits of this syndrome, however, we might still automatically yell, "Don't touch that," if our partner makes a sudden move to the computer, catching us by surprise.

We pass through similar stages when working with our response to accusations from our partner that we do not trust him or her. First, we do not yell back, although we feel angry and hurt. Then, we do not even become angry, but our energy becomes upset. Again, it requires a long time for our energy not to become disturbed when our partner yells at us. We need a longtime commitment to gain total balance.