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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

13 Four Exercises for Deconstructing Deceptive Appearances

Exercise 12: Visualizing Life's Changes

The first exercise for deconstructing deceptive appearances helps us to dissolve faulty impressions we might have of situations or persons as permanent. We need to deconstruct our feelings that people's appearance, mode of behavior, or our response to them is fixed. We begin by looking at a photograph or by simply thinking of someone with whom we have a close daily relationship, for example a relative. We notice how the person appears to exist permanently as one age, either the present one or an outdated one, and how we treat the person insensitively because of this. For example, our parents may seem always to have been old and our children may seem always to be kids.

To deconstruct this deceptive appearance, we try to visualize portraits of our relative spanning each year of life from birth to death, projecting what he or she will look like in the future. Picturing these images in a vertical stack, like a deck of playing cards, we imagine those from infancy to the present standing on one side of the person. Those extending to old age and death stand on the other. Flipping through the stack, we try to see the present image as just one in a series.

Despite the truth of our deconstructed vision, we need to keep sight of our relative's present stage in life in order to relate meaningfully. Therefore, we try to alternate focusing on the person through two "lenses." Through the first, we see only his or her accurate current appearance. Through the other, we view his or her changing image spanning a lifetime. After switching back and forth between our restricted and expanded perspectives, we try to perceive the two simultaneously, like seeing Venetian blinds and the view of a busy street behind them. We may do this by looking at the photo while projecting life's changes onto it or by visualizing the two images superimposed. Lastly, we let the feeling sink in that our relative's appearance as concretely one age does not represent his or her lasting identity. When advanced in this practice, we may repeat the procedure, extending the visualization to include images of hypothetical past and future lives, or at least a feeling for their existence.

The same method can help us to deconstruct the deceptive feeling of someone having a permanent, singular identity based on an upsetting incident. For example, when a relative yells at us in anger, we often regard the person for days exclusively in this light. We lose sight of our other interactions with the person. Here, however, we work only with our conception of our relative. We may use a photo as a reference point to help us return to the exercise if our mind wanders. However, a photograph often locks us into the scene in which it was taken and is not conducive for representing how we regard the person now.

First, we focus on our conception of our relative based on the incident and note how fixed it feels. Our conception may take the form of a mental image or a vaguer impression of the person yelling in anger, or it may take the form of a pejorative term for the person. In each case, we usually accompany our fixed conception with a strong emotion. Then, we recall other encounters in which the person acted differently. Often, he or she was affectionate, humorous, astute, and so on. Representing these scenes also with mental images or vague impressions, we imagine them and a variety of possible future scenes, in which the person may act differently, like stacked slides on either side of our fixed conception. We then follow the rest of the procedure as before.

In the end, we let the realization sink in that our relative's seemingly fixed appearance as an upsetting person is a limited and deceptive view. From the perspective of an entire life, any difficult emotional scene wanes in importance. Even if upsetting behavior is a recurrent pattern in the person's life, other modes of behavior also comprise it. Nevertheless, we need to deal appropriately with what has happened now.

To deconstruct our seemingly set feelings toward the relative who upset us, we may follow the same approach, by using a mental image or a vaguer impression of the person as a focal point for representing each feeling. As before, we may use a photo as a point of reference. When our feelings seem fixed, they may cause us to forget other emotions we have felt toward the person over our history together. They may also obscure the fact that we may feel differently in the future. We need to see what we presently feel in a larger context. Yet, at the same time, we need to respect what we feel and not repress it. When we deconstruct annoyance, for example, it no longer seems like our only feeling toward someone. Still, we need to deal with it until even its residual traces are gone.

We practice the second phase of the exercise while sitting in a circle of men and women from as wide a variety of ages and backgrounds as possible. Looking at each in turn and following the procedure as before, we first deconstruct their deceptive appearance as people who have always been and will always be their current age or weight. Then, to deconstruct their appearance as having a seemingly permanent, singular identity, we look away and work with our impression of each. To help maintain our point of reference, we may occasionally look back at the person. Practicing while facing a partner is not conducive for deconstruction. The force of looking in each other's eyes is too compelling.

For persons we do not know, we try to work with the superficial impression we gain by merely looking at them. Either a positive or a negative one will do. Having a positive impression of someone, for example as a pleasant person having no problems, can render us as insensitive to his or her reality as having a negative one. When such a person tells us about some difficulties in his or her life, we often trivialize them or do not take them seriously. They do not fit in with our image of the person. If we learn of hidden dark sides of his or her behavior, especially if we believed the person to be spiritually advanced, we may overreact and lose all faith.

During this part of the exercise, we picture each person in the circle within a cluster of images of other known or hypothetical aspects of his or her personality and behavior. Traditional Buddhist meditations for gaining equanimity similarly enable us to see everyone potentially as a friend or an enemy. When properly practiced, such training does not lead to a loss of trust in everyone. It brings, instead, a realistic attitude and emotional balance. We conclude this phase of the exercise by similarly deconstructing any seemingly permanent feelings toward each person, including indifference, also while looking away and only glancing back for reference.

The third phase of the exercise follows the same procedure. We skip, however, working with the mirror for the same reason as not practicing while facing a partner. First, we focus on our current self-image. To deconstruct its deceptive appearance as our permanent, singular identity, we try to see it in the context of other aspects of our personality and behavior, both in the past and hypothetically in the future. Then, we repeat the procedure to deconstruct any seemingly fixed emotions we might feel toward ourselves as we are now.

Next, to deconstruct our identification with our present physical appearance or with how we looked at one stage in our life, we follow the same procedure by working with a series of past and present photos of ourselves. We add to them projected images of how we might look in the future. Lastly, using the photos merely as a reference, we deconstruct any fixed conceptions and feelings we might have of ourselves at particularly difficult periods in our life. Since we base such conceptions and feelings on selective memories, we need to view ourselves then in the perspective of a wider range of recollections.

Exercise 13: Dissecting Experiences into Parts and Causes

The first phase begins with thinking of someone we know very well who recently upset us, for example the relative from the previous exercise who yelled at us in anger. We mentally picture the person acting like this. If we wish to use a photo of the person as a point of reference to help us visualize, we make sure to choose one with a neutral expression. Thinking of our yelling relative, we notice how concretely he or she seems to be an upsetting person. Our relative seems to have a solid identity as an upsetting person that is an inherent feature to his or her very being and which has come about independently of anything.

To deconstruct this deceptive appearance, we need to change our focus. We try to see the person and the incident as dependently arisen phenomena. When we are sensitive to the factors that contributed to the existence of our relative and the incident, we find the person and his or her behavior understandable. Consequently, they seem less threatening and less upsetting. This enables us to deal with our relative and our feelings with more balance.

First, we try to imagine the seemingly concrete image of our relative dissolving into a collection of atoms. After alternating between picturing his or her body as a whole and picturing it as a collection of atoms, we try to perceive the two simultaneously as in the previous exercise. After all, our relative is not merely a mass of atoms. He or she is also a person.

Next, we dissect our relative's upsetting behavior to appreciate the causal factors that led to what happened. We consider previous actions and experiences since early childhood, relevant persons with whom our relative has interacted, and social, economic, and historical factors that played a role. For example, our relative's parents or classmates might have treated him or her in a certain way and this occurred during wartime. Our analysis need not be exhaustive and our knowledge of these factors need not be specific. A few examples and a feeling or appreciation for the rest will suffice.

Once we have made a brief analysis, we try to imagine the seemingly concrete image of our angry relative becoming threadbare like an old sock and then dissolving into a collage of these causal factors. Our conception of these factors may take the form of a mental picture of a few of them with a vague impression of the rest, or it may be merely a feeling for the existence of these factors. Again, we try to alternate and then combine picturing our relative yelling, simply as an accurate representation of what occurred, and picturing a collage of causal factors that led to this, or merely feeling the existence of these factors.

The next lens for further deconstructing our seemingly concrete impression provides a view of past generations. Following the same procedure, we now consider that our relative's parents treated him or her the way they did because they, in turn, were affected by their own parents, family, and acquaintances, their historical period, and so forth. The same is true for everyone else with whom our relative has interacted throughout his or her life and for everyone in each generation. Spending too much effort analyzing the details, however, is distracting. We limit our analysis to what we know about our relative's genealogy and try simply to have a feeling for the rest. The important point is to have an appreciation for how the person's behavior also arose dependently on these factors.

When advanced, we add a further deconstruction. We also consider the past lives of our relative and of everyone involved in the current and previous generations. We also try to take into account the karmic factors that have affected each of these people.

To begin integrating our appreciation of the many factors that have interdependently given rise to our relative's upsetting behavior, we repeat several times the sequence of views. We do this by focusing on our relative while alternating the key phrase "simply what the person did" with each of the phrases:

  • "atoms,"
  • "past causes,"
  • "past generations," and
  • "past lives."

Lastly, we try to see the person with an increasingly larger number of views simultaneously, by alternating "simply what the person did" with two, then three, and lastly all four phrases. For initial practice, we may use merely a feeling for each of the four factors when trying to be aware of them simultaneously as an interdependent network. Alternatively, we may use a mental image of one example to represent each.

Defusing an upsetting incident or our memories of it requires working not only with the upsetting image of the other person involved, but also with the deceptive appearance of us and of our upsetting feeling. We need to apply the same method to deconstruct our identification with our emotion and our resulting feeling of being someone who, by inherent nature, becomes upset when others yell at us. When we are sensitive to the myriad factors that have interdependently given rise to our becoming upset, our emotion feels less solid. Because we consequently do not hold on to the emotion or to our identification with it, our feeling of upset quickly passes.

First, we try to feel our sense of seeming solidity dissolving into the lightness of atoms. Looking next at our upbringing, our previous behavior, and our encounters with others, we try to focus on the various causes that led to our experiencing the upsetting incident and to our disturbing emotional response to it. Although analyzing possible causes makes this vision more meaningful, we need not spend much time on details. We can work on that separately. During the exercise, we try to recall scenes representing merely a few causal factors and then work primarily with a feeling for a network of causes.

Next, we try to add the contributing factors from previous generations and, lastly, the karmic factors from previous lives. Alternating each vision with an acknowledgment and feeling of ourselves as a person who became upset when our relative yelled – as an objective description of what happened – is important. It helps us not to lose sight of the conventional existence of our emotion and ourselves. At the end, we try to combine the visions by using the five key phrases as before.

During the second phase of the exercise, we try to apply the same dissecting vision to the members of a group, while sitting in a circle. We look at each person briefly, then look away and work with our impression of the person, glancing back only for reference. Here, we try to deconstruct the deceptive appearance of each as having a seemingly inherent, concrete identity independently of anything. For strangers or persons we hardly know, we try to work, as before, with the superficial impression we gain by merely looking at them. Even if we have no idea of their past or family, we try to work with an abstract feeling for them. After all, everyone has a past and a family. With people we know, we can fill in more detail. We then repeat the procedure to deconstruct our deceptive feeling of being someone who, by inherent nature, experiences a certain emotional response toward each type of person, including indifference.

During the third phase, we turn our attention back to ourselves. Skipping the practice of looking in a mirror, we repeat the procedure as above. First, we use it to deconstruct the deceptive appearance of our current self-image as our seemingly inherent, concrete identity, independent of anything. Then, we apply it to deconstruct the deceptive feeling of being someone who, by inherent nature, feels a certain way about him or herself as we are now.

Next, we place before us the series of photos of ourselves. Using them merely as a point of reference, we repeat the procedure to deconstruct the deceptive appearance of the self-images we hold about our past as constituting our inherent identity then. Lastly, we similarly deconstruct the deceptive feeling of being someone who, by inherent nature, feels a certain way about him or herself as we were in the past.

Exercise 14: Seeing Experiences as Waves on the Ocean

The first phase of this exercise begins with thinking about someone close to us who recently upset us with his or her words. Let us continue with the example of the relative who yelled at us in anger. Suppose our response was to feel, "How dare you say that to me." Even if we did not respond like that, we imagine feeling this now. We note the impression we have of ourselves standing concretely on one side as the victim or judge and of our relative standing concretely on the other as the offender.

Analyzing, we try to see that during the first moment of our experience we merely heard the sound of our relative's words. Subsequently, we projected the dualistic appearance of victim and oppressor onto the contents of the experience. Believing in the truth of this appearance, we might have overreacted with disturbing emotions. Alternatively, we might have suppressed our feelings and said nothing.

To deconstruct this dualistic appearance, we recall our bare experience of the arising and hearing of a sound and try to imagine it like a wave on the ocean of our clear light activity. Without mentally picturing the wave as an object that we see below or before us in the middle of the ocean, we try to experience merely a mental feeling of a wave coming from our heart. As the experience evolved, the wave swelled, filling first with a dualistic feeling and then with a disturbing emotion.

Broadening our perspective, we try to experience a nondualistic feeling of the entire ocean from the floor to the surface. This means neither identifying concretely with the ocean nor imagining ourselves as a concrete entity separate from it, either in or out of the water. We try to feel simply like a vast and deep ocean, with waves on the surface. We recall that no matter how huge and terrifying a wave may seem to be, it is only water. It can never disturb the depths of the sea.

Without feeling like a concrete entity being battered by the wave, we now try to feel the wave naturally subsiding. As it gets smaller, the disturbing emotion and then the dualistic feeling quiet down. We return to the bare experience of merely hearing the words. In the end, this movement of mind also stills. We feel like the placid, yet vibrant sea.

In doing this, we do not deny the occurrence of the event, our original experience of it, or our experience now of remembering it. We do not become like a submarine and try to escape the storm by submerging into our clear light mind. We try to stop, however, tearing any of these experiences into two opposing forces and inflating them with seemingly concrete, lasting identities. No longer upset, we can better handle the situation by responding calmly and sensitively now.

Suppose that in our emotional turmoil we spoke cruelly in return. Regretting what we said, we might have felt guilty afterwards. In feeling guilty, our mind produces a dualistic appearance of a seemingly concrete idiotic "me" and the seemingly concrete stupid words we said. This occurs from tearing in half our clear light activity of producing words and perceiving their sound. We try to deconstruct this dualistic experience of guilt, by using the same means as before.

Next, we apply the method to hearing pleasant words from our relative. Dualistic experiences are not limited to unsavory events. When we hear someone say, "I love you," for example, we may similarly tear the experience in half. On one side stands a seemingly concrete "me," who perhaps we feel does not deserve to be loved. On the other, stand the seemingly concrete words as something unsettling that the person could not possibly mean. Alternatively, we may feel ourselves concretely the beloved and the other concretely the one who loves us. Consequently, we project unrealistic hopes and expectations onto the person and become lost in fantasy. This inevitably leads to disappointment. We deconstruct the event and our recollection of it by trying to imagine them also as waves on the ocean of mind.

Sometimes, a strong feeling or emotion may arise unexpectedly, either related or not to the situation or to the people around us. This frequently occurs, for instance, after suffering a loss or when passing through puberty, menstruation, a pregnancy, or menopause. Applying the image of a wave on the ocean may help overcome any dualistic feeling of alienation or turmoil that might accompany such experiences. The wave of emotion may be large or small and may last for either a long or short time, depending on the energies involved. Nevertheless, the wave is no more than a swell on the ocean of the clear light mind.

As a final step in the first phase of the exercise, then, we recall experiencing an unsettling emotion that suddenly arose. If our recollection causes us to feel something now, we apply the wave method as above. It is important to remember that we are not trying to wipe out all emotions. Feeling grief at the loss of a loved one, for example, is a healthy component of the natural healing process. Turmoil, however, is never helpful. If we are unable to feel something now, we may apply the method to any anxiety or emptiness we may experience dualistically at feeling nothing.

Dispelling Nervous Self-Consciousness with Others

We practice the next phase of the exercise first while sitting in a circle with a group and then while facing a partner. During it, we work with our experience of seeing someone dualistically, with a seemingly concrete "me" over here and a seemingly concrete "you" over there. Disturbing emotions such as hostility or longing desire may or may not accompany our experience. A sure sign of a dualistic feeling, however, is nervous self-consciousness. We may be worried, particularly with strangers, that the person might not like us. Hypersensitive, we may even be worried about how our hair looks. Further, we may be uncertain of ourselves and of how we should act or of what we should say. Emotional blocks and fear may even cause us to experience the other person as an inanimate object without any feelings. Consequently, we respond insensitively. In an unexpected encounter, for example, we may be overwhelmed with thoughts of how to escape.

To deconstruct dualistic feelings of nervous self-consciousness at looking around the circle or at a partner, we apply the wave analogy as before. Our unsettling experience is due to the feeling of a confrontation between what seem like concretely nervous and concretely unnerving beings facing each other from opposite sides of a fence. To calm ourselves, we try to regard our experience of discomfort as a wave of mental activity. As it settles down, the experience of merely seeing the sight of the person remains. We try to experience this process of settling from the perspective of the entire ocean, from the depths to the surface.

While experiencing an encounter nonjudgmentally and unself-consciously, we still relate to the other person. Nondual does not mean that you are me or I am you. In the previous deconstruction exercises, we tried to keep in mind both the conventional and deeper appearances of someone by using the image of simultaneously seeing Venetian blinds and the view out the window. We were working, however, primarily with feelings rather than images. Here, we also try to keep two things in mind. While viewing the conventional appearance that this is a person before us, we simultaneously try to feel that there are no solid barriers between us. Our deconstruction removes nervous self-consciousness. It does not eliminate positive feelings.

Becoming More Relaxed With Ourselves

During the final phase of the exercise, we focus on ourselves, first while looking in a mirror and then after putting it aside. Now, we try to deconstruct any feelings of discomfort we might have with ourselves. Such feelings arise from the dualistic impression of what seems like two "me"s: a "me" who is not comfortable with "myself." Self-consciousness, judgments, and general nervousness usually accompany the disturbing feeling. We may intellectually dismiss two "me"s as preposterous, but to become more relaxed with ourselves, we need to deconstruct what we feel.

To deconstruct our nervousness, we try to view our deceptive feeling as a wave on the sea and let it settle. Remaining beneath is the calm oceanic experience of focusing on ourselves with warm understanding. In other words, we discover that nervous self-consciousness is merely a confused distortion of self-concern and self-awareness. Ridding ourselves of self-worry does not eliminate warm feelings for our welfare. It allows them to function without obstruction.

Lastly, we focus on the past photos of ourselves and observe any unsettling judgmental feelings that this elicits. Discomfort with ourselves as we were then also arises from a dualistic appearance. We try to deconstruct this feeling by focusing once more on the ocean from the floor to the surface. Realizing that our deceptive experience is just made of water, we do not get caught in it. We try to let it naturally subside like a wave. This allows us to make peace with those times.

Exercise 15: Combining Compassion with Deconstruction

We begin the first phase of this exercise by thinking of someone who recently upset us, for instance the relative used in the last three exercises. First, we picture our relative acting upsettingly. Then, we try to imagine his or her changing physical appearance, from infancy to old age, as in Exercise Twelve. We make sure to include past and future lives, at least in the form of a feeling for their existence. Following this with trying to imagine a collage of our relative acting in a variety of other ways, we return to the image of him or her acting upsettingly.

We think how sad it is that our relative does not understand impermanence. Our relative believes in the deceptive appearance his or her mind creates of every situation as permanent. Consequently, he or she suffers greatly by imagining that difficult situations will last forever. Keeping impermanence in mind and focusing on our mental picture or now on a photograph of our relative, we try to generate compassion. We sincerely wish for him or her to be free from suffering and from this cause of suffering. The more rid we are of fixed impressions of our relative, the more deeply felt our compassion becomes.

Putting down the photo, if using one, we focus once more merely on the mental picture of our relative acting upsettingly. As in Exercise Thirteen, we try to view the person sequentially in terms of atoms, causes for his or her behavior from this lifetime, from past generations, and from past lives, and then his or her appearance now, acting upsettingly. Then we supplement these vistas with a feeling for the explosion of repercussions that his or her behavior will have on the future. We try to view these in three progressive levels: the consequences on the rest of our relative's present life, the repercussions for future generations, and the impact on his or her future lives and on the future lives of everyone involved. After focusing on these levels one at a time, representing each with a collage of images or with a feeling for its existence, we return to his or her present appearance.

Our relative is unaware of the dependently arising nature of his or her behavior and has no idea of the future consequences it will have. Realizing this, we try to generate compassion. Again, we direct our feeling toward our relative through either our mental image or a photograph.

Lastly, putting down the photo, we recall the bare experience of the arising and hearing of the sound of our relative's upsetting words. We try to imagine that experience like an ocean wave of our clear light activity. As the wave of experience swelled, it filled first with the dualistic feeling of a seemingly concrete "me" as the victim and a seemingly concrete "you" as the oppressor, and then with a feeling of emotional upset. Imagining now the wave subsiding, we try to picture first the disturbing emotion, then the feeling of dualism, and finally the arising and hearing of the sound settling back into the ocean of our mind.

Returning to our mental picture of our relative acting upsettingly, we reflect on how he or she does not see this. Our relative still is caught in a recurring syndrome of projecting and believing in dualistic appearances. Consequently, he or she suffers greatly and will continue to experience anguish. Trying to generate compassion that our relative be free of this suffering and this cause of suffering, we direct this feeling at him or her while focusing on our mental picture or a photograph.

During the second phase of the exercise, we repeat the procedure while sitting in a circle with a group and focusing on each person in turn for each of the three deconstruction sequences. If we have never encountered the person acting upsettingly, we may work with an imagined scene of him or her behaving that way. We look at each person only briefly to gain a point of reference, look away while imagining the collage of his or her life's changes and so forth, and then look back while directing compassion. Although the other members in our group are also doing the same exercise, we pretend that they are not.

We focus the third phase on ourselves, first with a mirror and then without one, by following the same procedure used while sitting in a circle, but recalling an incident in which we acted destructively. Lastly, we repeat the practice while working with the series of past photographs of ourselves. When generating compassion, we wish that we could have had these insights then.