Balanced Sensitivity: Aim of the Training

Buddha taught that life is difficult. Achieving emotional balance, for example, or maintaining healthy relationships is never easy. We make these challenges even more difficult than is necessary, however, for a variety of reasons. Among them are lacking sensitivity in certain situations and overreacting in others. Although Buddha taught many methods for overcoming hardships in life, traditional Indian and Tibetan Buddhist texts do not explicitly address the topic of sensitivity. This is because the Sanskrit and Tibetan languages lack equivalent terms for insensitivity and hypersensitivity. This does not mean that people from these cultures do not suffer from these two problems: they merely do not organize the various manifestations of them under two general terms. In adapting Buddha's methods for self-improvement to the modern Western context, however, it is necessary to address these issues as formulated in a Western idiom. This book attempts to meet this challenge.

Some people object to learning from ancient sources. They feel that modern times call for new solutions. Nevertheless, the basic obstacles preventing balanced sensitivity are universal. Some modern factors may contribute to the proliferation of our lack of sensitivity, such as overexposure to violence on television and isolating the elderly in institutions. Others, such as dramatic background music in movies, highlight and glamorize overreacting. These factors, however, merely aggravate the deeper causes that have always been the case – self-preoccupation, insecurity, fear, and confusion. Furthermore, throughout history, people living through the horrors of war, famine, or natural disasters have become immune to others' suffering. In many societies, only the strong and healthy survive and are visible. Moreover, people have always overreacted to gain attention, as with toddlers showing off when relatives visit. It is cultural self-centeredness to think that we and our times are unique and that we cannot learn from the past or other societies.

My main Buddhist teacher was Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, the late Master Debate Partner and Assistant Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I had the privilege to serve for nine years as his interpreter and secretary. Whenever Serkong Rinpoche gave initiations into practices of the highest class of tantra, he explained that five types of deep awareness naturally endow our mind. He illustrated this point with everyday examples. For instance, we each have mirror-like awareness: our mind takes in all the visual information we see. Normally, however, we do not pay full attention to the details. Receiving an empowerment from a tantric master stimulates such forms of awareness to grow. As a result, we attain the five types of "Buddha-wisdom," such as the ability of a Buddha to be attentive to everything. During the years following Rinpoche's death, I reflected deeply on the significance of this point. Gradually, I realized that it suggested a profound guideline for developing balanced sensitivity.

Serkong Rinpoche displayed great flexibility in his teaching style, always adapting it to his audience. Inspired by his example, I set about developing a set of meditative exercises for recognizing and enhancing the five types of awareness as a method for improving sensitivity skills. To make these exercises more accessible to Western audiences, I borrowed several approaches used in self-development workshops. These methods include having the participants sit in a circle looking at each other and having them work with a mirror more extensively than in traditional Buddhist practice. Normally, meditators use a mirror only to help gain an understanding of voidness and illusion. I began to teach these exercises in 1991 in various Buddhist centers around the world and refined the methods based on experience and feedback.

Many people found these deep awareness practices helpful and requested me to write a book on the topic, which I eventually published in 1998 as Developing Balanced Sensitivity. I originally planned to use as its basis a transcript of one of my courses. When I found the material too short for a book, I began expanding the topic and formulating additional exercises on other aspects of the issue. As my work progressed, it soon became apparent that these exercises could be organized in a logical progression to form a complete program for developing balanced sensitivity.

This training program addresses primarily two audiences. The first consists of members of Buddhist centers of any denomination, either within or outside the Tibetan fold, who have reached a plateau in their practice and are looking for additional material to stimulate their progress. Often people reach a plateau when they are unable to apply their meditation to daily life. To meet this need, this program weaves together facets of diverse traditional practices into new exercises. They are directed not only at their customary focus – people in our imagination – but also at other members of a group and at ourselves. These exercises can thus supplement the standard meditation practices of such centers, especially when the centers lack a resident teacher.

The second audience is anyone seeking methods for overcoming sensitivity problems or even sensitivity disorders, but not persons so dysfunctional that they require professional help. People whose work requires sensitive interaction with the public, for example social workers, teachers, and medical personnel, may find the program particularly useful. With proper supervision, it may contribute to their continuing education.

Although the material for the program provides the Buddhist sources for each exercise, undertaking the training at home or in a sensitivity workshop does not require understanding or even being aware of this background. Because this text is a workbook, however, reading it requires sufficient time to pause for reflection after each point or example. This follows the Buddhist pedagogic method. A tersely worded presentation stimulates a reader to work out the implications. With sincere effort, he or she soon experiences insight and growth.

The structure of the training program derives from a traditional approach to voidness meditation: the four-point analysis. First, we need to identify the problem. Next, we need to understand the method used to dispel the problem, so that we are convinced of its validity. Based on these first two points, we can then follow that method. The procedure is given with the last two points: eliminating two extreme positions.

In traditional voidness (emptiness) meditation, the two extremes are nihilism and eternalism; here they are insensitivity and hypersensitivity. With nihilism, we ignore or deny the reality of a situation or of cause and effect. Our naivety renders us insensitive. With eternalism, on the other hand, we believe that situations or the effects of our own or of other's actions are permanent. Thus, we overreact with hypersensitivity. Balanced sensitivity is a "middle path" that avoids the two extremes.