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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 I: Dealing Constructively with Sensitivity Issues

3 Imagining Ideal Sensitivity

Developing balanced sensitivity requires a clear idea of the goal we wish to achieve so that we can focus our efforts in that direction. A Buddha is a paramount example of someone fully sensitive in the positive sense and totally free of all negative aspects. The descriptions of a Buddha's qualities, therefore, suggest the features we need to achieve.

Qualities Suggested by the Enlightening Networks

A Buddha is, literally, someone totally awake – someone who has overcome all shortcomings and realized all potentials for being of maximum help to others. The qualities of a Buddha sort into several enlightening networks (Buddha-bodies) that are fully operational with such a person at all times. An enlightening network is made of a vast array of components, not necessarily physical, which inspire and help lead others to enlightenment. Because the constituents work together as an integrated system, they do not constitute a mere collection.

Each Buddha has an all-encompassing network (dharmakaya) and a network of enlightening forms (rupakaya). The former is the network of qualities that comprise a fully wise, all-loving mind. The latter is the network of infinitely varied physical forms in which a Buddha manifests to help others.

If we wish to be fully sensitive in the positive sense, we need qualities similar to both enlightening networks. As if we possessed an active system of fully wise, all-loving awareness, we need deep concern about everything and everyone and attention to all details. Understanding each situation and person enables us to know how to help. We also need complete flexibility to respond appropriately, as suggested by a Buddha helping others through a network of enlightening forms. Moreover, we need to have all aspects functioning harmoniously together as coordinated systems, as in the case of those who are totally awake.

Forms of Sensitive Response

A network of enlightening forms includes two systems: a network of fully operational forms (sambhogakaya) and a network of emanations (nirmanakaya). The former is a network of subtle forms making full use of Buddha's teachings on altruism. The latter is a network of grosser forms emanated from the former network. The tantra literature – texts of advanced methods for self-transformation – explains a fully operational network as an integrated system of all forms of enlightening speech. An emanation network comprises an integrated system of all visible enlightening forms, no matter the level of subtlety.

Perfect sensitivity similarly requires full use of our body and communicative skills. We need sensitivity in how we speak to others and in how we act. For example, we need to refrain from saying or doing anything that would hurt others or ourselves. Moreover, sensitive physical responses need to span several levels. On a subtle level, we need to show sympathy with our facial expression and body language. On a grosser level, we need to give, for example, a comforting hug or to help with the dishes.

A network of forms is not like a collection of suits in a wardrobe. To fit an occasion, a Buddha does not choose a particular coarse or subtle form from a fixed repertoire. Instead, a Buddha spontaneously appears in whatever form helping others requires. Similarly, when we are properly sensitive to others, we do not respond with a fixed routine chosen from among a certain number we have learned. Reacting to others with a set response makes us stiff and unnatural. It causes others to feel we are insincere. We need to be flexible and respond spontaneously with heartfelt words and actions.

Qualities of Mind and Heart

An all-encompassing network also comprises two systems: a network of deep awareness (jnana-dharmakaya) and a basic network or framework of everything (svabhavakaya). The Tibetan traditions offer several explanations. The Gelug lineage and some Sakya authors assert the former to be the fully wise, all-loving mind of a Buddha, with deep awareness of everything. The latter is the "self-devoid" nature or "self-voidness" of such a mind. The self-voidness of something is its total absence of existing in a fantasized, impossible way. As the basic network or framework of everything, an absence of the impossible accounts for the existence and functioning of all a Buddha's enlightening networks.

The Kagyu and Nyingma schools and several Sakya authors explain an enlightening network of deep awareness as the "other-devoid" nature or "other-voidness" of a fully wise, all-loving mind. Other-voidness is the absence from the subtlest level of the mind of all grosser levels, such as conceptual thoughts or disturbing emotions. Other-voidness also implies the endowment of this level of mind with all enlightening qualities. These include compassion, understanding, and the ability to benefit others through restraining from inappropriate actions and through engaging in fitting deeds. According to this position, the basic network of a Buddha is the inseparability of the individual enlightening systems functioning together as a "metanetwork." The Kalachakra (cycles of time) literature offers another variation. The deep joy that characterizes fully wise, all-loving awareness constitutes the basic network or framework of everything.

Each of the all-encompassing networks suggests factors needed for developing balanced sensitivity. Proper sensitivity depends not only on love and understanding. It also relies on the fact that we, our heart, and our mind do not exist in fantasized ways. No one is the center of the universe, nor is anyone totally cut off from others or from themselves. Moreover, no one is incapable of being sensitive. This is because everyone's mind is fully endowed with all abilities, such as the capacity to love, the competence to understand, and the capability to restrain from what is inappropriate.

Furthermore, when we are properly sensitive, our mind remains free of disturbing thoughts, upsetting emotions, and unsettling attitudes. Our feelings, speech, and conduct are integrated and consistent. Free of the insecurity out of which we project fears and fantasies, our mind is also naturally joyous.


Network Encompassing Everything
Network of Deep Awareness
  • fully wise
  • all-loving
  • devoid of conceptual thoughts and disturbing emotions
Basic Network
  • devoid of impossible ways of existing
  • integrated body, speech, mind and heart


Network of Enlightening Forms
/Network of Fully Operational Forms
  • suble forms of physical expression
  • verbal communication
Network of Emanations
  • behavioral expression

Figure 3: The enlightening networks


Exercise 3: Imagining Ideal Sensitivity

The following three-part exercise takes a more intuitive approach than the previous one. It is suggested by the basic procedure of tantric visualization practice. In tantra, we imagine that we already have a Buddha's enlightening qualities. We picture acting with them toward everyone around us. Here, we shall use the qualities suggested by the characteristics of the enlightening networks. Like a rehearsal for a performance, such practice familiarizes us with the ways in which we would like to act in the future. This serves as a cause for actualizing these skills more quickly. At the end, we strengthen our resolve by adopting the structure of meditation on the four "immeasurable attitudes": love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

The first phase of the exercise focuses on a photo or on a thought of someone with whom we have or have had a positive emotional relationship. We begin by creating a quiet, caring space, as in Exercise Two. An abbreviated procedure is sufficient. With the threefold method of letting go, writing on water, and the ocean swell, we quiet the mind while focusing on the person. When we have achieved a modicum of mental silence, we think:

  • "You are a human being and have feelings."
  • "I care about you."
  • "I care about your feelings."

Next, we use the breath and the image of writing on water to try to still our mind further of preconceptions and nonverbal judgments. We then try to release our feeling of self-importance by reminding ourselves that we are not the center of the universe. The other person also exists. We honor the conventional boundaries of propriety. For example, we do not pry intrusively into his or her private affairs. Yet, we try to feel that no solid walls stand between us, preventing heartfelt communication. The nonexistence of walls does not leave us exposed, frightened, and insecure. On the contrary, with no barriers obstructing love and understanding between us, we try to relax our defenses and feel no fear.

Experiencing joy at the possibilities of our encounter, we now focus attentively on the person. Trying to look at him or her with warmth and understanding, we exercise self-control to refrain from saying or doing anything that would hurt the person or ourselves. We then express our caring concern with appropriate facial expression and body language. If we were to listen to someone's problems with a blank expression, he or she might feel we did not care. On the other hand, if we were to wear an idiotic grin on our face, the person might feel we were not taking him or her seriously. Moreover, if we sit with arms folded, the person might feel we were distant and judgmental.

Whatever the other person's situation may be, we imagine responding with kind words and thoughtful actions. If we are listening to someone on the telephone, for example, unless we occasionally say at least "uh huh," the person suspects we are not even listening. On the other hand, if we say too much, he or she might feel we just want to hear ourselves speak. Moreover, listening with a sympathetic smile in our eyes and nodding our head are often not enough. We need to take more demonstrative steps with appropriate actions. For instance, we might put our arm around someone's shoulders, if this would be of comfort, or offer to help with the person's tasks.

Lastly, we need to familiarize ourselves with these factors. Our group leader or we may repeat slowly, one by one, the following fourteen key phrases in sequence several times:

  • "no mental stories"
  • "caring concern"
  • "no judgments"
  • "no self-importance"
  • "no solid walls"
  • "no fears"
  • "joy"
  • "focus"
  • "warmth"
  • "understanding"
  • "self-control"
  • "facial expression"
  • "kind words"
  • "thoughtful actions"

With each phrase, we try to look at the person with the state of mind or feeling.

We conclude by slowly thinking the following three thoughts, one at a time, and by trying to feel their sentiment sincerely.

  • "How wonderful it would be if I could become like this."
  • "I wish I could become like this."
  • "I shall definitely try to become like this."

Then, we try to think of a shining example of balanced sensitivity – whether a Buddha, a spiritual leader, or someone from our personal life. Looking at a photo or simply picturing the person in our mind, we request inspiration. We try to imagine that warm yellow light radiates from the person and fills us with the inspiring strength to reach our goal. Imagining that the figure dissolves into our heart, we try to feel ourselves glowing with the light of inspiration.

Next, we repeat a shortened procedure twice while focusing on magazine pictures of anonymous people. Each time, we focus on a different person for the entire sequence up to and including the repetition of the key phrases. We omit the steps of the practice that followed this procedure. Lastly, we repeat the process while focusing on a photo or on a thought of a loud, overbearing relative or of an obnoxious neighbor or fellow worker.

Feeling Balanced Sensitivity Toward Someone in Person and Toward Ourselves

During the second phase of the exercise, we sit in a circle with the other members of our workshop. At each step, we try to look at each person in turn with the same fourteen states of mind, attitudes, feelings, and intentions as when practicing with a photograph or with a thought of someone. To help us keep mindful, we may use the key phrases as before. Then, we repeat the procedure while facing a partner.

We begin the third phase by looking in a mirror. Again, we repeat the sequence of fourteen attitudes, directing them now at ourselves as follows. Stilling our mind of stories and uncaring feelings, we try also to release our fixed attitudes and to shed our self-judgments. To dispel our fantasies, we note that we are not the most important person in the world or the only one with problems. Moreover, we try to see that there are no walls preventing us from relating to ourselves. Any self-alienation we feel is based on sheer fiction. Unafraid, we try to feel relief and joy at the possibility of being open and relaxed with ourselves. We then focus with warm understanding and try to exercise self-control not to overreact with low self-esteem and not to be self-destructive. At ease and at peace with ourselves, we soften the expression on our face and try to look with at least a smile in our eyes. We resolve to speak to ourselves kindly, not to put ourselves down, and to treat ourselves in a thoughtful manner.

With the fourteen key phrases, we repeat the sequence several times slowly. We then put down the mirror and go through the sequence again, but now just feeling the sentiments directly. Lastly, we repeat the exercise twice, while directing our attention at a photograph of ourselves from a different period in the past each time. Especially helpful is working with periods we would rather forget or about which we feel self-hatred. For instance, we may focus on a time when we acted foolishly in an unhealthy relationship. In place of the phrases "kind words" and "thoughtful actions," we substitute "kind thoughts of forgiveness."