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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 IV: Responding with Balanced Sensitivity

14 Adjusting Our Innate Mental Factors

Balanced sensitivity requires deconstructing the deceptive, dualistic appearances our mind creates and harnessing our underlying deep awareness and natural talents. We also need to work with other mental factors that structure our mental activity, but do not form part of our Buddha-nature. The abhidharma literature provides a clear picture of the relevant factors.

Ten Mental Factors That Accompany Each Moment of Experience

All abhidharma systems accept five ever-functioning mental factors. These are urges, distinguishing, attention, contacting awareness, and feeling some level of happiness. Certain systems include five more factors by defining them in their broadest sense: mindfulness, interest, concentration, discrimination, and intention. We shall follow their lead.

(1) Urges cause our mind to go in the direction of a particular experience. In some systems, this factor corresponds to karma – the factor, based on previous behavior and habits, that brings us to experience what we do in life. Other systems correlate urges with motivation.

(2) Distinguishing is the mental factor that differentiates specific objects within a sense field from their background and specific mental or emotional states from within an experience. This factor is usually translated as "recognition." Recognition, however, is a misleading term. This mental factor neither compares what it differentiates with prior experience nor ascribes a name to it.

(3) Attention directs us to a specific object within a sense field or to a specific mental or emotional state within an experience. It causes us to focus on or to consider an object in a certain way. We may pay attention to something carefully or we may pay attention to it as valuable.

(4) Contacting awareness is the awareness that establishes pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant contact with specific objects or with specific mental or emotional states. These are the objects and states that we simultaneously distinguish and pay attention to as pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.

(5) Feeling refers exclusively to feeling some level of happiness – in other words, happy, neutral, or unhappy. It is always in harmony with the tone of the contacting awareness that also accompanies the experience it characterizes.

(6) With interest, our mind does not wish to leave what it is holding. It is not the same as attachment, which inflates the good qualities of a mental object. Here, we differentiate interest from motivation. A motivation brings us only to the initial perception of an object or of a mental or emotional state. Once we perceive the object, it may hold our interest.

(7) Mindfulness is the mental activity of keeping hold of an object or of a mental or emotional state once attention focuses on it. The same term also means "to remember something" and "to be conscious of something." Here, remembering something does not refer to the mental act of storing an impression. Nor does it refer to the mental act that establishes the focus on an impression. It only implies maintaining attention on a mental object after establishing a focus.

(8) Concentration is the mental activity of remaining placed on an object or on a mental or emotional state. It is directly proportionate to our mindfulness of the object. Some texts describe mindfulness and concentration as the active and passive aspects of the same mental function.

(9) Discrimination adds certainty about what we distinguish. It also decides between alternatives. The frequent translation of this term as "wisdom" is misleading. We may be completely certain about something incorrect.

(10) Intention leads to doing something in response to what we discriminate.

To understand these ten, let us take an example from everyday life. Suppose we have a young daughter and we have put her to bed for the night. An urge causes us later to look in her room. When we do so, we distinguish a form on the bed from the shape and color of the bed itself. We then focus on the form with attention. Moreover, we pay attention to the form as the sight of our child and as a pleasant sight to behold. We contact this sight with pleasant awareness and, on that basis, experience seeing it with a feeling of happiness.

Because of interest, we do not wish to look away from the sight of our sleeping child. Therefore, mindfulness holds our attention on the sight and we remain fixed on it with concentration. Discrimination brings certainty that our daughter has thrown back her covers. We also discriminate between how they are and how they should be for her not to catch a chill. Our intention is to enter the room and tuck her in. All ten mental factors are intimately involved in the mechanism for being properly sensitive to our sleeping child.

The Spectrum These Innate Mental Factors Encompass

Each of these mental factors spans a complete spectrum.

(1) Urges arise for constructive, neutral, or destructive actions, each of which may entail either doing something or avoiding doing it. We may have an urge to look in on our child during the night or an urge to ignore her. Depending on what we see, on the routines we have established, and on our psychological makeup, we may have the urge to scold her for still having the light on, the urge to speak to her gently that it is time to go to sleep, or the urge not to say anything.

(2) We distinguish many things when we look into our daughter's room – for example, our daughter being uncovered or the toys strewn on the floor. Moreover, we distinguish in different degrees of fineness. Looking at the floor, we may distinguish just toys in general or a particular item among them.

(3) We pay varying degrees of attention to what we distinguish, from full attention to little or none. We may be very attentive of the covers, but pay little heed to the toys, although we see and distinguish them from the rug. Further, we pay attention to what we distinguish in a variety of ways, some accurate and some not. Attentive of the toys on the floor, we may consider them a permanent mess or just temporary disorder. Also, we are attentive to various objects as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We may pay attention to the sight of our sleeping daughter as something pleasant, the strewn toys as something unpleasant, and the rug as something neutral.

(4) Contacting awareness of a mental object spans the spectrum from pleasant through neutral to unpleasant and is in keeping with how we consider or pay attention to that object. We contact the sight of our sleeping daughter, which we consider pleasing, with pleasant awareness, the sight of the toys with unpleasant awareness, and the sight of the rug with neutral awareness.

(5) Our feelings toward an object also span a spectrum from happy through neutral to unhappy, and accord with the tone of our contacting awareness with it. We feel happy seeing the sight of our daughter, unhappy at the sight of the toys, and neutral when seeing the rug.

(6) Interest is from strong through weak to no interest at all. We may see our sleeping child with great interest, not wanting to look elsewhere. On the other hand, we may have no interest in continuing to look at the rug when we see it. Our eyes immediately shift to the bed.

(7) Mindfulness encompasses the entire spectrum of strength and quality of mental hold on an object, from overly tight and tense to strong and stable, through medium to weak and loose, and lastly to almost no hold at all. We may hold our attention tightly on the sight of our daughter so that our mind does not wander or become dull. On the other hand, we may hold it only loosely on the sight of the rug so that we quickly look away.

(8) Concentration is also from strong through weak to none at all. Our attention may remain fixed on our daughter and not on the rug.

(9) Discrimination is about a wide assortment of variables and spans the entire spectrum of certainty concerning what it discovers about its object. We may discriminate how the covers are arranged and that our daughter may catch a chill, although we may not be completely sure of this. We may also discriminate what needs to be done. Our discrimination may or may not be correct. Sometimes, we discriminate something completely incorrectly and are even certain of it, although it is wrong. We might swear that we see the cat sleeping on top of our daughter's covers, when in fact it is her crumbled sweater.

(10) Lastly, we have all sorts of intentions concerning what we perceive, some of which are helpful and others not. We may intend to pull the covers up snugly or to shoo away the imagined cat that is not there. Sometimes, we may intend to do nothing.

How These Factors Function During Moments of Insensitivity

To heighten our sensitivity if it is weak, we need to realize that these ten mental factors are always functioning, even when they appear not to be. Although they may be operating at the bottom end of their spectrum, none are ever missing unless we are in a deep meditation trance. To become more properly sensitive to others or to ourselves, we need merely to strengthen or to change the operating level of certain mental factors that are already present. Seeing this makes the task less daunting.

Consider the case of sitting across from a relative at the dinner table and being insensitive to the fact that he or she is upset. Let us analyze the situation to recognize the ten mental factors involved. During the meal, we look mostly at our plate, lost in thought about ourselves. Occasionally, however, the urge arises to look up. At such times, we see the sight of our relative's face with knitted brow and twisted mouth. We distinguish it from the wall behind. We pay minimal attention to it, however, so that we hardly notice the expression. In fact, we consider his or her expression to be unimportant and we find the sight of our relative's face a neutral experience. Our contacting awareness of the sight is similarly neutral and we feel neither happy nor sad.

The interest with which we see our relative's face is minimal. We are preoccupied with ourselves. Thus, we hold on to the sight of him or her with hardly any mindfulness. We are soon lost again in our own thoughts. Our concentration on seeing his or her face is extremely weak and so we quickly look back at our plate. We discriminate something about our relative – that nothing is wrong – but this is incorrect. Our intention is to ignore him or her and watch television as soon as we finish eating.

The major source of our insensitive behavior here is self-preoccupation. To overcome that, we need discrimination of voidness and compassion for our relative. Deconstruction techniques help us to develop the two. Equipped with this pair of indispensable factors, we find that our urges, attention, interest, mindfulness, concentration, further discriminations, and intentions automatically change. We naturally become a more sensitive person, both noticing and responding kindly to whatever we experience.

Exercise 16: Adjusting Our Innate Mental Factors

The first phase of this exercise entails recognizing the ten innate mental factors and realizing that we can adjust them. We need to be careful, however, not to conceive of this adjustment process as done by a boss in our head, turning the dials on a complex control panel. Any alterations that occur are the result of motivation, urge, and willpower – mental factors that also accompany our experience. Moreover, although we shall work with each of the ten factors individually, we need to remember that all ten function simultaneously and interweave inextricably with one another as an integrated network.

As an aid for this phase of the exercise, we may place a sweater or another item of clothing on the floor before us if we are practicing alone or in a small group. If the group is large, we may hang the sweater on something high enough in front of the room so that everyone has an unobstructed view of it.

(1) We begin by sitting quietly and trying to observe what we experience. An urge may arise to look at the sweater, or to the side, or to scratch our head. As a result, we may either act it out or restrain ourselves. Although most urges arise unconsciously, we can also purposely generate an urge to do something through a conscious motivation. To practice doing this, we imagine being cold. Because of our concern to get warm, we decide to look for something to put on. This causes an urge to arise to look around the room for a sweater and we now do so. We confirm that we can similarly generate an urge to look at how someone is doing when we are motivated by caring concern.

(2) Next, we examine the mental factor of distinguishing. Looking around the room in which we are sitting, we naturally distinguish many things about what we see. Without thinking to do so, we automatically distinguish, for example, a chair from the wall, the leg of the chair from its other parts, and a scratch on the leg from the rest of its surface.

We can also direct what we distinguish, including the expression on someone's face. This depends on our interest. To practice distinguishing, we look at the sweater and purposely try to distinguish the whole garment from the floor and the neck from the sleeves, with interest to know if it is V-necked.

(3) Attention is also a variable affecting our experience. We look again around the room and try to notice that certain things automatically catch our attention, while others do not. When motivated, we can also choose to pay more attention to something when we see it, for instance the expression on someone's face. We practice increasing our attention by turning to the sweater and deciding to look closely for any cat hairs on it, because we are allergic. We then try to give our full, painstaking attention to the sweater as we look at it carefully.

Another aspect of attention is how we pay attention to what we sense – how we regard or consider it. This is intimately connected with the type of awareness we have of (4) mental contact with the object and (5) the level of happiness or unhappiness we feel at that contact. For example, when we pay attention to an item as something we like, such as an attractive garment on a rack, we have pleasant awareness of contact with it and experience happiness. On the other hand, when we pay attention to an object as something we do not care for, such as a fly buzzing loudly, we experience unpleasant contacting awareness of it and are unhappy. We look again around the room and try to notice that we naturally pay attention to what we like, for instance a certain picture, quite differently than what we dislike, such as the scratch on the leg of the chair.

We can also consciously pay attention to things in a certain way, when we have a reason to do so. For instance, if we are short of money, we can choose to pay more attention than usual to the prices on the menu in a restaurant. Contacting awareness of an inexpensive but delicious item is pleasant and delights us. The opposite occurs when we see something we like but cannot afford. Similarly, we can choose to look at the expression on someone's face as something important, when we are concerned. If we see that the person is happy, we have pleasant awareness of contact with the sight, and feel happy ourselves. If we see that he or she is upset, we have unpleasant contact and are sad. Suppose, however, that we do not consider the person's mood important. Even if we notice his or her expression, our awareness of the contact is neutral. We feel neither happy nor sad.

To see the relationship between these mental factors, we try consciously looking at the sweater as our favorite item of clothing that a loved one has knitted. In doing so, we have pleasant awareness of contact with its sight and experience a feeling of happiness. We then try paying attention to it as a nuisance that leaves fuzz on our shirt. Our contacting awareness is unpleasant and seeing the sweater makes us unhappy.

(6) The next mental factor is interest, which strongly affects (7) mindfulness and (8) concentration. Certain things naturally interest us when we see them, for example a sports event on the television. When we watch it, our attention effortlessly holds on to the contents with mindfulness and remains fixed with concentration. We now look around the room and try to note that some things we see naturally interest us more than others do.

We can also affect our interest in continuing to look at or to listen to something. One way is through remembering the necessity to do so, such as when seeing the help-wanted section in the newspaper when we are out of work. Another way is to remind ourselves of the good points of something, for instance of an award-winning movie when the opening scene bores us. When we change the way in which we regard an object or person, we decide to take more interest.

We can do this with respect to increasing our interest, mindfulness, and concentration on someone's mood. When we reaffirm our caring concern for the person, we regard his or her mood as something important. Consciously deciding to take more interest in it, we naturally look at the person's expression with increased mindfulness and concentration. We practice now by trying to imagine that sweaters suddenly become the height of fashion. All our friends are wearing them. When we see the sweater, we now look at it with new interest. Our attention naturally holds on to the sight and remains fixed.

(9) The next mental factor is discrimination. We naturally discriminate between various possibilities concerning whatever we encounter. For example, when we look in the refrigerator, we discriminate and choose what we want to eat. Looking around the room once more, we try to note that we automatically discriminate between what is neatly arranged and what is haphazard. If we see certain items strewn around, we further discriminate between tidying them and leaving them alone.

When motivated, we can also consciously decide to discriminate something about an object or person. Before going to sleep, if we need to wake up early, we may decide to check the alarm clock to determine whether we have set it. We can similarly decide, when concerned, to look at someone's expression with discrimination to determine whether the person is happy or upset and whether we need to say comforting words. We practice discrimination by imagining that we want to buy a sweater and by deciding to check the one before us to see if it might fit and whether we can afford it. We then try to look at it from that point of view.

(10) Lastly, we examine the mental factor of intention. We naturally accompany our perception of things with various intentions. We discriminate that something is boiling over on the stove and, without having to think about it, we naturally intend to turn down the heat. We now look once more around the room and try to observe the intentions that automatically arise. Depending on what we discriminate and on necessity and interest, we may intend to open the window or to buy some flowers.

We can also consciously generate an intention to do something, such as to go shopping for food today when we see that the refrigerator is empty. Similarly, when we discriminate that someone is upset, we can generate an intention to be more sensitive toward the person and to give him or her emotional support. We now consciously try to generate an intention by discriminating that the sweater fits us and that we can afford it, and then by looking at it with the intention to buy it.

Focusing These Factors on Others and on Ourselves

During the second part of the first phase of this exercise, we practice adjusting the ten mental factors that accompany our perception of people. For this, we work with photos first of someone we like, then of a stranger, and lastly of someone we dislike. We go through the entire sequence of steps with each person before proceeding to the next. Since mental images are usually not very vivid, merely imagining someone is not conducive for this practice. As we shall be focusing on the person's facial expression and body language, we need to choose a candid snapshot, not a posed portrait with a fixed smile. Moreover, we need to imagine that the photo is a live scene that we are encountering now. Using a video is best.

First, we consciously generate a motivated urge to look at the person. For example, we feel concern about the one we like or we need to speak to the stranger or to the person we dislike. Then, we try to distinguish various aspects of how the person looks and what he or she is doing. For example, the person may be tired or busy. Trying to pay attention to these points as meaningful for knowing how to approach the person, we experience pleasant contacting awareness and feel happy to see him or her.

Reaffirming our concern or the necessity to relate to the person, we try to generate the interest to understand what he or she is feeling. Naturally, our mindfulness and concentration increase. With discrimination, we try to decide what mood the person is in and whether this is a good time to talk. Then, we consciously set the intention to approach or to delay the meeting accordingly. To help us maintain the sequence, our group facilitator or we ourselves may repeat the ten key phrases:

  • "motivated urge,"
  • "distinguishing,"
  • "attention,"
  • "contacting awareness,"
  • "feeling,"
  • "interest,"
  • "mindfulness,"
  • "concentration,"
  • "discrimination,"
  • "intention."

During the second phase of the exercise, we sit in a circle with a group and repeat the procedure two or three times, by using the ten key phrases and focusing each time on a different person for the entire sequence. We try to adjust our ten mental factors so that we can approach and relate to the person appropriately, with balanced sensitivity.

During the third phase, we focus on ourselves. First we look in the mirror. Normally, we use these factors to shave or to put on lipstick. Now, we try to apply them to seeing whether we look sick or haggard, for example, and, if we do, to setting an intention to do something about it, such as to take a rest. We use the ten phrases as before. We must be careful, however, not to view what we see dualistically, as if the person we look at were alien from the one who is doing the looking.

Putting down the mirror, we try next to adjust our ten mental factors so that we regard ourselves with balanced sensitivity throughout the day. We begin by trying to generate the urge to examine ourselves. We do this by reminding ourselves that if we are not in touch with our feelings, we may unconsciously cause others and ourselves problems today. Trying to distinguish our emotional state and level of happiness, we then try to pay close attention to them as important. In doing this, we try to avoid inflating our feelings into something so earth-shattering that we feel compelled to announce them narcissistically to everyone – as if others were interested or cared what we felt. We also try to avoid exaggerating them into something so overwhelming that we compulsively complain. Since we have pleasant awareness of contact with our feelings, we naturally experience happiness at bringing them to conscious awareness.

We may uncover deeply rooted loneliness, sadness, or insecurity. Nevertheless, if we consider our feelings relevant to our quality of life and as something we can change, we are happy, not frightened, to discover them. With such an attitude, we naturally take keen interest and hold our attention mindfully on our feelings with firm concentration. We try to discriminate between one feeling and another, and between detrimental and constructive ones. We then set our intention on trying to do something to improve our mood.

As a final step, we look at a photo or think of first someone we like, then a stranger, and lastly someone we dislike. We try to apply the ten mental factors to our feelings about each. We then do the same regarding the series of self-portraits from different periods in our life, using the ten key phrases.

The point of this practice with our feelings and emotions is not to become more self-conscious, but more self-aware. Self-consciousness, with which we view ourselves with either low or excessively high self-esteem, disables us from acting naturally. We make ourselves and others feel uncomfortable. With self-awareness, however, or self-understanding, we avoid compulsively saying or doing foolish things that we later regret.

Gaining a Balanced View of Others and of Ourselves

The classical Mahayana techniques for gaining equanimity suggest an additional area in which adjusting the ten factors is helpful. Sometimes, because of hatred or anger, we lose sight of someone's positive qualities. When we are infatuated with the person, we do the same regarding his or her weak points. In each case, our naivety and insensitivity cause an unhealthy relationship. Adjusting our mental factors returns us to reality and brings emotional balance.

First, we imagine or look at a photo of someone toward whom we normally have only negative feelings. Reminding ourselves of the inner turmoil our hypersensitive attitude brings and the emotional blocks in other relationships that it causes, we try to motivate ourselves to overcome these feelings. With this motivation, we generate a conscious urge to focus on the person's good points. Following this urge, we try to distinguish these points and to pay close attention to them as valid and important. If our motivation is sincere, we naturally experience pleasant contact with this knowledge and feel happy discovering it.

Delight with this experience helps us to develop the interest to resolve our problems with the person. This leads us to focus on him or her with mindfulness and concentration. We try to discriminate a more balanced way of interacting. Lastly, we set our intentions on carrying out this approach in our encounters. If the person we have chosen has passed away, we try to develop the intention to remind ourselves of his or her positive qualities whenever negative feelings arise.

We repeat the process, choosing someone who infatuates us. We try to motivate ourselves to discover and acknowledge the person's negative points so that we may stop being insensitive to our needs and behaving self-destructively. For example, we may not take care of our other affairs because we want to spend as much time with the person as possible. Contacting awareness with the person's negative aspects is naturally unpleasant and may make us temporarily feel sad. We need not worry when that happens. Sobering the relationship does not mean a loss in warmth, love, or concern. In fact, balance enhances these aspects. Adjusting the rest of our mental factors, we then try to set our intentions on relating more realistically.

As a final step, we work with the ten mental factors to balance our feelings about ourselves. To deal with present feelings, we focus directly on them, without using a mirror. To resolve our feelings about the past, we turn to the series of photos of ourselves. Looking at each of them in turn, we work with self-hatred by distinguishing our good points then. We consciously decide to bear them in mind when we feel negative toward ourselves as we were at those times. To sober conceit, we do the same with our weaker aspects.