Developing Balanced Sensitivity:
Practical Buddhist Exercises
for Daily Life
(Revised Second Edition)
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Part V: Advanced Training
19 Dispelling Discomfort at the Eight Transitory Things in Life
The lam-rim (graded stages) literature speaks of eight transitory things in life. These "eight worldly dharmas" are praise or criticism, good or bad news, gains or losses, and things going well or poorly. We may be either the recipient or the agent of each of the eight. In either case, we usually overreact and lose our balance. We become excited, depressed, or uncomfortable at receiving or giving any of them. In things going well or poorly, we feel similarly unbalanced when we are the recipient or agent of these passing occurrences.
A traditional way to overcome hypersensitivity to receiving or giving these ephemeral things is to see the relativity of what we experience. For example, although some may praise us, others will always find fault, and vice versa. Thus, we may deconstruct a scene of receiving criticism by recalling the thousands who have praised or blamed us throughout our life and who will do so in the future. When we need to criticize someone, we may similarly recall the myriad times we have had to praise others or to offer them constructive criticism. We will undoubtedly have to do the same in the future. Such thoughts and the equanimity they grant us put our experiences into perspective and help us not to overreact. We still feel appropriately happy or sad when we receive or need to give any of these things, but we do not become emotionally overwhelmed or upset by the event.
When we receive these transitory things in life, we may also consider what makes a person's present words seem to reflect his or her true feelings toward us. When someone yells at us, for example, why do we immediately lose sight of all the pleasant things he or she has said before? When the person calms down and again speaks lovingly, why do we sometimes deny the significance of the previous upsetting scene? Why, on the other hand, do we sometimes cling to the memory of the wound as having more reality, no matter how much the person reassures us? Praise, blame, and so forth are perishable entities. None of them lasts.
Another method for maintaining balance in face of gains, losses, and so forth is to deconstruct the dualistic appearances our mind projects onto receiving or giving them. For example, when we receive a thank- you or lose someone's friendship, our mind creates the feeling of a seemingly concrete "me" and a seemingly concrete gain or loss. Believing that this deceptive appearance corresponds to reality and feeling insecure, we take this experience as an affirmation or as a denial of our worth as a person. Not only do we overreact to the present experience by becoming elated or depressed, we grasp for more gains and fear more losses in the elusive quest to make this imaginary concrete "me" more secure.
Overreacting to the eight transitory things derives from grasping at or feeling uncomfortable with mind's natural qualities. Receiving or giving praise, criticism, or good or bad news entails receiving or giving verbal expression, sensory experience, and energy. Being the recipient or agent of gains or losses involves the same qualities, physical activity, and sometimes warm concern. Being the recipient or agent of things going well or poorly requires receiving or giving joy or its absence.
To stop overreacting to these things in life, we need to deconstruct our experiences of them. Receiving or giving something pleasant, for example, does not prove that an imaginary concrete "me" is so wonderful. Nor does it threaten the independence of such a "me." Likewise, receiving or giving something unpleasant does not prove that this seemingly concrete "me" is a terrible person. Nor does it establish a seemingly concrete "me" or "you" as deserving pain.
Because our confusion makes us feel that if something is verbalized it is real, our mental comments and worries reinforce such dualistic feelings. Therefore, we can begin to dispel our belief in these myths by not verbalizing or commenting before, during, or after receiving or giving these things.
Correct deconstruction enables us to relax when receiving or giving the eight transitory things in life. Without denying that they are directed at us – not at thin air or at someone else – we do not take them personally. Without denying that we, not anyone else, are aiming them at others, we do not give them self-consciously. We experience these events as waves of our clear light mind's natural activities, such as receiving or giving verbal expression.
Moreover, correct deconstruction does not rob these events of the happy or sad feelings that naturally accompany them. It simply divests the events of any power to upset us. Consequently, we avoid hypersensitive responses and prevent insensitive behavior. By accepting the reality of the situation at hand, we can deal with it sensibly. For example, we can calmly evaluate the praise or the criticism and learn something from it.
During the first phase of this exercise, we work with each of the eight transitory things in life, one at a time, considering first receiving it and then giving it to someone. We begin by recalling a situation in which we overreacted to one of the eight. Whether our pattern is to grasp at the transitory thing or to feel uncomfortable with it, we regret any pain that our loss of balance might have caused the person or us. We resolve to try to prevent this from happening again and then deconstruct our disturbing syndrome.
Tantra practice sometimes employs forceful imagery to shock us out of habitually neurotic emotional patterns. In the previous exercise, we accustomed ourselves to a gentle form of deconstruction with the imagery of the projector, wind, and so forth. Now, let us try a stronger image to dispel the dualistic appearance and our belief in it that made us overreact. We shall use the image of the balloon of our fantasy popping, introduced in Exercise Eleven.
A concrete "me" sitting in our head and a gain or a loss so absolute that it establishes the worth or the worthlessness of such a "me" are preposterous fictions. They do not refer to anything real. When we picture our realization of this fact popping the balloon of our fantasy, we try to experience the burst shocking us out of our daydream. We try to feel our confusion and our attachment or aversion disappearing in an instant, leaving no trace. The popping of our fantasy leaves us only with the wave of experience that served as its basis.
Trying to feel this wave from the oceanic perspective of clear light activity, we next try to imagine receiving or giving each of the eight transitory things in life without tension or internal commentary. Without denying either the experience of this wave or the feeling of happiness or sadness that it naturally brings, we let it settle and pass.
We then recall feeling tense at someone overreacting when he or she received from us or gave to us the same transitory thing. Understanding the confusion behind the person's hypersensitivity, we deconstruct our dualistic response by imagining it abruptly popping like a balloon. Then, compassionately accepting, for example, the person's anger or depression at receiving our constructive criticism, we try to imagine responding nonjudgmentally with balanced sensitivity. We neither ignore the person's emotions, nor become upset and feel guilty. Instead, we imagine feeling sad at the event and letting the person know what we feel. Although we are calm, if we show no emotion the person may only become more upset.
For initial practice in a workshop or at home, we may work with merely receiving each of the eight transitory things and choose only personally relevant examples. For advanced or thorough practice, we may work with all the cited examples for both receiving and giving each.
(1) We recall either gloating or feeling unworthy when receiving praise from someone. For instance, our supervisor might have told us that we are a good worker who is kind to the rest of the employees. Dismissing our feeling of seemingly concrete words proving a seemingly concrete "me" to be a saint or a hypocrite, we try to imagine listening to them without tension or internal comment. They are merely waves of verbal expression and sensory experience, no more and no less. We naturally feel happy if they are true or feel sad if they are false, but we do not make a monumental event out of receiving the praise. Out of modesty, we may politely deny the recognition, but we do not make a disturbing scene of protest.
We then recall feeling annoyed or awkward at someone who boasted or protested too loudly when we commended him or her for good work. Understanding the confusion behind the person's overreaction, we deconstruct our dualistic response to it and try to imagine listening patiently. We feel sad at his or her lack of maturity and balance. However, without saying anything aloud or to ourselves, we imagine letting the experience of hearing this pass. Next time, we will consider more carefully the value of praising the person to his or her face.
(2) We repeat the procedure remembering when we praised someone, such as for a job well done. We might have felt condescendingly gracious, compromising, or uncomfortable when saying the words. These feelings arose from believing in a concrete "me" who could prove its existence by bestowing concrete words of praise or who felt its superiority threatened by their utterance. All that happened, however, was the arising of verbal expression from our clear light mind. Remaining mindful of this fact, we try to experience the arising of our words nondualistically and let them pass. We then recall and deconstruct feeling suspicious or embarrassed at someone who was uneasy while praising us.
(3) Next, we work with feeling anger, mortification, or low self-esteem when receiving criticism or blame, such as for working poorly. Suppose we successfully deconstruct the experience so that we do not overreact to hearing these words. We may still be hypersensitive to the person's negative energy. To avoid upset, we need to let that energy pass through us without aversion or fear, as we learned in Exercise Twenty. When we relax and see the person's energy as a wave of clear light activity, it cannot harm us. Then, we recall and deconstruct feeling guilty or cold with someone who overreacted when we constructively criticized him or her.
(4) Lastly, we deconstruct feeling self-righteous, nervous, or upset at offering someone constructive criticism, for example concerning his or her performance at work. We need to let go of the feeling of a seemingly concrete "me" standing on a pedestal asserting its existence through uttering seemingly concrete words, or quivering in fear of reprisal and loss of security because of these words. Again, we try to experience offering criticism as a wave of clear light activity. Similarly, we recall and then deconstruct being annoyed or disappointed at someone who felt too timid or too polite to point out our mistakes when we asked for a critical evaluation of our work.
(1) Following the same procedure, we recall receiving good news, such as that we passed our exam. We might have responded by becoming so overexcited and falsely self-confident that we did not study hard enough for the next test and failed. Alternatively, we might have felt that it was just a lucky accident. Superstitious, we became too nervous to do well the next time. Relaxing our dualistic view, we try to imagine hearing the news as a wave of sensory experience. We feel happy that we passed and then continue studying hard for future exams. We also recall and then deconstruct condescendingly feeling that someone was acting like a child when the person became overexcited at our conveying good news.
(2) Next, we remember giving someone good news, for instance that he or she passed the exam. Possible overreactions include self-importantly taking credit for the person's happiness or becoming more excited than the person did so that he or she felt uncomfortable. Alternatively, we might have jealously felt that the person did not deserve to pass. Quieting down the feelings of dualism behind these responses, we try to imagine conveying good news as a wave of clear light verbal activity. We naturally feel happy at the news, but do not inflate our role. Then, we recall and deconstruct feeling embarrassed or disgusted at someone's seemingly inappropriate show of emotion when the person became more excited than we did when conveying good news.
(3) Next, we recall receiving bad news, such as that we failed the exam. We might have felt sorry for ourselves, protested that the test was unfair, or become angry with the person who conveyed the news. On the other hand, we might have felt that this proves us a failure and that we deserve punishment. We might even think to punish ourselves. We dismiss these dualistic impressions as absurd and try to imagine hearing the news with sober equanimity. Accepting the facts, we resolve to study harder.
We then recall feeling emotionally stiff or awkward when someone cried at receiving bad news from us. Deconstructing the dualistic response we had, we try to imagine responding instead with quiet sadness and sympathy.
(4) Lastly, we remember giving someone bad news, such as that he or she failed the exam. Possible overreactions include having felt guilty or having gloated self-righteously that the person deserved it. Sometimes, we are so afraid of hurting the other person that we do not convey bad news at all. Quieting our dualistic feelings, we try to imagine breaking the news without tension. Then, we recall and deconstruct feeling uncomfortable or impatient when someone felt awkward or reticent when giving us bad news.
(1) Continuing as above, we recall gaining something, such as a gift of money from someone. On the one hand, we might have become overexcited or we might have felt that this proved how wonderful we were. Alternatively, we might have felt undeserving or robbed of our independence and now obligated to the person. We deconstruct either response and try to imagine receiving the money with appreciation, happiness, and grace.
We then recall feeling rejected or frustrated when someone felt uneasy at our offer to help with some money. Deconstructing the dualistic response that we had, we do not insist. Honoring the person's need for self-dignity, we imagine trying to find anonymous ways of helping.
(2) We follow the same procedure remembering giving someone financial help, for instance our elderly parent living on an inadequate pension. We might have felt, because of prior guilt, that our gift made us a more worthwhile person and proved us a good son or a good daughter. On the other hand, we might have felt deprived and uncomfortable at parting with the money. Deconstructing each of these feelings, we try to imagine offering the money unself-consciously, with warmth and respect.
Then, we recall and deconstruct feeling outraged when someone had expectations of us or made unreasonable demands because of our accepting a gift. We try to imagine politely refusing or returning the present without making a fuss.
(3) Next, we recall losing something, such as someone's friendship. Taking this as a personal rejection, we might have overreacted by feeling devastated, by feeling indignant that we do not deserve this loss, or by convincing ourselves that this proves that we are no good. Deconstructing the dualistic feelings behind our response, we try to imagine experiencing the loss as a wave of clear light activity. Life goes on. Feeling sad at not only our own, but also at our friend's loss, we send the person thoughts of compassion and wishes for happiness.
We then recall feeling guilty or cold when someone became depressed or angry when we ended an unhealthy relationship. Deconstructing the dualistic response we had, we try to imagine experiencing the person's upset as a wave of clear light energy and words. Respecting the person's feelings, we also try to increase our compassion.
(4) Lastly, we remember depriving someone of something, such as when needing to say no. We may have felt afraid beforehand to hurt the person and uncomfortable while speaking. Alternatively, we might have delighted in our action and felt that the person deserved it. Having to say no is never easy or pleasant but, deconstructing the experience, we try to imagine saying it nondualistically.
Then, we recall feeling stupid or annoyed for even asking for a favor when someone felt terrible at having to refuse it, for example when he or she was unable to help. Deconstructing the dualistic response we had, we try to imagine warmly reassuring the person that we understand. We will find someone else or manage on our own.
As a supplement to the issue of being the recipient or agent of gains or losses, we may work with three levels of increasingly stronger hypersensitivity to giving something to someone. We may overreact to giving something on our own initiative, to giving it because someone expects us to give it, or to giving it upon demand. Here, we work specifically with saying thank you and with apologizing to someone. Since thank-yous and apologies seem to require giving something of "ourselves," rather than merely a possession such as money, we are often particularly hypersensitive to expectations and demands for them.
We start with the issue of saying thank you. First, we recall simply thanking someone. If our appreciation was insincere, we may have felt patronizing. On the other hand, we may have thought that thanking someone placed us in a subordinate, vulnerable position and now we felt obligated to return the favor. Deconstructing the experience, we try to imagine thanking someone without these dualistic feelings. Saying thank you, after all, is just verbal expression. Even if we do not appreciate someone else's actions or what he or she did was unhelpful, still the person may appreciate a thanks. We need to be sensitive, however, to the person's ethnic background. In some cultures, thanking someone for showing courtesy or kindness is an insult. A thank-you implies that we did not expect this from him or her.
We need to remember these points when trying next to dispel our overreaction when someone expects a thank-you from us. Belief in a seemingly concrete "me" undoubtedly lies behind feeling indignant, insulted, or guilty. The same is true with our overreaction of feeling condescending, resentful, or demeaned when thanking someone because of an expectation that we do so. If thanking someone will just inflate his or her pride, or the person was merely being helpful to gain our praise or to make us indebted, then not saying thank you may be more helpful. Even in such cases, however, we need to deconstruct any dualistic feelings of moral superiority.
Lastly, we consider possible overreactions when someone demands a thank-you from us. We may self-righteously refuse, feeling outrage, or we may feel guilty for not having thanked the person earlier. Being hypersensitive, we may then feel arrogant, scornful, or defeated if we choose to thank the person upon demand. Deconstructing these disturbing emotions and attitudes, we try to imagine saying thank you graciously and sincerely, apologizing for not having previously said it.
We repeat the procedure with apologizing to someone. First, we recall apologizing on our own initiative. If we viewed our experience dualistically, we may have felt condescending or embarrassed. Deconstructing the dualistic feeling behind these responses, we imagine apologizing simply as a wave of verbal expression, accompanied by sincere regret and consideration for the person's feelings.
Then, we try to dispel feeling incensed, indignant, or guilty when someone expects an apology, and subsequently feeling unrepentantly smug, resentful, or humiliated when apologizing. Such overreactions come from confusion. Lastly, we recall someone demanding an apology. We may have refused, feeling self-righteous and outraged, or we may have felt extremely guilty. If we give in to the demand, we may apologize feeling arrogant, scornful, or defeated. These overreactions bring us only aggravation and pain. We need to deconstruct them. Even if someone expects or demands an apology from us, the experience of being the recipient or fulfiller of expectations and demands is still just a wave of clear light activity.
Suppose we were not at fault and someone's demand for an apology is unjustified. The traditional training in cleansing our attitudes recommends giving the victory to others. If we say we are sorry, even if we were not at fault, the dispute and hard feelings are finished. If, however, we do this with a dualistic feeling, we again feel defeated or resentful. Apologizing nondualistically allows us to maintain our balance. Moreover, if we acknowledge that undoubtedly both of us were at fault and then apologize for our part in the problem, we leave the door open for the person to acknowledge his or her part too. This helps to prevent the person from taking advantage of our forgiving nature.
(1) We next recall being on the receiving end of things going well, for example in a relationship with someone. The person was acting lovingly and all was going smoothly. We consider overreactions we might have had of being elated or perhaps smugly feeling that this proved how wonderful we were. On the other hand, we might have worried that it was too good to be true and therefore clutched to the relationship in fear of losing it. We might even have convinced ourselves that the person would soon discover our true self as a terrible person and would then abandon us. In addition, we might have felt that we would inevitably ruin the relationship by our usual stupid behavior. Deconstructing such dualistic feelings, we try to imagine simply enjoying our happiness with the relationship, without making something monumental of it.
We then recall feeling impatient or annoyed when someone felt insecure in a good relationship with us. Deconstructing the dualistic response that we had, we try to imagine extending our understanding and compassion. We do not make the person feel even more nervous by scolding him or her for acting like an idiot.
(2) We then remember being the agent of things going well in a relationship. We had been trying our best to be a loving friend or partner and our efforts had succeeded. Recalling any feelings of being the self-sacrificing martyr or worries that we would inevitably slip and show our true nature, we deconstruct these tensions. We try to imagine continuing to act kindly, without being self-conscious, and regarding this as a wave of physical activity, warm concern, and positive energy. Then, we recall and deconstruct feeling exasperated when someone felt low self-esteem, though he or she was acting perfectly well in a relationship with us.
(3) We follow the same procedure recalling being the recipient of things going poorly in a relationship. Possible overreactions include feeling sorry for ourselves that nothing ever works out or feeling relieved that the person found out the truth and was treating us the way we deserve. We deconstruct these feelings and try to imagine accepting the situation and seeing what we can do to salvage the relationship.
We then recall feeling disappointed or irritated when someone constantly complained at things going badly in a relationship with us, but did nothing constructive to try to improve the situation. Deconstructing the dualistic response that we had, we try to be patient.
(4) Lastly, we remember being the agent of things going poorly in a relationship. We had been acting inconsiderately and were picking fights with the person. Now, we deconstruct any dualistic feelings we might have had of hopelessness, depression, guilt, or self-satisfaction. Trying no longer to imagine ourselves as a terrible person or as the self-righteous avenger, we nevertheless accept responsibility for our behavior. It arose as a wave of clear light activity, but it need not continue. Without being tossed by this wave, we resolve to change our ways. Then, we recall and deconstruct feeling callous or unforgiving when someone felt awful at having hurt us in a relationship.
The second phase of the exercise entails giving and receiving from a partner the eight transitory things in life. Without feeling tense, self-consciousness, silly, elated, glorified, depressed, or hurt, we try to experience each action nondualistically as a wave of clear light activity. If any of these disturbing emotions arise, we may follow the previous procedure to deconstruct the dualistic appearances behind them – imagining the balloon of our fantasy popping, and so forth. We need to take care, however, to avoid "over-deconstructing" the experience and consequently divesting it of all feeling. Therefore, when we spontaneously feel happy or sad, we try to relax with these feelings and to resist inflating them. We also need care to avoid depersonalizing these experiences. Otherwise, we may become insensitive to the person.
First, we praise our partner by remarking, for instance, that his or her hair looks pretty. We try to do this without being patronizing or flirtatious. Then, we receive a similar compliment, trying to resist any feelings of being sexually harassed. Next, trying to avoid being intrusive or cruel, we offer constructive criticism by suggesting, for example, that our partner needs to go on a diet. We try to offer this advice gently, without being afraid to hurt the person's feelings and without feeling insecure that he or she will reject us for what we said. We then receive a similar suggestion and deconstruct feeling insulted or hurt.
Next, without the exaggerated enthusiasm used when speaking to a two-year-old, we tell our partner good news, such as tomorrow will be a day off from work. We then receive similar good news trying to avoid becoming overexcited with anticipation. Without being afraid to upset the person, we then convey the bad news that we lost the book that he or she loaned us. We receive the same news and try to accept it without becoming annoyed or depressed.
Turning next to gains and losses, we try to avoid feeling any dualistic tension in the face of either of them. First, we experience giving and receiving money from each other and then taking it away and having it taken away from us. Then, we thank the person on our own initiative, demand a thank-you in return, and receive that thanks. Correspondingly, we receive a thank-you from the person's own initiative and a demand for a thanks in return, and then we fulfill that demand. Next, we apologize to the person on our own initiative, demand an apology in return, and receive that apology. We end this sequence by receiving an apology from the person's own initiative and a demand for an apology in return, and then we fulfill that demand. We try to do all this without disturbing emotions or attitudes.
Next, without gloating, we acknowledge to ourselves and feel happy at our efforts to improve the relationship and that it seems to be working. Then, trying to resist feeling solely responsible for the success, we admit to ourselves and feel happy that he or she has been working hard too. We repeat the process, acknowledging with sadness, but trying to avoid feeling guilty, that the relationship has degenerated because we have been acting poorly. It might also have not developed because we have made no efforts. Lastly, we think how the relationship has sunk or not evolved because the person has been behaving terribly or has ignored our show of friendship. We try to do this nonaccusingly, yet feeling sad.
During the third phase of the exercise, we skip practicing with a mirror and begin by sitting quietly without any props. We direct the eight transitory things to ourselves and try to experience them without feeling the presence of two "me"s: one the agent and the other the recipient. We may use the previous deconstruction procedure if needed. Through this process, we divest the experiences of any tension or feelings of self-consciousness.
First, we encourage our positive efforts by praising ourselves. We try to do this without feeling self-patronizing, uneasy, or undeserving. Then, we criticize ourselves for mistakes we are making, trying to avoid being accusatory or feeling low self-esteem or guilt.
Next, we tell ourselves good news, such as that there is only one day left until the weekend. We try to do this without feeling like a parent holding out hopes for a reward to a child or like a child being goaded to behave nicely. Then, we tell ourselves bad news, such as we have to go back to work tomorrow. We try to avoid feeling like either a taskmaster or a slave.
Following this, we try to imagine experiencing a gain, such as figuring out the solution to a personal problem, without feeling like either a brilliant psychologist or a dense patient. Then, we imagine experiencing a loss, such as being unable to remember someone's name or unconsciously saying the wrong word when we mean something else. This frequently happens as we grow older and can be especially unnerving during the first years. We try to imagine experiencing this without becoming annoyed with ourselves or feeling that we need to reserve a place at the nursing home.
Also helpful is deconstructing the experience of actively giving ourselves a gain or a loss. For example, we picture doing something nice for ourselves, like taking a hot bath. We try to imagine relaxing and enjoying it without feeling like a self-satisfied master who has rewarded someone or like a beast of burden that has been rewarded. Similarly, we picture restricting ourselves, for instance not taking dessert because we are dieting. We try to imagine doing this without feeling like a disciplinarian or a naughty child being punished.
Next, we think about the things that have been going well in our life, without feeling proud as the agent of this achievement or undeserving as the recipient. Then, we conclude by thinking about the things that have been going poorly. We feel sad, but try to avoid feeling like either the guilty perpetrator or the helpless victim.
During the second part of this phase, we turn our attention to the series of past photos of ourselves and try to experience nondualistically the eight transitory things as they relate to those periods of our life. We praise ourselves for our strong points during those times and criticize our mistakes. Next, we tell ourselves both the good and bad news of what happened because of our behavior then. We follow this with thinking of the gains and losses we have experienced because of those actions. Lastly, we acknowledge and feel happy about the things that went well and acknowledge and feel sad about the things that went badly at those times.
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