Balanced Sensitivity: How to Practice

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Feasibility of Improvement

Examining ourselves honestly, most of us have probably discover that we have experienced many of the possible sensitivity imbalances. This need not daunt us. Although the task of developing balanced sensitivity is complex and challenging, it aims for a feasible goal that we can achieve.

Everyone is capable of being sensitive. When we were a baby, for example, we noticed when our stomach was empty or our mother was absent. We felt discomfort or loneliness and responded by crying. If we were totally insensitive, we could never have done that. We would have simply lain in our crib with indifference, feeling nothing and not responding.

Everyone is also capable of curbing hypersensitivity. As we grew up, for instance, we developed composure so that now we do not cry at the first pangs of hunger. If we were incapable of patient, calm action, we could not simply go to the refrigerator and take something to eat. This shows that we have a basis from which to improve.

Required Skills

The methods for developing balanced sensitivity focus on two major aspects. The first is becoming more attentive. The second is responding more constructively and healthily with appropriate feelings, emotions, words, and actions. To become more adept and natural at either aspect, we need to eliminate possible blocks.

Some obstacles equally prevent being properly attentive and fittingly responsive. For example, we may be preoccupied, unconcerned, lazy, or haunted with fears of inadequacy. These disturbing emotions imprison us in loneliness and alienation. We pay little attention to our external or internal situation and either fail to respond or overreact to projected inflation. Other obstacles are more specific, although not exclusive to one or the other aspect of sensitivity. When mental chatter fills our head – whether judgments, worry, or just sheer nonsense – we do not pay attention to anything else. When we fantasize the impossible, such as being unworthy of anyone's love, we do not respond to what we notice or we overreact.

Developing balanced sensitivity, then, requires cultivating confidence, concern, discipline, concentration, and a sober view of reality. In developing these positive qualities and skills necessary for any form of self-improvement, we overcome the obstacles preventing each. Confidence eliminates feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. Concern does the same with indifference, discipline with laziness, concentration with mental chatter and dullness, and discrimination of reality with belief in fantasy.

Two additional factors – empathy and understanding – contribute to balanced sensitivity, but need not be present for us to respond constructively. Suppose a relative suffers from terminal cancer. Although imagining his or her pain may be difficult, we can still nurse the person with sensitive care. Further, when we come home in a terrible mood, we may not understand what is bothering us. Nevertheless, we can still have enough sensitivity to go to sleep early. The more empathy and understanding we have, of course, the more able we are to respond appropriately.


Meditation procedures suggest ways to develop the skills required for achieving balanced sensitivity. To meditate means to accustom oneself to some positive quality so that it eventually becomes a natural part of one's character. With repeated practice, we can train to kick a ball over a post. Similarly, through meditation, we can train to deal more sensitively or less overemotionally with life.

Meditation employs various means to generate a constructive attitude or feeling or to recognize one that is already present as an inborn quality. We may develop love, for example, by thinking of others' happiness or by contacting the natural warmth of our heart. The Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes the former method, while the Nyingma school teaches the latter in its dzogchen (great completeness) system. Western philosophical systems classify the two approaches as rational and intuitive.

Both rational and intuitive approaches require stilling the mind of extraneous thought and dullness. We cannot consider others' problems or tap our innate kindness when worry or fatigue overwhelms our mind. Concentration is essential to reach the desired feeling. Once achieved, we focus the feeling repeatedly on other persons or on ourselves, but without verbalization. Silently saying "I love you" may distance us from our feelings or may reinforce uncertainty about our concern. Directly experiencing love, through nonverbally focusing it on someone, builds it into a stable habit. This is the first step in meditation. The second step is to assimilate the new custom by concentrating fully on the warm heart we have nurtured. We feel it is now an integral part of our personality.

The Gelug tradition calls these two stages discerning and settling, or "analytical" and "stabilizing" meditation. The difference between the stages is like the difference between actively seeing our newborn infant as our child and then basking in the feeling of now being a parent.

Basic Approach

This program for developing balanced sensitivity consists of a series of twenty-two exercises – eighteen basic and four advanced – based on the structure of meditation. People from any background, however, may comfortably follow its training. The only requirements are a sincere motivation and both knowledge and understanding of what to do.

Any self-development program that can be practiced on one's own offers potential danger for persons lacking a reasonable level of mental health. This axiom is true regarding this series of exercises. If, upon reading a few chapters of the book, anyone questions his or her ability to deal emotionally with the material, such a person should not attempt the training. Professional help may be more appropriate as a start. We do not need to wait, however, until we are perfectly balanced before undertaking the program. When we are sufficiently mature so that strong emotions do not destabilize us, we may try the methods.

Motivation is essential for undertaking sensitivity training. Without being dissatisfied with our present situation, we do nothing to improve it. We need to look honestly at the quality of our life. More specifically, we need to examine the quality of our relations with others and with ourselves. If we find these relationships deficient, we need to consider whether we want them to deteriorate further. Do we want future relations also to be unhealthy? Do we wish to disable ourselves from helping others because of our inability to form sensitive bonds? Deep reflection on each of these points is crucial for undertaking this program.

Moved to action, we need to search for the causes of our difficulties. Suppose we discover, through the first exercise, that our interactions often contain one or more forms of insensitivity or hypersensitivity. We need to contemplate how our relationships might improve if we were to reduce and eventually eliminate these imbalances. Once we have understood the causal relation between sensitivity problems and the quality of our life and we are sufficiently motivated, we are ready to look for remedies.

The first step is to learn about positive qualities that can help and the methods for developing and heightening them. The next step is to think them over and consider them carefully. If they make no sense or do not seem worthwhile, trying to cultivate them is pointless. Once we are convinced of their rationality and personal value, however, leaving them as intellectual knowledge is not sufficient. We need to integrate these qualities into our life through proper training.

Order of Practice

The cleansing of attitudes or "mind training" literature, known as lojong in Tibetan Buddhism, recommends generating positive feelings first for oneself and then slowly extending them to others. The assumption is that everyone likes him or herself. Westerners, however, seem to have a special problem with low self-esteem and alienation. Many find it difficult to relate to themselves at all, let alone relate sensitively and kindly. Therefore, for most Westerners, developing some experience of balanced sensitivity toward others first and then directing it toward themselves seems a more appropriate order. Relating to others, even superficially, poses fewer problems to most people than does improving their attitude toward themselves.

Many people in the West also experience serious difficulties in their personal relationships. Since interactions with others in person can sometimes be too much to handle, following the lead of modern psychology may be better. Treatment often begins with private therapy before working in a group.

Most exercises in the program contain three phases of practice. Their order reflects the above considerations. The first phase involves looking at photographs of various people or simply thinking of them through a mental image, a feeling, their name, or some combination of the three. Traditional Buddhist meditation favors visualization. Nevertheless, if our powers of imagination are not vivid, focusing on a photo is more effective. When doing so, we need to feel we are relating to a real person actually in front of us. In choosing a picture, one with a neutral expression affords the most open basis for developing sensitivity skills. Holding the photo at chest level helps to prevent the dullness that often comes from resting it on our legs. For many of the exercises, using a photo merely as a point of reference for thinking of someone may be more convenient than focusing directly on the person throughout the process.

According to the exercise, the persons we choose for this first phase of practice vary between someone we love, someone with whom we have a close but emotionally difficult relation, someone we dislike, a mere acquaintance, and a total stranger. People in the first four categories may be currently in our life or from the past. They may even be deceased. If we have previously had a difficult period with someone with whom we have a healthy relationship now, we may work with a photo or image of the person from that period. We may choose a photo of a stranger from a magazine. After several exercises, however, when we start to feel that the stranger has become a familiar face, we need to choose a picture of another person. Traditional lojong practice focuses positive feelings first on a friend or a relative, then on a stranger, and lastly on an enemy. In our exercise to quiet the mind, however, we reverse the order of stranger and friend since a stranger is less thought-evoking.

Some people may have had a traumatic experience with a parent or relative who abused them. Applying the exercises initially toward such persons is inadvisable. The emotions that arise may be too powerful. After some progress in the training, however, directing these methods at these especially difficult people may be helpful, under proper supervision. The aim of the exercises is not to deny or to excuse their destructive actions, but to heal the damage inflicted. For peace of mind, we need to relate, without emotional upset, to our memories and feelings. We also need balance in relating to the person now if he or she is still part of our life.

The second phase entails working with others in person. During many of the exercises, we sit in a circle and focus in turn on each member of a group. We look gently at each other, without being intrusive or intense. The optimal number of people in a circle is between ten and twenty. If more persons are participating in a workshop, they may form two or more circles.

Frequently, we also or alternatively break into pairs and focus more intimately on one person at a time. In either case, the practices are more effective when repeated with a variety of people. Optimal is to include someone of each sex, someone older and younger than we are, and someone from a different ethnic or racial background. Practicing both with persons we know and with those less familiar is also helpful. When a group does not divide evenly, for instance into equal numbers of men and women, the participants may rotate partners until everyone has had a chance to sit opposite someone of the opposite gender. If the group includes no one from some of these categories, we may supplement this phase by focusing on magazine photos of people not represented.

In many societies, people are unaccustomed to making eye contact with strangers. They may find it rude, intrusive, or possibly dangerous. Even in conversation, they avoid prolonged eye contact. The block they experience may be due to shyness. Someone gazing into their eyes may make them feel self-conscious or vulnerable. If they lead lonely lives in an impersonal environment, having someone sensitively look into their eyes may be a unique experience that it is too much to bear. Alternatively, if they have low self-esteem and live in a highly competitive world, they may unconsciously feel that others will see through their façade and discover their inadequacies. Those in highly structured societies in which people frequently attempt to control each other may also feel the need to protect themselves from domineering manipulation.

If we are such a person, although we may find practicing with a group in a circle slightly awkward, we need not let this stymie us. The other participants are at a sufficient distance that allows us to take in an entire individual in a glance. Should we make eye contact, we may focus on the rest of the person's body instead. Further, when working with a partner, we need not force ourselves to gaze directly at the person. We may start by looking downward and focusing on him or her through the feeling that we have of someone sitting opposite us. Occasionally, we may glance up for a moment and then look back down, until gradually we are able to maintain gentle eye contact. The quiet, caring space that we will establish with Exercise Two as the preliminary mental state for the training may help people feel safer to open up to each other.

The third phase focuses on ourselves. It involves first looking in a mirror and then reflecting quietly without a mirror. The mirror we choose needs to be sufficiently large to see our entire face comfortably. As in the case of working with photos, holding the mirror at chest level helps to prevent dullness. Some people have had particularly difficult periods in their life. They often feel especially negative toward themselves at those ages. They may also feel that they cannot relate to who they were at those times. Therefore, this phase concludes with looking at a series of photographs of ourselves taken over the span of our life. Such practice is useful for integrating life's experiences and developing a balanced, holistic attitude toward ourselves. If we do not have photos from a certain period, we may simply think of ourselves as we were then. Snapshots, however, are always preferable since memory rarely produces a clear or objective picture.

For optimal training, the three phases of each exercise need to lead trainees through progressively more challenging steps. In certain cultures, most people are outgoing. They find communicating with others, even superficially, emotionally easier than being alone. Symptomatic of this tendency, they chat easily with strangers. Whether at home or traveling, they need to have music or television playing continually so that they do not feel alone. The order of the three phases presented in the book best suits such persons.

In other societies, people tend to be more introverted. Spending most of their time alone, they feel more comfortable by themselves. In the company of others, they become emotionally stiff and reserved. They make friends much more slowly than do people in the previous group. For such cultures and individuals, practicing phase three of each exercise before phase two may be easier and more effective.

This program may be carried out either alone or, preferably, within the context of a workshop under proper guidance. Once we have learned the methods as part of a group, we may continue training at home, either by repeating the entire sequence of exercises or by focusing on merely those parts that we find most helpful. If we have difficulty relating to any of the examples or images used in the exercises, we may substitute or add others that are culturally or personally more relevant.

As with traditional sadhana practice – multi-scene mental dramas visualized for establishing a pure self-image - familiarity first with the complete training enables us afterwards to keep the context in mind when deepening our practice of any of its aspects. Occasional review of the entire program, refreshes our awareness of this context. When training alone, we may substitute the partner phase of each exercise with focusing on pictures of diverse people taken from magazines or from our photo album.

Practicing the exercises in their proper sequence, with a maximum of one per session, brings optimal results. In many of the exercises, each of the three phases has several parts and each part has many steps. We need to spend at least three minutes on each step during a session and, for some steps, we may wish to focus for up to ten minutes. When practicing the exercises in a group for the first time, discussion after each step is useful for clarifying the procedure and affirming the experience. We may vary group exchange with conversation in pairs. Repeating the exercise immediately following the discussion adds depth to the process.

One phase or one part of an exercise may suffice for a session. This allows proper time to integrate and settle our experience. We may repeat each exercise or one of its phases, parts, or steps as frequently as is useful, both before and after proceeding to the next one in the sequence. If a session is slated to begin with working with a partner, starting with a short review of focusing on the members in a circle helps to prepare participants for the intensity of the one-to-one experience. As sensitivity training involves a delicate emotional process, gentleness coupled with perseverance is the realistic and sensitive way to bring about meaningful growth.

Rational and Intuitive Approaches

Some practices in the program take the rational approach, while others take an intuitive one. The rational approach to developing balanced sensitivity is to generate a positive feeling, such as love, in the same manner as when reaching a conclusion through Buddhist logic. We rely on a line of reasoning and an example. This approach is especially useful for persons with blocked feelings or emotions. Such people find difficulty in feeling something spontaneously. Reason provides them an easier access. When they understand why certain feelings are reasonable, they have fewer fears or objections to trying to experience them.

Some persons with blocked feelings, however, find that relying on a line of reasoning is insufficient for generating a constructive feeling. They know intellectually how they should feel, but either they still feel nothing or what they feel seems artificial and shallow. Sometimes, this leads to feeling guilty or inadequate. Such persons need to persevere. For example, swimming with a certain stroke may seem unnatural at first. Yet, with repeated practice, it becomes a perfectly normal action. The same is true with learning to feel something positive toward others or toward ourselves. Repeatedly generating a feeling through a line of reasoning leads to slowly beginning to feel something. This occurs as objections and blocks start to weaken. At first, that feeling may seem contrived. Yet, over time, it becomes so natural that relying on reason is no longer necessary to feel an emotion.

On the other hand, people who are emotional often find relying on reason quite alien. They consider feelings generated by logic to be insincere. For such persons, the intuitive approach may be more appropriate. It entails quieting down and working with feelings that naturally arise. The emphasis is on removing any disturbing elements that block or adulterate intuitive feelings.

No matter which type of person we are, looking down on either style is detrimental to progress. Dismissing the rational approach as too intellectual, or the intuitive one as completely irrational, deprives us of reaping the benefits of both. Training with a combination of the two is, in fact, the most effective method for developing balanced sensitivity.

Those who are rationally inclined find that once they begin to experience the feelings they are trying to generate, intuitively oriented exercises reinforce and enhance those feelings. Such exercises convince them that they have a natural source of positive emotions within themselves. This helps them to progress beyond the stage of experiencing their feelings as contrived.

Intuitively inclined persons find that once they quiet down and access their feelings, exercises that rely on reason add stability to their experience. Moreover, such exercises give them an alternative method for generating positive feelings when they are in a bad mood or when negative emotions overwhelm them. They also find the rational approach useful when the person toward whom they are trying to feel something positive is acting horribly.

Abbreviating the Training

Most people will wish to read the entire book before committing themselves to any form of training. A workbook, however, is not designed for browsing or casual reading. As the style is purposely terse, a first reading requires sufficient time to pause and reflect after each point.

Some people may wish to do only an abbreviated practice. Others may find it useful to work through the sequence of exercises first in a short form before repeating them in full or joining a group. We may abbreviate the training by practicing only several of the exercises, by limiting the scope of each exercise, or by doing both. An introductory course, for example, might include Exercises Two, Three, Four, Ten, Eleven, and Sixteen. The topics would be creating a quiet, caring space, imagining ideal sensitivity, affirming and accessing our natural qualities, applying the five types of deep awareness, validating the appearances we perceive, and adjusting our innate mental factors. If time does not permit, we may omit the last two topics. A short seminar would comprise: creating a quiet, caring space and applying the five types of deep awareness. Simply creating a quiet, caring space suffices for a weekend workshop.

If we wish to limit our scope when practicing as part of a group, we may abbreviate by looking at a picture or thinking of only one person during the first phase of each exercise. During the second phase, we might work simply in a circle or facing only one person and, during the third, focus on ourselves only in a mirror or merely without one if mirror practice is normally skipped in the exercise. Those training alone may further abbreviate the program by omitting the second phase altogether.


Practicing these exercises does not require an acrobatic position or an exotic setting. Sitting comfortably in a quiet place with shoes off is sufficient. We may sit on a cushion placed either on the floor or on a firm bed, or we may choose a firm chair. In each case, we need to sit upright with our back straight, but not stiff, and our muscles relaxed. Maintaining good posture helps to keep the mind clear and alert. Those using a chair need to keep both feet flat on the floor. Those seated on a cushion need to choose a pillow of appropriate thickness and hardness so that their legs do not fall asleep and their back does not become strained. Those sitting cross-legged need to place the cushion beneath their buttocks so that their knees are lower than their behind.

Keeping the shoulders down and level, not raised as if working at a desk, is important. Holding the shoulders up at attention creates or accentuates tension in the neck. If we notice such tension, we may find it helpful to raise our shoulders and then to drop them forcefully to release the tension. We also need to keep our mouth and teeth relaxed, not clenched. Resting the hands in the lap, with palms facing upwards and the right hand on top of the left, leaves the muscles in the arms fully relaxed. Moreover, keeping the tongue touching the upper palate just behind the front teeth reduces saliva production so that we are not distracted by a frequent need to swallow.

During the parts of the exercises practiced while sitting alone and thinking of someone or while focusing on ourselves without a mirror, we may keep our eyes either opened or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. In either case, bending our head slightly downward is best. Those leaving their eyes opened need to focus loosely on the floor and not pay attention to their field of vision. Keeping the eyes opened, however, obviously is essential during those parts of the exercises requiring looking at a picture, at other people in a circle, at an individual partner, or at a mirror. During such practice, we may blink normally, without staring.

Initial Procedures for Each Training Session

Beginning each session with a short breathing practice is helpful for turning our attention from previous activities. To do this, we breathe normally through the nose, not too quickly, not too slowly, not too deeply, and not too shallowly. The healthiest breathing cycle consists of three phases – exhalation, a quiet period of rest, and then inhalation. Pausing after breathing out causes the body naturally to breathe in more fully. While inhaling, we silently count the cycle as one. Without holding the breath before exhaling, we count the next cycle as two and continue until eleven. We then repeat the sequence a second time.

Next, we establish or reaffirm our motivation for practicing the exercise. This helps to prevent our training from becoming mechanical. We remind ourselves, for example, that we would like to achieve balanced sensitivity so that we can use our potentials for the benefit of everyone, including ourselves. In reaffirming our motivation, we try to feel our energy raised and directed toward our aim.

Then, we consciously decide to concentrate during the session. If our attention wanders, we intend to return it to its focus. If we become sleepy, we intend to wake ourselves up. To implement our decision, we may imagine adjusting the fine focus dial on the lens of our mind so that our mental state is now sharp and crisp. We also adjust our posture by sitting up with our back straight.

Lastly, we modulate our energy level. To refresh ourselves before the main practice, we may focus for a minute on the point between the eyebrows. While doing this, we need to keep our head level and look upward. This lifts the low energy in the body. To calm ourselves if nervous or preoccupied, we need to settle and ground our energy. To accomplish this, we may next focus for a minute on our center of gravity, our navel, while keeping the head level, looking downward, and gently holding the breath.

Procedure for Each Part of an Exercise

To stabilize or regain focus, we need to begin each part of an exercise with settling the mind. We may do this by looking downward or closing the eyes and focusing on the sensation of the breath passing in and out our nostrils. Being mindful of the breath grounds us in the "here and now." We then generate or access a certain attitude or feeling toward someone. Directing it at the person, we regard him or her in that way. Then, we let the experience settle by looking downward or closing our eyes once more and focusing on the feeling gained from the exercise. To regain our composure, we conclude each part of an exercise with focusing again on the sensation of the breath passing in and out our nostrils.

Most people find the exercises emotionally moving. The painful feelings that arise occasionally startle even the most mature persons. Some become frightened and do not know how to handle these feelings, especially if they have been blocking them before. If this problem occurs during an exercise, we need to try to relax and let the emotion flow through us and pass. As when receiving an injection, if our body and mind tighten at a painful experience, the discomfort intensifies and may become unbearable. To help relax while experiencing an unsettling emotion, we may focus mindfully on the sensation of our breath passing in and out our nose. We may then focus on our navel to ground us further.

When practicing with a partner, people often begin to laugh. This frequently happens because of nervousness or because of unfamiliarity with prolonged eye contact. People may also laugh uncontrollably as an unconscious mechanism to avoid personal contact. This syndrome often hides awkwardness or fear. Counting the breath once more and focusing on the navel before beginning the second phase of each exercise reduces the chances of laughter arising. To quiet the energies if laughter erupts, we may revert to counting the breath and focusing on the navel for as long as is necessary.

As an aid for keeping focus, during most of the exercises the group facilitator may occasionally repeat key phrases and the reminder "no mental stories." He or she may do this one phrase at a time for each state of mind that we try to generate or, at minimum, repeat the entire sequence slowly for the final integration at the end of each phase. In several exercises, we repeat a sequence of phrases after the facilitator – not mechanically, but only when we actually feel the emotions or generate the attitudes described by the words. Although we may repeat the phrases silently or aloud, we need to verbalize them audibly when working with a partner. When practicing alone, we may repeat the phrases to ourselves, mentally or voiced. Having a list before us as a visual aid may also be useful. When in a group, we may also repeat the phrase of the moment silently to ourselves if we notice that our focus has weakened.

Concluding Procedures for Each Training Session

Each session concludes with the wish that such reflection and practice contribute to our becoming a more balanced and sensitive person, for our own and others' sake. We also wish that everyone might achieve this state. Such concluding wishes are known as the "dedication."

If a deep and meaningful conversation abruptly ends with the telephone ringing, the positive energy is immediately shattered and lost. If, however, the encounter ends with a mutual acknowledgment of how wonderful it was and with the wish that the communication deepen in the future, the result is different. The positive feeling created and the insights gained linger with each person. The same is true regarding the positive energy of the insights and experiences gained through these exercises. The energy becomes more stable and brings more benefit when we consciously add it to our network of positive experience and dedicate that network toward achieving our goals.

To reduce distraction from disorder or noise, we train at first only in the controlled atmosphere of a clean, quiet room. Many of these exercises may elicit strong emotions. Therefore, practicing them in the protected space of privacy, alone or among sympathetic friends, reduces tension. Gradually, we broaden our endeavor and practice generating constructive feelings in "live" situations. Using the same methods as when training alone or as part of a workshop, we try to direct these feelings to the people we see in the supermarket, on the bus, or anywhere we happen to be. Such practice helps us to become more sensitive to people's actual situations and not to overreact based on preconceptions.

Over time, the qualities we try to cultivate through these exercises become a natural part of ourselves. Our personality is no more fixed than our athletic skills. With motivation, proper methods, and a realistic attitude, we can develop either.

Nonlinear Progress

People who try to control everything in their lives often seek a straightforward, almost mechanical technique for handling emotional problems. They feel that if they simply know how to apply the technique, they will experience immediate results, like taking a pill. In this way, they hope to maintain control in face of anything that might happen. Moreover, they often try to find a bargain: they want a technique that will cost them the minimal amount of time and effort. They rarely succeed, however, in their high-tension quest. This is because life is an organic process, not a mechanical one. Thus, to improve life's quality requires an organic approach. Mechanical techniques for alleviating emotional problems, like cheap gimmicks, rarely go to the root and bring lasting results.

Developing balanced sensitivity, then, as with any form of self-development, including meditation, is a nonlinear process. This means that overcoming a sensitivity problem is different from fixing a leaky faucet. We cannot simply take steps A, B, and C, one after the next, and expect the results to follow instantly. Thus, practicing a sensitivity exercise and even completing an entire course of sensitivity training cannot produce a linear result. We may notice a slight improvement immediately afterwards, yet in moments of stress, we revert to our previous ways. This is normal and to be expected. Sometimes things go better and sometimes they get worse. In the short term, our development may seem chaotic, but over a longer period, a pattern of progress gradually emerges. If we understand this nonlinear mode of progress and discard any "fix-it" mentality that we may have, we avoid frustration with our development.