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Developing Balanced Sensitivity:
Practical Buddhist Exercises
for Daily Life
(Revised Second Edition)

First edition published as Berzin, Alexander. Developing Balanced Sensitivity: Practical Buddhist Exercises for Daily Life. Ithaca, Snow Lion, 1998.

Order the first edition of this book directly from Snow Lion Publications.

Part I: Dealing Constructively with Sensitivity Issues

2 Quieting the Mind and Generating Care

Feasibility of Improvement

Having examined ourselves honestly, most of us have probably discovered that we have experienced many of the sensitivity problems outlined. 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 "formal" 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. A companion volume, The Sensitivity Handbook: Training Materials for "Developing Balanced Sensitivity, " provides a step-by-step outline for each exercise and four additional advanced exercises. 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 – multiscene 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, by reading the Table of Contents, 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.

Creating a Quiet, Caring Space

Traditional sadhana practice for deconstructing one's negative self-image and creating a more positive one begins with quieting the mind of preconceptions and establishing a "circle of protection." The latter practice may consist of an elaborate visualization of forceful figures posted in all directions to ward off interference. Alternatively, as in the Drugpa Kagyu practice of ladrub (actualizing through the spiritual teacher), we may generate a protective field of care and loving compassion both within ourselves and surrounding us. Love is the wish for someone to be happy and to have the causes for happiness. Compassion is the wish for someone to be free from suffering and from the causes for pain. A modern therapist follows equivalent procedures to establish a warm atmosphere of acceptance and trust within which both he or she and the client may feel emotionally safe.

Sensitivity training also requires a safe internal and external space within which we and our group, if we are participating in a workshop, can open more easily to feelings and emotions. The Drugpa Kagyu approach suggests that the mental space most conducive for the process is a quiet and caring one. A quiet mind and a caring attitude are, in fact, indispensable for being attentive and responsive to others and to ourselves.

If we are practicing in a workshop, we may begin to create a safe and friendly space by starting the first session of the course with each participant telling the group his or her name and background. Once we have gained some proficiency in the meditation methods for creating a quiet and caring space, we may simply recall that space to reestablish the proper atmosphere before each part of the subsequent exercises in the program. We do this while initially settling our mind through focusing on the sensation of the breath passing in and out our nostrils.

Exercise 2A: Quieting the Mind

First, we need to quiet our mind of mental chatter, stories, complaints, worries, songs, dullness, excessive emotion, or anything else that might interfere with being attentive and open. Three methods are helpful:

  • "letting go"
  • "writing on water"
  • "swell on the ocean"

The first method, "letting go," is a breathing exercise suggested by the analogy of thoughts as fleeting clouds. The Gelug/Kagyu tradition uses this image in its mahamudra (great seal) teachings to explain the nature of thoughts and the mind. Since quieting the mind requires special attention, we begin each part of the exercise with the conscious decision to rid ourselves of extraneous mental activity. Then, after settling down by focusing on the sensation of the breath passing through our nostrils, we turn our attention to a picture or a thought of someone and breathe normally. We use the three-part cycle of exhalation, rest, and inhalation, as described in the initial procedures for each session. While exhaling, we try to imagine that any verbal thought, mental image, upsetting feeling, or dazed state of mind we may have leaves us with our breath. We may visualize these mental objects as clouds temporarily obscuring the clear sky of our mind, or we may dispense with a graphic representation. We do not expel the mental items forcefully with gale-force breath as if they were invading forces, but just gently exhale them as if with a summer breeze. Once we have reached a quiet mental space, we continue breathing with the three-part cycle and gaze at the person with an objective and accepting mind. If paranoia arises about extraneous mental activity recurring, we release and exhale it as well.

Since many people have the deeply engrained habit of making up or repeating mental stories about everyone and everything, we start our training with people who conjure in us few associations. We then proceed gradually with persons about whom we find it progressively more compelling to think. Thus, we look first at magazine photos of an anonymous man, woman, boy, girl, and elderly couple and focus on one person at a time. When practicing as part of a group, the facilitator may mount these pictures on cardboard and display them in front of the room. Further, to help us keep mindfulness throughout the process, our group facilitator may occasionally say the key phrase "let go" or we may sometimes say it silently to ourselves. We do not repeat it continuously, however, like a mantra.

For especially compelling extraneous mental activity, we supplement the letting-go procedure with a dzogchen method. We try to feel our verbal thought process to be like writing on water. When we write on water, the letters arise and disappear simultaneously. There is nothing substantial about them. We may try an example by thinking slowly, one by one, each word of the thought "What time is it?" Without visualizing letters or the action of writing, we try to feel each word occurring as if through a process of writing on water. Most people find that the energy of the thought diminishes significantly and the thought loses its meaning. They often experience that it is difficult for the next word of the thought even to arise. Similarly, if we regard mental movies, disturbing emotions, and dullness appearing as if through a process of momentarily projecting a picture on water, the energy behind them also decreases and may stop altogether. Thus, after pausing briefly, we continue the exercise by focusing once more on the magazine photos, one at a time, and slowing down and applying the writing-on-water dissolution method to any irrelevant mental activity. As an aid for maintaining focus, we may use the key phrase "writing on water."

Some people find that when they quiet their mind of mental stories and release some of their tension, even if for only a short time, certain emotional blocks seem to open. Repressed feelings such as sadness, anxiety, insecurity, or fear may suddenly arise. If this should happen, we may use a third approach suggested by the Karma Kagyu mahamudra analogy of the mind as an ocean and thoughts and emotions as waves. We try to feel the sudden wave of emotion pass like a swell on the ocean and then feel it is gone. As with the letting-go and writing-on-water methods, we do not concern ourselves where "I" am during this process. Otherwise, we may begin to feel seasick. If the repressed emotion becomes overwhelming and the ocean-swell approach proves ineffective, we may try to concentrate on the sensation of the breath passing in and out our nostrils and then focus on our navel.

Since not everyone experiences repressed feelings arising, we do not practice this method as a separate step. Instead, we conclude the sequence, after a pause, with looking once more at the magazine photos, one at a time, and applying any of the three methods that seems appropriate. First, we try the letting-go approach to release any extraneous mental objects that arise. For more persistent problems, especially verbal thoughts, we use the writing on water method, while for sudden waves of emotion, we try to experience them as passing swells. We maintain focus with the key phrases:

  • "let go"
  • "writing on water"
  • "swell on the ocean"

We apply the threefold approach while looking next at pictures of some people we know or while simply thinking about them. Starting with a mere acquaintance, we proceed to someone with whom we are or have had a warm and loving relationship involving few regrets. We conclude by focusing on a loud, overbearing relative who perhaps pries too strongly into our life, but who has not actually hurt us. Without letting go of positive feelings we may have toward each person, we release any agenda or upsetting emotions that might cloud a balanced and sensitive interaction.

Next, we look at our group facilitator, if we are part of a workshop, and use the threefold approach to release any mental stories and so forth that might arise. The facilitator first sits still and then gets up and walks around. Encounters with live persons have a higher level of energy than recollections of someone, and thus can more strongly evoke extraneous mental activity. At this stage in the training, focusing on other members of the group is premature. Others may find it uncomfortable if we look at them with a mind that is merely quiet, but not yet caring. If we are practicing alone, we may dispense with an equivalent for this step.

The person most people find the most compelling topic for mental stories is themselves. Therefore, next we practice the threefold quieting method while looking at our hands before us, and then at our face in a mirror. Finally, we repeat the procedure while looking at two pictures of ourselves from different periods in the past, one at a time.

Exercise 2B: Generating Care

Quieting our mind of stories, upsetting emotions, and other irrelevant matter creates merely one dimension of the mental space required for balanced sensitivity. After all, with a silent mind, we may be unconcerned about anything. We may fall into a daze and become inattentive to what is happening around or within us. Even if we notice something, we may not respond. Therefore, we need to couple mental quiet with a caring attitude, but one that is calm and not anxious. Quieting the mind before generating this attitude helps us to avoid being worried, tense, or overemotional.

Caring is considering what we notice in others and in ourselves as personally relevant and important. It matters to us. It also means taking seriously the consequences of our words and behavior on both others and ourselves. A caring attitude is the basis for ethical self-discipline and serves as the container for love and compassion. To generate this attitude or feeling, we shall use the rational method of relying on a line of reasoning. Buddhist logic requires an example to illustrate and substantiate the truth of each statement in a line of reasoning. Here, the use of ourselves as an example for statements concerning other people also helps to balance our sensitivity toward them and us.

After settling down as before, we begin by focusing once again on a photo or on a thought of the person with whom we have or have had a warm and loving relationship. Using the threefold approach, we create a quite mental space. Then we listen as our group facilitator repeats aloud, one clause at a time, the following logical argument or we read it to ourselves if we are practicing alone. Pausing after each clause, we try to regard the person in light of the statement. We then sit back, figuratively speaking, and try to focus on the feeling evoked by the line. This enables us to affirm and digest the validity of each point.

The line of reasoning is:

  • " You are a human being and have feelings, just as I do."
  • " The mood you are in will affect our interaction, just as my mood will affect it."
  • " How I treat you and what I say will further affect your feelings."
  • " Therefore, just as I hope that you care about me and about my feelings in our interaction, I care about you."
  • " I care about your feelings."

We conclude by actively looking at the person with a caring attitude. To maintain focus and to deepen our sentiment, we repeat after the group facilitator, or say aloud by ourselves, the four key sentences:

  • "I am not going to make up or tell stories about you."
  • "You are a human being and have feelings."
  • "I care about you."
  • "I care about your feelings."

Here, it is important at least to mouth the words, even if so softly that only we can hear them. Mouthing the words reaffirms our commitment to maintaining a caring attitude. With eyes closed or looking downward, we then let our feeling of care sink in.

To complete the first phase of the exercise, we repeat the entire procedure while looking at a photo or while simply thinking of a mere acquaintance, and then while looking at the anonymous magazine pictures. The strangers in the magazine photos may not be as important to us as our friends and acquaintances are. Nevertheless, if a stranger approached us for directions, we would need enough care to take the person seriously and to take the time to help. Lastly, we follow the same steps while focusing once more on our loud, overbearing relative.

During the second phase, we sit in a circle with a group and repeat the procedure. After each line in the argument, we look at each person in turn and apply the statement to him or her. After this, we pair off and repeat the procedure with a series of partners, at minimum practicing first with someone of our same sex and then with someone of the opposite gender.

Practice with each partner is in four steps. First, we repeat the entire procedure, with both persons generating a feeling of acceptance and concern toward each other. Establishing a quiet and caring space with each other enables us to feel sufficiently safe to work on any imbalances felt from low self-esteem. For example, insensitive to others' concern, we may have difficulty acknowledging that anyone cares about us or about our feelings. Alternatively, we may overreact and reject someone's caring attitude if we feel undeserving. Low self-worth may also cause us to feel that no one could possibly accept our sincere concern.

To address these problems, first one partner and then the other repeats after the facilitator the four key sentences several times:

  • "I am not going to make up or tell any stories about you."
  • "You are a human being and have feelings."
  • "I care about you."
  • "I care about your feelings."

The speaker focuses first on caring about the listener and then on feeling someone accepting his or her sincere concern. The listener focuses on feeling the other person's acceptance and care. While receiving open and warm attention, we need also to let go of our internal barriers, especially physical tension in our heart and our gut. After all, the feeling of being accepted and of being cared about is a gut feeling, not an intellectual one. If strong self-hatred makes accepting nonjudgmental, caring regard from others too difficult at first, we may focus on the breath passing in and out our nostrils. Awareness of our breathing process grounds us in a feeling of being alive and of being a human like everyone else. To ground ourselves further, we may also focus on our navel. As a final step, the partners alternate repeating each of the four sentences while focusing on the mutual generation and acceptance of caring concern.

The third phase begins with looking at ourselves in a mirror and repeating the procedure, but using a slight variation of the previous line of reasoning:

  • "I am a human being and have feelings"
  • "Just as everyone else does"
  • " How I regard and treat myself affects my feelings"
  • "Just as how others regard and treat me affects how I feel"
  • " Therefore, just as I hope that others care about me and about my feelings in our interactions"
  • "I care about myself"
  • "I care about my feelings"
  • "I care about my feelings toward myself"
  • "I care about how I treat myself"

When a caring feeling arises, we direct it at our image and maintain focus by repeating after the facilitator, or saying aloud by ourselves, five key sentences:

  • "I am not going to make up or tell any stories about myself."
  • "I care about myself."
  • "I care about my feelings."
  • "I care about my feelings toward myself."
  • "I care about how I treat myself ."

Trying to feel accepted and cared about by ourselves, we repeat the key sentences several times more. Putting down the mirror, we repeat again the key sentences twice. During the first repetition, we aim our positive feelings directly at ourselves. During the second, we try directly to feel accepted and cared about by ourselves.

We conclude by looking at two photographs of ourselves from different periods in the past. Focusing first on just one of the photos, we try to generate a feeling of caring concern toward the person whom we see, by using the same procedure, but thinking:

  • "I was a human being then and had feelings,"
  • "Just as I have now."
  • "How others regarded me then affected those feelings."
  • "Therefore, just as I hoped that others cared about me and about my feelings then,"
  • "I care now about myself then."
  • "I care about my feelings then."
  • "I care about my feelings now about me then."

We then direct our feeling of caring concern toward ourselves in the picture while repeating after the facilitator, or saying aloud by ourselves, the four key sentences:

  • "I am not going to make up or tell any stories about myself as I was then."
  • "I care about myself then."
  • "I care about my feelings then."
  • "I care about my feelings now about me then."

At the conclusion of the sequence, we imagine the person in the photo thanks us for not thinking badly about or being ashamed of him or her. We then repeat the procedure while focusing on the other photo of ourselves.