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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

4 Affirming and Accessing Our Natural Abilities

The Necessity for a Pragmatic Means

Imagining what it would be like to be as perfectly balanced in our sensitivity as a Buddha gives us some idea of the goal we would like to achieve. Comparing our present level of sensitivity with this ideal also helps motivate us to strive toward this aim. Nevertheless, we need more than the power of imagination to reach this goal. In addition, we need conviction in our ability to achieve it and a down-to-earth basis from which to grow.

The breathing method of letting go and use of the images of writing on water and a swell on the ocean can bring us a quiet mind, at least temporarily. We may reinforce this state by focusing on the sensation of the breath passing in and out our nostrils as we breathe normally. A calm state of mind serves as a platform for reaching deeper levels of inner peace and for seeing reality more clearly. However, it is difficult to generate and implement such qualities as joy, warmth, and tender understanding by merely conjuring them in our imagination. Relying purely on the rational approach of logic is also not so simple. The teachings on Buddha-nature suggest a more pragmatic means to access a working level of these qualities. Following these methods brings confidence that the goal is practicable.


Buddha taught that everyone, despite gender, age, or race, could evolve to the state of maturity he had reached. This is because each individual possesses the natural factors that allow for attainment of the enlightening networks. He called these factors "Buddha-nature." They fall into three basic groups. Let us present them in the context of how they pertain to the topic of sensitivity.

(1) The most fundamental features that allow us balance in our sensitivity are the mind's other-void and self-void natures. No one's mind is permanently cluttered with endless thoughts or haunting images. No one's heart is eternally plagued with disturbing emotions or upsetting feelings. Moreover, no one's mind exists as inherently flawed or incapable of balance. These other-void and self-void natures are abiding facts. We need merely to realize them.

(2) The basic qualities that allow for balanced sensitivity naturally endow our heart and mind. These qualities are a part of our innate networks of positive force and deep awareness (yeshey) – our "collections of merit and wisdom." Just as everyone's body contains a stomach as part of its digestive system, everyone's heart and mind have a potential for warmth and a capacity for understanding as components of their positive force and awareness systems. These basic components have a certain level of strength in each person, as is the case with physical organs. For example, everyone has a certain level of potential for warmth, and everyone has a certain amount of understanding. No matter what that level and amount may be, we need merely to remove the obstacles preventing these aspects from functioning fully and to build them up further - in strength, in breadth, and in depth.

(3) Our heart and mind can be stimulated to grow. Everyone can be inspired by something or someone to reach new heights. This point accounts for the fact that with favorable circumstances our talents can blossom. We need merely openness and receptivity.

Basis, Pathway, and Resultant Levels

Buddhist analysis differentiates basis, pathway, and resultant levels of certain phenomena. The factors comprising the positive force and deep awareness networks are among them. Their basis level is their natural occurrence as features of our heart and mind. Various practices can enhance these qualities so that they function through a broad range of pathway levels. These levels act as a pathway for achieving the resultant level: the fully matured functioning of these features as part of the enlightening networks.

Since everyone has at least a basis level of qualities such as potential warmth and understanding, we can all recall an incident in which they were functioning to some degree. Memory of personal experience is usually more vivid than an imagined occurrence. Consequently, recollection of a certain feeling acts as a more effective springboard for generating it again. This is the method we shall employ in the next step of our training.

Acknowledging Our Network of Positive Force

Positive force or potential to benefit others and ourselves results from constructive behavior and, when actualized, brings happiness and comfort. Constructive behavior refers primarily to two activities: (1) helping others and ourselves and (2) restraining from acting, speaking, or thinking under the influence of disturbing emotions. Such behavior results from loving concern and from self-control. Therefore, if we all possess some potential for warmth as part of our Buddha-nature, we must also have a basis level of happiness as its result and of loving concern and self-control as its causes. If we can recognize and access these three qualities, we can develop them further.

Happiness or comfort is defined as that feeling which, when experienced, we would like to have it continue or repeat. This does not imply necessarily being attached to the feeling. We may be content and happy watching our children at play, but not cling to that experience when it is time for them to go to bed. Nor does this definition imply that a feeling we like must be intense to qualify as happiness. The mellow joy of relaxing after a day of work is not dramatic, but is pleasurable and something we would like to repeat.

No matter how dour or depressed we might usually be; we have all experienced moments that we would like to continue. Nearly everyone has savored the enjoyment of being in a park on a warm sunny day, or lying in a warm cozy bed in the morning. Comfortable, content, and happy to be there, we do not have the slightest wish to be elsewhere. If we remember the simple pleasures in life, we can use them as foundations for feeling comfortable, content, and happy not merely to be in a particular place, but also to be with a particular person, without wishing that we were alone or with someone else. Such a relaxed state of mind forms the basis for extending joy to the person.

Everyone also has a basis level of concern for others. Biologists call it the instinct for the survival of the species. We see clear evidence of inborn concern for others in small children. Almost all youngsters instinctively like to take care of a doll, to play house or doctor, or to defend their realm against invaders. Moreover, as an adult, we gain satisfaction and fulfillment when, without pressure or obligation, we can nurture, guide, or protect someone. This happens even if the person is not our child. When we recall the warm concern we naturally feel when petting a kitten or puppy in our lap, we have a basis for extending the same regard to anyone, including ourselves.

All of us can also exercise a certain amount of discipline and self-control not to hurt others or ourselves. For example, we naturally exercise care and control when removing a splinter from our own or someone else's finger. Recalling this ability, we can apply it to refrain from acting destructively or inappropriately.

Since we each have a basis level of happiness, regard for others, and self-control, we can conclude that we all have at least some potential to benefit others and ourselves. This means that everyone has acted constructively in the past, to varying degrees. In other words, no one is totally bad. Affirming this is important, particularly regarding ourselves if we suffer from low self-esteem.

Appreciating Our Network of Deep Awareness and Our Ability to Be Inspired

We all are born with a network not only of positive force or potentials, but also of various types of deep awareness. Our mind innately has the cognitive features that allow us to gain knowledge, to discriminate between what is appropriate and what is not, and to know what to do. For example, when our shoe is untied, we can see the situation, discriminate that something is amiss, and understand what we need to do and how to do it. Moreover, all of us are also capable of focusing. While writing something down, we remain focused on the task. Acknowledging these abilities gives us the self-confidence to sense, understand, and respond sensibly, with focused attention, to others' or our own condition.

Lastly, everyone's heart and mind can be moved by something or someone – whether it be by music, the beauty of nature, a just cause, or an outstanding person. Recalling the uplifting feeling we gain from whatever moves us, we can harness that feeling for constructive purposes. We can use it to inspire ourselves to transcend the basis level of our remembered good qualities. This enables us slowly to bring these qualities to their resultant level of perfectly balanced sensitivity, which we can only begin to imagine now.

Exercise 4: Affirming and Accessing Our Natural Abilities

To gain a more vivid feeling for some qualities that we merely imagined in the previous exercise, here we try to remember our natural experience of various aspects of balanced sensitivity. We then turn our attention to others and to ourselves, while trying to continue to feel these mental factors. The exercise is not suggesting the contrived method of remembering a feeling from one occasion and then transferring it to another. Instead, we confirm that we naturally have the main components of balanced sensitivity and that we can feel them while focusing on others and on ourselves.

We begin the first phase by focusing on a photo or simply on a thought of someone with whom we have or have had a positive relationship. We regard the person with a quiet mind and a caring attitude. Then, looking downward or closing the eyes, we try to recall feeling comfortable, content, and happy while sitting or walking in a park on a warm sunny day. We have no wish to be elsewhere or to be doing anything else. Letting go of the image of the park, we imagine the feeling of ease fills our body and radiates from our pores, as if we were the sun. Without deliberate or forced effort, the feeling naturally embraces anyone who comes within its span. We then look at the photo or think of the person. Imagining that he or she has entered the field of our sunshine, we feel comfortable, content, and happy to meet the person. We then look down or close the eyes, and let the experience settle.

We repeat the procedure with the following five remembered states of mind. Feeling comfortable, content, and happy to be with someone, we then need to pay attention to his or her situation and words. Remembering our ability to focus when writing something, we try to radiate a field of attention and then turn to the person.

Needing a warm caring attitude to respond to what we notice or hear, we recall the tender protectiveness we felt while petting a kitten in our lap. When we feel the warmth of tender affection, we also try to glow with it and then look at the photo or think of the individual.

Warm concern is not enough; we also need understanding in order to respond in an appropriate manner. Remembering the understanding we had when we tied our shoes, we try to radiate understanding and within the scope of its reach, focus on the person. Here, an understanding state of mind does not mean that we actually understand everything that might be troubling the person. Rather, it is a clear and lucid state of mind, capable of understanding, and keenly interested and willing to try to comprehend whatever it perceives.

In responding properly, we need care to avoid causing harm to the person or to ourselves. Bringing to mind the carefulness and self-control we exercised not to hurt ourselves when removing a splinter from our fingers, we extend a field of self-discipline not to cause harm and turn to the person.

Lastly, we need inspiration to lift our energies so that we may actively respond in a fresh and creative way, with our hearts fully engaged. Otherwise, as in the case of the fourth time we get up in the middle of the night to comfort our crying infant, we may be attentive, tender, and understanding, but our response may come from "automatic pilot." The infant knows the difference between a mechanical and a heartfelt response, and so do others. Therefore, we recall the inspiration we felt while watching a beautiful sunset and try to shine with inspired, uplifted energy and then focus on the person.

Maintaining focus on the person, we regenerate the six feelings in sequence several times, by listening to our workshop leader slowly reciting the following six key phrases or cuing ourselves:

  • "mellow comfort, as when in a park on a warm, sunny day,"
  • "focus, as when writing something,"
  • "tender protectiveness, as when petting a kitten in my lap,"
  • "understanding, as when tying my shoes,"
  • "self-control not to cause harm, as when removing a splinter from my finger,"
  • "inspiration, like when watching a beautiful sunset."

With each phrase, we regenerate the state of mind by relying on the image of the park and so on for only a moment. Then, shining with the appropriate feeling, we imagine the radiance of that feeling embraces the person.

At first, we work with merely one state of mind at a time. Gradually, we use the same procedure to try to integrate all six into a network. A network consists of several elements, all of which interlink and reinforce one another, to form an integrated system that functions as a whole. Thus, when networking several feelings to form a balanced state of sensitivity, we need to focus attention primarily on the integrated system, rather than on the individual components. Only if we notice that one of the interlinked elements is weak or out of phase, do we adjust that factor.

Although the music playing on a radio is a blend rather than a network of elements such as treble, base, volume, and fine-tuning, we may use the image of the music to understand the method of practice here. The sound of the music is an integrated blend of constituent elements such as treble and base. When we listen to the music, we listen to the sound as a whole. Nevertheless, we can discern when the treble needs correction. Similarly, in interlinking several feelings to function as a network, we focus primarily on the resultant mental and emotional state. We only discern and adjust specific elements when we notice that they are not integrated well in the organic system.

Since certain feelings combine more easily, we modify the order of the six in constructing a network. For further ease of integrating the feelings into a multifaceted, yet single, state of mind, we change the images. Since we may not have experienced the compound image that we shall build in steps, we use a combination of memory and imagination.

To begin the process, we try to put together mellow comfort and tender protectiveness, by imagining sitting on a comfortable chair in a beautiful room and gently petting a puppy that is sleeping in our laps. Letting go of the image, and glowing with a feeling that combines being comfortable, content, and happy with being tenderly affectionate, we imagine the person enters the field of our feeling and is embraced by it.

We then add self-control not to cause harm, by imagining that while sitting in the easy chair petting the puppy sleeping in our laps, we are careful not to act in a reckless or inconsiderate manner that would wake the puppy. Increasing one at a time, we steadily enlarge our state of mind, by adding the focused attention we would pay to the sleeping puppy if we noticed it was shivering while sleeping in our laps, and the understanding we would use to realize that the puppy was cold and that we needed to hold it more closely. Lastly, to feel inspired and fresh in this situation, we imagine also listening to beautiful music , until our state of mind includes all six factors at once, interconnecting and reinforcing each other. At each stage, we imagine our friend within the field of our attitude of balanced sensitivity.

To reinforce the integration of the feelings into functioning networks at each stage, we may use the appropriate number of key adjectives describing the state:

  • "comfortable,"
  • "tender,"
  • "careful,"
  • "attentive,"
  • "understanding,"
  • "inspired."

If this method is insufficient, we may also use an appropriate number of key words and phrases reconstructing the image describing the state:

  • "easy chair,"
  • "sleeping puppy,"
  • "don't wake it,"
  • "shivering,"
  • "cold,"
  • "music."

When using the latter set of words and phrases, we flash back to the imagined scene with the puppy for only a moment and then return to radiating the mental and emotional state of balanced sensitivity.

Once we have become moderately adept at radiating a field of balanced sensitivity, if we notice a weak element in the system, we adjust it by repeating silently to ourselves only the relevant key adjective. If doing so fails to strengthen the element, we use the appropriate key word or phrase from the sequence of images.

We complete the first phase by repeating the procedure three times – twice while focusing each time on a magazine picture of a different person and once while focusing on a photo or on a thought of a loud, overbearing relative or of an obnoxious neighbor or fellow worker.

During the second phase of the exercise, we follow the same procedure while sitting in a circle with our group. At each step, we recall and radiate the appropriate feeling and then, extending the radius of its glow to include everyone in the circle, we focus on each person in turn. We then repeat the procedure while facing a partner.

During the third phase, we remember and try to radiate these feelings while focusing on ourselves. At each step, we first look in a mirror and then, putting down the mirror, we focus simply on ourselves with eyes looking downward. As a final step, we try to imagine that the range of the feelings embraces ourselves from the past, as we look at two photographs of ourselves from different past periods, one at a time for the entire sequence.