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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

6 Combining Warmth with Understanding

The Necessity for Joint Development of Warmth and Understanding

Achieving enlightenment requires broadening and strengthening our innate networks of positive force and deep awareness until they become networks of enlightening forms and of all-loving deep awareness encompassing everyone and everything. Just as the two resultant enlightening networks combine with each other to constitute a holistic enlightened being, similarly our innate networks of potential and awareness interconnect, reinforcing one another. Therefore, in harmony with this structure, we need to build up our two basis networks conjointly while developing ourselves on the pathway level. The frequent analogy is that coordinating and jointly engaging the twin basis networks is like employing the two wings required to fly.

Combining warmth and understanding is also necessary for achieving balanced sensitivity. Suppose we have merely warm loving feelings toward others, but lack understanding of their situation. We may be carried away by emotion and act unwisely. Often, we overreact when we are overemotional. On the other hand, if we merely understand the situation, but lack any warmth, we may respond to others insensitively.

Each of us has a basis level of both warmth and understanding. When we develop them jointly, we can be of more balanced, sensitive help to others and to ourselves. Let us examine five points that help to wed the two factors.

Taking Others Seriously

Others are real. The people we encounter are not fictitious characters in a movie or anonymous faces in a news report. We may be well informed about the troubles others are facing. Statistics, however, are of little help unless we take their plight seriously. We need to feel concern on a human level.

For example, suppose we were lying in a hospital bed, waiting for a major operation. Most of us would be frightened and worried that we might not survive. Suppose the nurse came to prepare us for surgery. Though we do not wish anyone's pity, we would certainly appreciate him or her showing some warmth and understanding. Knowing all the technical details to prepare us physically is not sufficient. We are real, our fear is overwhelming, and we want the nurse to take us seriously.

If this is true about us, it is also true about others. Everyone deserves to be taken seriously. Moreover, taking others seriously helps them to take themselves seriously. This strengthens their self-confidence, thus helping them to overcome low self-esteem.

Being Unafraid to Respond

Our actions do not determine the outcome of every event. Nor is the outcome predetermined. If it were, there would be no point in responding to anyone's needs, in offering our help, or in doing anything at all. Others' success or failure would already be fated. According to the Buddhist understanding, what happens arises dependently on many factors, following the laws of cause and effect.

The main factors affecting what happens to people are their karmic potentials. We can merely try to offer circumstances for their positive potentials to ripen and try to avoid providing conditions for their negative ones to surface. However, if others lack sufficient causes for happiness from their personal history, our best efforts cannot succeed. Similarly, if others lack the causes for tragedy, our worst mistakes cannot cause them a downfall. Still, we are accountable for our actions and need to act responsibly. In providing or withholding circumstances, we contribute to what occurs. Nevertheless, we are not the sole source even of circumstances.

Therefore, fear of responding to others' or our own needs is inappropriate. Even if we make a mistake, we have at least tried. We do not become dismayed or feel guilty when our help fails. Nor do we arrogantly take all the credit when others succeed through our assistance. We can only try to be helpful, with as much warmth and understanding as possible.

For example, suppose we have a baby daughter, or are visiting someone who has, and suppose we are trying to teach the baby to walk. The toddler inevitably falls down. If she stumbles and begins to cry, are we guilty? Is it our fault? Do we stop trying to teach her to walk? Obviously, the baby's success in learning to walk depends primarily on her development of strength, balance, and self-confidence. We merely provide the circumstances for these potentials to mature.

Thus, we would not be afraid to respond to the baby's faltering steps as we teach her to walk. We would naturally do this with joy, without shouldering sole responsibility for success or failure. Yet, we would also naturally act responsibly. Holding the baby's hand at first, we would remain nearby to catch or at least to comfort the toddler when she stumbles and falls.

Taking in All Information

Even if we have great concern, we need to take in complete information about a situation before responding. If we do this without making judgments or mental comments, we avoid overreacting or responding to something we have merely invented. For instance, suppose we hear our little boy screaming and, rushing outside, we see his arm badly bruised. Instead of responding with panic, thinking he has broken his arm, we need to remain calm and first comfort the child. Without jumping to conclusions, we need to ask and look carefully to see what is wrong.

Other situations in life require the same approach. For example, when listening on the telephone to a friend talking about his or her problems, we need to listen with a quiet mind and open heart. We need to let our friend finish telling his or her story before offering advice.

Acting Straightforwardly

Sitting back and coldly analyzing how to solve others' problems is not sufficient. Of course, we need to figure out what to do. Nevertheless, once we know, we need to act straightforwardly, sensitive to the urgency others feel. Suppose we see someone struggling with bundles and about to drop them. Commenting on how much he or she bought or asking which store the person shopped at are clearly absurd. We need to understand the situation and respond immediately, with consideration and kindness.

Refraining from Offering Unwanted or Unneeded Help

We may help others with warmth and kindness. Yet, if our hidden motivation is to gain a feeling of self-worth or of being needed, or to feel more secure by taking control of things, we are exploiting them. Understanding this point allows us the sensitivity to restrain ourselves when the most appropriate help is to let people handle situations by themselves. In this way, we avoid others' resentment or rejection because of our pushiness. It also helps us to avert the oversensitive responses of feeling unappreciated, unneeded, unwanted, or worthless when others decline our help.

For example, suppose we have a two-year-old daughter. Feeding her with a spoon made us feel good when she was younger. We felt needed and useful. At some point, however, we need to stop and let her feed herself. Insisting on treating her like a baby, even with an effusive show of affection, is exploitation. It helps neither our daughter nor us.

Exercise 6: Five Decisions for Combining Warmth with Understanding

Decisions are most effective when based on reason. Decisions made on a whim or by force are usually not sincerely felt. Consequently, they do not often last. Adopting a procedure from Buddhist logic for reaching a conclusion may be useful. Many meditations use it for equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others. As with the rational approach taken in Exercise Two for generating caring concern, we reach a conclusion, or make a decision, by bringing to mind a reason and an example. Having consciously thought through a line of reasoning and having reached our conclusion, we reaffirm our intent by voicing our decision and then stop all verbal thought. We simply view the person while keeping the decision actively in mind. Remaining focused on the person, we let our decision sink in and concentrate on feeling combined warmth and understanding toward him or her.

We begin the first phase of the exercise by choosing a close family member toward whom we have positive feelings. If we do not have such a person in our family, we may choose a close friend. Looking at a photo or simply thinking of the person, we proceed as follows:

(1) We try to recall an incident in which someone else did not take us seriously. For example, our mother continued to push us to take a second helping when we told her we were full. On a more painful level, our partner did not even try to change his or her behavior when we said it was upsetting us. Trying to recall how we felt, we direct our attention toward the close relative we have chosen for the exercise. We consciously decide, "I shall take you seriously, because you, your words, and your feelings are real, as in my own case when I said I was full or upset." To affirm our decision, we repeat after the group facilitator, or say aloud by ourselves, "I shall take you seriously." Since this and subsequent lines we repeat may be difficult to remember, we may read them from a text before us or from a poster displayed in our practice room.

(2) We then try to remember an occasion when someone was afraid to respond to our needs. For instance, we were upset and our sibling or friend was afraid to comfort us. Though we did not expect him or her to solve all our problems, we would have appreciated some type of warm and sensitive response. Directing our attention at our relative, we consciously decide, "I shall not be afraid to respond to you if you need me. Although I may contribute to your success or failure, I am not the sole source affecting your situation, as with my sibling or friend whose comfort I needed." We repeat aloud, "I shall not be afraid to respond to you if you need me."

(3) Next, we try to bring to mind an incident in which someone did not take in all the information about our situation or feelings and jumped to a false conclusion. For example, our mother asked us to pick up some groceries on our way home. We fully intended to do it, but we had to stay late at work to finish some urgent business. By the time we arrived at the store, it had already closed. Seeing us walk in the door with empty arms, she became furious and started to yell how irresponsible we are. We recall how tedious it was to calm our mother and reassure her that we had tried our best. The circumstances were out of our control. We then focus on the family member in our exercise and consciously decide, "I shall take in all the information about your situation, without jumping to conclusions. I shall do this because I wish to avoid overreacting or responding to something I have merely invented, like when my mother imagined I had forgotten the shopping." We repeat aloud, "I shall take in all the information about your situation, without jumping to conclusions."

An important variant especially concerns interactions with those closest to us. For example, we might remember criticizing something our partner said or did. Losing sight of all other facets of our history together, our partner immediately concluded that we do not love him or her any longer. He or she became either completely depressed or extremely hostile. Trying to recall the effort it took to reassure our partner of our love, we give our relative a further assurance. "I shall keep sight of the larger context of our relationship so as not to jump to a false conclusion over a tiny incident, like my partner did when I criticized his or her behavior." We repeat aloud, "I shall keep sight of the larger context of our relationship so as not to jump to a false conclusion over a tiny incident."

(4) Next, we try to recall a time when someone did not act straightforwardly when we needed his or her help. For instance, a family member had offered to drive us to the airport so that we would not need to leave our car there during our vacation. Yet, he or she arrived so late that we missed our plane. We turn to the relative in our exercise and conclude, "Once I have decided to do something for you, I shall act straightforwardly. I shall do this because you experience your problem as something urgent, as I did when I needed to catch my plane." To confirm our decision, we repeat, "Once I have decided to do something for you, I shall act straightforwardly."

(5) Lastly, we try to remember an occasion when someone offered his or her unwanted or unneeded help, opinion, or advice. For example, we were chopping vegetables and our mother corrected the way we were doing it. What was she trying to prove? We focus on our family member and consciously decide, "I shall refrain from offering my unneeded or unwanted help, opinion, or advice. I shall do this because I do not wish to exploit you to gain a feeling of self-worth or of being needed, or to feel more secure by taking control of things, as with my mother who could not resist correcting how I chop vegetables." We then repeat aloud, "I shall refrain from offering my unneeded or unwanted help, opinion, or advice."

If we wish to practice more elaborately, we may expand as in the previous exercise on refraining from destructive behavior. After remembering an incident in which someone acted toward us in each of the five insensitive ways, we recall an occasion when we acted similarly toward someone else. Admitting that it was mistaken and feeling regret, we reaffirm our determination to be free of the syndrome. We then give our pledge to the person involved that we shall try our best not to repeat it.

Next, we make the same five decisions while looking at a magazine picture of someone we do not know. As the examples from the previous part of the exercise may be inappropriate for the anonymous person, we may use the more general examples from the earlier discussion. We decide, one by one,

  • "I shall take you seriously, like when preparing a hospital patient for an operation."
  • "I shall not be afraid to respond to you if you need me, like when teaching a baby to walk."
  • "I shall take in all the information about you and not jump to conclusions, like when examining a child with a bruised arm."
  • "Once I have decided to do something for you, I shall act straightforwardly, like when seeing someone carrying a heavy bundle and about to drop it."
  • "I shall refrain from offering unwanted or unneeded help, as when insisting on feeding the two-year-old with a spoon."

With each decision, we repeat the same line as before, let the decision sink in, and then focus on feeling combined warmth and understanding toward the person. Lastly, we repeat the procedure used with the stranger while looking at a photo or simply thinking of someone with whom we have a difficult relationship.

The second phase of the practice begins with sitting in a circle with our group and directing the decisions, one at a time, toward each person in turn. Abbreviating the procedure, we merely repeat aloud the same key sentences as when focusing on the anonymous and the emotionally challenging persons, let the decision sink in, and then focus on feeling combined warmth and understanding toward the person.

Sitting next with a partner, first one of the pair repeats to himself or herself the five key sentences used in the circle, while focusing on the decision. The person then repeats the sentence aloud as an assurance to the other, while focusing on feeling combined warmth and understanding. The speaker then focuses on feeling that the person accepts and trusts the assurance. During the procedure, the listener focuses on feeling, accepting, and trusting the speaker's warmth and understanding. The partners then switch roles. As a final step, for each of the five key sentences, the partners alternate: first one, then the other gives the assurance, with both persons focusing on the mutual generation and acceptance of combined warmth and understanding.

We begin the third phase by looking in a mirror and directing toward ourselves the five feelings of combined warmth and understanding. We follow the same procedure as with a partner, but substituting the key sentences:

  • "I shall take myself seriously."
  • "I shall not be afraid to respond to what I see or feel in myself, if needed."
  • "I shall consider all the facts about my situation, without jumping to conclusions."
  • "Once I have decided to do something about my situation, I shall act straightforwardly."
  • "I shall refrain from pushing myself to do something unneeded."

We then repeat the procedure, putting down the mirror.

As a final step, we look at the series of photographs of ourselves spanning our life. We try to see each picture as revealing a real person and to take each of them seriously. We try to feel no fear in dealing with our feelings about ourselves then. Without insisting on a fixed impression based on selective memory, we try to consider all the facts about that period. If our attitude about ourselves then is unhealthy and is causing us pain or blocked emotions, we resolve to act straightforwardly to change that attitude. Lastly, we try not to push the impossible by dwelling morbidly on our wish that we had acted differently. The past is over. We can do nothing to change what has already happened. All we can do now is to accept it with understanding, warmth, and forgiveness, and to learn from our mistakes.

To affirm our decisions, we repeat aloud the key sentences:

  • "I shall take myself seriously as I was then."
  • "I shall not be afraid of dealing with how I feel about myself then, if needed."
  • "I shall consider all the facts about my situation then, without jumping to conclusions."
  • "Once I have decided to do something, I shall act straightforwardly to deal with unresolved feelings."
  • "I shall not push the impossible; I shall forgive."

After letting each decision sink in, we focus on feeling warmth and understanding toward ourselves as we were then.