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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 III: Dispelling Confusion about Appearances

11 Validating the Appearances We Perceive

Statement of the Problem

The most basic mental activity during each moment of our experience is to produce mental objects and simultaneously to engage with them. If, however, the actual object we perceive with mirror-like awareness is merely an appearance our mind creates, this raises a serious question. How do we know that the interpretation our awareness of reality makes of what we see or hear is true?

For example, suppose we notice an expression on our friend's face and our mind makes it appear as though he or she is upset with us. How do we know that what we perceive is accurate so that we can properly respond with accomplishing awareness? After all, paranoia may make someone appear disapproving of us when he or she simply has an upset stomach. This can easily cause us to make a fool of ourselves.

Confirming the Conventional Validity of What We Sense

The sixth century Indian Buddhist master Chandrakirti explained three criteria to validate any perception. First, what we perceive needs to be well known in the world. For example, when people are upset and disapprove of someone, they may knit their brows and twist their mouth askew. This convention, however, is not universal. In some societies, people show disapproval by raising their eyebrows and making the sound "tsk." Dogs, on the other hand, growl. With awareness of equalities, we need to correlate what we see or hear with the appropriate social convention. We need also to apply awareness of equalities to compare what we see with the individual's personal pattern of behavior. This tells us if our friend usually expresses being upset this way.

Second, what we perceive must not be contradicted by a mind that validly sees the conventional facts of reality: what things are. Therefore, even before applying the first criterion, we might need to come nearer or to put on our glasses. We need to make sure that what we see is not a distortion due to distance or poor eyesight. If nothing is wrong with our mirror-like awareness and what we perceive fits the right pattern, we then need to corroborate our conclusion with other evidence. We may rely on further observation and on conversation with our friend and those close to him or her.

Anger arises from a broad array of causes and circumstances. These include someone's emotional makeup, his or her personal, family, and societal backgrounds, and an incident that sparks the anger to arise. Anything that arises from causes and circumstances produces effects. Therefore, if our friend is upset with us, he or she is likely to do this or that and respond to us in this or that manner. This will happen whether or not our friend is conscious of his or her anger and whether or not our friend is willing to discuss it. We need to look for further evidence with mirror-like awareness and to identify the patterns with awareness of equalities.

In short, the ability to produce an effect distinguishes whether or not what we conventionally perceive is a total figment of our imagination. By these first two criteria, then, we discriminate between accurate and distorted appearances and between correct and distorted understandings of what accurate appearances conventionally signify. This, however, is still not enough.

Suppose the appearance we perceive of our friend's knitted brow is accurate, not a distortion of weak vision or insufficient lighting. Suppose also that the person is from a society that shares the custom of showing this expression when upset. Moreover, following this convention is our friend's normal behavior when in such a mood. Furthermore, suppose that we have checked other evidence. Our friend glared at us when we arrived and remained silent when we said hello. Thus, our understanding and labeling of the significance of the sight are correct. Our friend actually is annoyed with us and does not merely have an upset stomach. Still, our friend may appear to us as a truly ridiculous person who is always becoming upset and angry. Consequently, we may overreact and we too become annoyed. To confirm the validity of this appearance, we need a third criterion. The appearance our mind produces must not be contradicted by a mind that validly perceives the deepest fact of reality: how things exist.

Validating the Deepest Fact of Reality According to the Self-Voidness Position

According to the self-voidness position, as explained by the Gelug tradition, the deepest fact of reality is that everything exists devoid of fantasized, impossible ways. Unless we are an enlightened being, however, our mind automatically creates a deceptive appearance of how our friend exists. It then mixes an appearance of a mode of existence that does not correspond with reality with one that does. In other words, our mind fabricates an appearance of an impossible mode of existence – as a truly ridiculous person. It then projects it onto the appearance of our friend existing as he or she actually does – as simply a person who is presently annoyed with us due to causes and circumstances. When we believe that our projected fantasy refers to something real and that our friend actually exists in the way our mind makes him or her deceptively appear, we may overreact. Therefore, we need to employ the third criterion to validate the mode of existence that we perceive.

Let us examine this point more closely. The confusing appearance our mind produces when we see the sight of our friend's frowning face is that he or she is really an angry and ridiculous person. Our friend appears to be someone who always becomes furious at the most trivial things and who is hopeless and will never change. It does not appear as though we are simply correctly labeling the expression we see as signifying that our friend is now upset. Nor does it simply appear that our friend as presently upset is merely what this label signifies based on the various aspects of his or her facial expression and on various causes and circumstances. Instead, it appears as though we can point to some inherent feature in our friend that is giving him or her the seemingly concrete identity of a "really angry and ridiculous person," for example a permanent character flaw.

Suppose our friend actually existed with some inherent findable feature that rendered him or her a really angry person. It would make our friend upset continuously, forever, despite what might happen or what we might do. This is preposterous. No matter how angry or upset someone might presently be, no one exists inherently like that.

Therefore, if our confused mind produces an appearance of our friend as inherently immature - which provokes our seeing him or her with disapproval, impatience, and anger – what we perceive is invalidated by a mind that correctly sees self-voidness. Such an appearance does not refer to anything real. Though our friend may be upset with us now and may be acting immaturely, no one exists as an inherently and incorrigibly oversensitive person. No one exists with some permanent flaw making him or her, when upset with anger, always hold an eternal grudge. People's upset and immature behavior arises dependently on causes and circumstances. When we change the variables affecting the situation, the person's behavior also changes.

Validating the Conventional and Deepest Facts of Reality According to the Other-Voidness Point of View

According to the other-voidness explanation given in the Karma Kagyu tradition, the subtlest clear light mind gives rise to our experiences. The contents of each moment of experience consist of two inseparable aspects: perceiving something and something being perceived. When instincts of confusion accompany our experiences, our mind produces "dualistic appearances." "Dualistic appearance-making" causes the perceiving aspect of an experience and the perceived object at which it is directed to appear as if they were two totally separate, unrelated phenomena. It seems as if our mind is somewhere "in here" looking out and the sight or appearance we see is sitting "out there," waiting for us to see it. Such a mind and mental object are totally imaginary phenomena. A mind that validly perceives the conventional facts of reality contradicts such a confusing appearance.

Dualistic appearances are also contradicted by a mind that validly perceives the deepest fact of reality, namely a mind that realizes other-voidness. Other-voidness is the subtlest level of clear light activity. Such activity is devoid of all grosser levels, such as those that produce these dualistic appearances and those that believe in them. The deepest fact of reality is that the pure activity of this subtlest level is merely to produce nondualistic experiences. Such mental activity contradicts all appearances of dualism.

Let us consider our previous example. When we meet our friend, our clear light mind gives rise to an appearance of the sight of his or her face and to the seeing of it. Under the influence of the instincts of confusion, a slightly grosser level of mental activity then produces a dualistic appearance. The object and mind in the experience seem split into two opposing forces. The upset face seems to be some truly annoying thing "out there," which we, the innocent bystander "in here," have had the misfortune to see. We identify the appearing object as a concrete "you" and the mind perceiving it as a concrete "me," confronting each other. Believing this appearance to correspond to reality, we feel we cannot relate to our friend. We think that he or she is a truly hopeless person who is always angry and upset. We also feel sorry for ourselves as a truly innocent victim who is forever unjustly tormented by this ridiculous person. Totally disgusted with these confrontations, we decide never to see our friend again.

If we check this appearance of two solidly opposing factions, one "in here" and the other "out there," we realize that it does not conform to reality. All that has occurred in the incident was the arising of an experience – the seeing of a sight – and this sight appearing as that of our friend's upset face. Of course, this sight has arisen dependently on our friend, our mind, and our eyes. Nevertheless, if we are to respond in a balanced and sensitive manner, we need to understand that experience is not composed of some tragic hero facing the onslaught of overwhelming forces sent by the gods. Such a view of experience is a total fantasy.

Accepting the Conventional Facts of Reality That We Validly Experience

Let us consider the implications of the above points for developing balanced sensitivity. Suppose, for example, we look at our face in the mirror first thing in the morning and we see ourselves as fat and old, with a pimple on our nose. We feel disgusted with our appearance. What options do we have?

We need to validate the accuracy of what we see. Is it totally imaginary? We check the image and our evaluation of it with several criteria. Putting on the light, we look closer at the mirror. Is it just poor lighting that is making us look fat? Have we included a shadow as part of our face? We touch our nose. If a pimple is there, it should produce the effect of giving a certain physical sensation that we can feel with our finger. Further, we consider whether in our society the appearance of white hair definitely signifies that we are old, even if someone begins to gray in his or her thirties. We may be old compared with a child, but are we old compared with our grandmother?

Suppose we discover that what we see in the mirror is accurate and not just a figment of our imagination. We have no choice but to accept its reality. Denying what we see, never looking at ourselves in the mirror again, or cleverly applying makeup and dyeing our hair cannot change the fact that we have experienced now an accurate appearance. Our face is fat, old, and has a pimple on its nose. Does the appearance we see of our face after we apply cosmetics change what we saw when we looked at our face in the mirror when we first woke up?

After we have determined that what we see is not a total fantasy, we are left with only one reasonable option. Whether we like it or not, we need to accept what we see. Our mind has given rise to a conventionally valid appearance of a fat, old face with a pimple on its nose and to the experience of accurately seeing it. That is all. Only based on calm acceptance of an actual situation can we deal with it sensitively and respond with balance.

Rejecting the Appearances That Contradict the Deepest Facts of Reality

Normally, our mind does not give rise to the appearance of our face as merely fat and old. It superimposes an image of us as really fat and really old. Seeing our appearance like that in the mirror and believing it to be true, we overreact. We become depressed and disgusted with ourselves. The sight of the face we see does not appear to be "me" and we want to deny it.

If, however, the person we see reflected in the mirror is not us, who is it? It is certainly not someone else. Nor is it nobody. We have no alternative but to accept the fact that based on the appearance we see of this fat and old-looking face, we have to admit this is "me." However, when we project onto the mere appearance an inflation of its way of existing and think, "This is a really fat, really old person, how disgusting!" and when we identify "me" with someone having the shape of a sexy young movie star, we have plunged into the realm of fantasy. We identify with the person looking in the mirror and commenting in our head. We regard this horrified person as solidly "me"-the one about whom we are vain and worried about being really fat and old. In addition, we identify the horrifying figure we see in the mirror as something that is certainly not "me" and we reject it completely.

It feels as if there were two concrete people present: (1) an outraged person sitting in our head looking out our eyes and concretely existing as "me" and (2) some old, fat, horrible thing looking back from the mirror and concretely existing as someone having nothing whatever to do with "me." This dualistic feeling does not refer to anything real. We do not exist as Beauty looking at the Beast, despite what we might think or feel.

This does not mean that we need to be the martyr and resign ourselves to being the Beast. That would only cause us either to feel sorry for ourselves or to repress our emotions. Just as we do not identify with Beauty, we also do not identify with the Beast. Beauty and the Beast are characters of fiction. No one could possibly exist as either of the two. A correct understanding of self-voidness corroborates that fact. When we comprehend this point, we reject the appearances and feelings we perceive as utter nonsense. Our insight pops the balloon of our fantasies. Consequently, we avoid or stop overreacting. This happens even if our family or society has taught us to regard ourselves as a Beauty or as a Beast, and even if others have treated us as such. Our conviction in reality dispels our belief in their shallow opinion.

A mind that correctly focuses on other-voidness also invalidates the dualistic appearance of Beauty and the Beast. Our clear light mind is merely producing the experience of seeing a sight. When we focus on that pure mental activity, we can reject the dualistic appearance of the seeing and the sight being Beauty and the Beast. The imagined dualism here is like the two covers of an opened book of fantasies. Our insight closes the book, ends the fairy tale, and returns us to reality. Thus, we also avoid or stop overreacting.

We can understand the process of rejecting fantasy by considering the example of seeing someone dressed as Santa Claus. When we realize that Santa Claus is just a myth, we can easily dispel our belief that the person exists as who he or she appears to be. By focusing on the absence of a real Santa Claus, we can see the person beneath the costume as who he or she actually is. Consequently, we can relax and have fun during an encounter. Dismissing a delusion, however, requires kindness, understanding, and forgiveness. Otherwise, we inflict serious self-damage by thinking of ourselves as having been an idiot and by then feeling guilty about how we felt or behaved.

Exercise 11: Validating the Appearances We Perceive

We begin the first phase of this exercise by imagining that after dinner we see our sink full of something. It seems like a pile of dirty dishes, but we wish it were something else. We picture using various criteria to validate what we see. For example, we turn on the light and check whether the sink is actually full of dirty dishes or full of packages of frozen food that are defrosting. After confirming that they are in fact dirty dishes, we have no choice but to accept as accurate what we see. We imagine looking at the dishes with calm acceptance, trying to see them for what they are – simply dirty dishes in the sink, no more and no less.

Next, we recall seeing such a sight and try to remember how the dishes looked and how we felt. They might have seemed like a disgusting mess and, in our reticence to wash them, we might have felt like a prima donna, too good to get our hands dirty. Thinking of such a scene now, we try to revive that feeling. We then reflect that we are inflating the situation. They are merely dirty dishes in the sink and we are merely a responsible adult who needs to wash them. Dirty dishes are not inherently disgusting; we are no prima donna; and washing the dishes is no big deal.

Realizing the absurdity of our melodramatic view, we reject it by imagining the sharpness of our insight bursting the balloon of our fantasy. Then, we try to focus on the absence of anything findable inside. An inherently disgusting mess and an immaculate prima donna cannot be found, simply because they are not real.

We need to be sure that when we reject our fantasy, we do not dismiss it like switching to a different station on the television. If we regard our fantasy like this, we may shortly return to the same program. Dismissing it, instead, with the image of a balloon bursting helps us to stop reinflating our fantasy. We need to feel that the story is over forever.

Moreover, if we conceive of the fantasy of a concrete "me" being vanquished by an even stronger concrete "me" wielding an even more powerful concrete "insight," we have merely switched to another level of dualistic appearance and fantasy. The balloon bursting is a form of mental activity and, as such, it occurs without a concrete agent in our head making it happen.

We reinforce our rejection of fantasy by noting that basically we merely saw a sight. Our imagination has inflated this event by creating and projecting onto it the dualistic appearance of a seemingly concrete "me" and seemingly concrete dishes. This appearance is a fantasy. Realizing this, we imagine that the covers of our storybook abruptly shut. The fairy tale "The Prima Donna Faces the Disgusting Mess" is over. Picturing the storybook dissolving into our mind, we try to focus on the fact that the dualistic drama was merely a production of our imagination. After rejecting our fantasy in this way, we try to imagine calmly washing the dishes, without identifying ourselves as a martyr or as a servant.

Next, we look at a picture or simply think of someone we live with who might often leave dirty dishes in the sink overnight. If we live alone, we may focus on someone we know who is like this and imagine that we live together. First, we imagine seeing the sink filled with dishes in the morning. Before jumping to conclusions, we picture checking whose turn it was to wash up last night. If it was this person's responsibility, we try to imagine calmly accepting the fact that he or she did not wash them. That is all that happened, nothing more.

We then examine how the person appears to us and how we feel. Most of us can recall such an experience and remember the other person appearing as a "lazy slob" and us self-righteously feeling like an overtaxed victim who can no longer put up with this nonsense. We remind ourselves that no one exists as a lazy slob who is incapable of ever washing up, or as a victim who must always clean up after others. Realizing the exaggeration of our fantasy, we reject it by picturing the balloon bursting. We try to focus on the absence of these fictional characters inside.

We reinforce the dismissal of our fantasy by trying to realize that we are overreacting to a dualistic appearance. Picturing the storybook of "The Lazy Slob and the Self-righteous Victim" shutting and dissolving into our mind, we focus on the fact that the fairy tale came from our imagination. All that occurred was that we saw the person and that he or she left the dishes overnight.

After clearing away our fantasy, we can now deal rationally with the reality of the situation. For example, we try to picture remaining quiet and patiently waiting for the person to wash up after breakfast, if that is his or her habit. Alternatively, if we need to remind the person or to redistribute the housework, we try to imagine doing so calmly, without making accusations.

Next, we turn to other disturbing scenes from our personal life – in the home, in the office, or in our personal relationships. We follow the same procedure for validating and accepting the accuracy of what we have seen or heard. Once we have accepted what actually happened, we examine, recognize, and try to relinquish the inflated, dualistic appearances that our judgmental mind might have projected. We do this by reminding ourselves that our fantasies about oppressors, victims, and so forth, are simply nonsense that comes from our imagination. Picturing the balloons of these fantasies bursting and the storybook shutting and dissolving into our mind, we try to return to seeing the situation as it actually is.

The second phase of the exercise begins with sitting in a circle with a group and focusing on each person in turn. We look carefully in order to confirm the conventional appearance that we see of the person – for example, as someone who colors his or her hair, as someone who wears one earring, and so on. Without mental comments, we try to accept as accurate what we see. We then try to notice how the person appears to us and how we feel. For example, the person may look like someone totally vain, or like an absolute fool who mindlessly follows fashion, or like the most enticing or threatening thing in the world. Moreover, we may feel like the self-appointed judge or like the shipwrecked survivor on a desert island desperate for company. We try to dismiss these images and feelings by picturing the balloon bursting and the storybook shutting and dissolving into our mind. Then, we try to look at the person acceptingly, without feeling guilty or foolish for what we felt.

Next, we repeat the procedure while sitting facing a partner and working with his or her appearance. Then, going deeper, we note any feelings of nervousness or fear we might have. Specifically, we try to notice and dismiss any feeling we might have of ourselves as a seemingly concrete "me" in our head confronting a seemingly concrete "you" sitting behind this person's eyes. Using the images of the balloon popping and the storybook shutting and dissolving into our mind, we note the deep feeling of relief and the natural warmth and openness that this rejection of fantasy brings.

The third phase of the exercise begins with looking at ourselves in the mirror. Checking the accuracy of what we see, we try to accept it without making judgments. We try to relinquish any feelings we might have of Beauty and the Beast, again by bursting the balloon of fantasy and by shutting and dissolving the book of fairy tales. If we are practicing at home and have the facilities, we may repeat the exercise while listening to our voice on a tape recorder and then while watching a video of ourselves.

During the second part of this phase, we sit quietly and try to notice what we are feeling. Then, we check the accuracy of our assessment. Is what we sense simply what we have decided beforehand that we are feeling or is it how we actually feel just now? If we really are feeling lonely or content, or even if we really are feeling nothing, we try to accept what we feel without making judgments. If we accurately sense that, in addition, we are feeling sorry for ourselves, feeling guilty about what we are feeling, or feeling totally incapable of feeling anything, we try to accept the presence of these impressions too. Otherwise, we may feel guilty for feeling guilty. We try to recognize, however, that we may be inflating and making too much of our feelings. Realizing this, we reject the inflated impression we have of our feelings. We burst the balloon, shut and dissolve the storybook, and notice how much more comfortable we feel. We are able to deal with our feelings now with more balance.

Lastly, we look at the series of previous photos of ourselves and repeat the exercise. Directing our analysis toward the appearances that we see and the feelings they elicit, we try to accept ourselves as we actually were then. If we are inflating the feelings we remember from those periods or the feelings we still have regarding those times, we burst the balloon, close the storybook, and dissolve the book into our mind. We then continue calmly looking at the pictures.