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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 V: Advanced Training

17 Grasping at Mind's Natural Functions for Security

Statement of the Problem

Because of the deeply rooted habit of confusion about reality, our mental activity instinctively and constantly produces not only dualistic appearances, but also "triplistic" ones. According to madhyamaka (middle way) theory, it fabricates a deceptive appearance of a seemingly concrete agent, object, and action as the "three circles" of any event. Our mental activity then projects this appearance onto every moment of our naturally nontriplistic experience of things as they are. The confusion that automatically accompanies this mental activity causes us to believe in the deceptive appearance. However, because the alienated "me" we create and identify with as the agent of the action is totally imaginary, we naturally feel insecure about its seemingly solid existence.

Hoping to gain a sense of concreteness and security, we feel compelled to establish or to prove the existence of the imaginary "me" in our mind. Alternatively, we feel driven to lose this "me" and to find security by becoming nonexistent. Often, we focus our futile efforts on the actions themselves. The Kalachakra literature explains how we do this specifically with assorted facets of clear light mind's natural activity.

The abhidharma (special topics of knowledge) analysis of poisonous attitudes suggests three ways in which we try to find security. Inflating actions into concrete entities, first we may hope that engaging in them will make us secure and more real. Second, we may fear and wish to avoid engaging in certain actions. They seem to threaten or compromise this supposedly concrete "me." Third, we may hope to lose ourselves in certain actions. In all three cases, our attitude and consequent behavior make us both insensitive and hypersensitive to others and to ourselves.

Seven Natural Mental Functions That We Grasp for Security

According to the Kalachakra system, clear light mental activity naturally leads to four waves of experience. These are physical expression, subtler forms of expression, being quiet, and experiencing pleasure. Each of these waves consists of sensory or mental awareness, warm concern, and energy. This trio corresponds to the three invisible factors that produce experiences: mental activity, "creative drops" (bindu, tigley), and "winds" (prana, lung). The drops and winds are features of our energy system and have varying degrees of subtlety. Mental activity is like a painter of experience, creative drops are like a palette of colors, and winds are like a brush. Similarly, seeing, hearing, thinking, and so on create the images that we perceive. Different levels of warm concern color our experience of them, by using our energy as the brush.

When confusion and its instincts dominate our life, waves of clear light activity pass through one or another of four subtle creative drops. These subtle drops resemble floodgates into four domains of ordinary experience – physical activity and being awake, verbal activity and dreaming, rest and being asleep with no dreams, and experiencing peak moments of pleasure. At these drops, "winds of karma" agitate the waves to create the confusing triplistic appearances of these experiences. This confusion may concern the sensory or mental awareness, the warm concern, or the energy involved during any of the experiences. Belief in these confusing appearances then brings disturbing emotions and problems.

When unmixed with either confusion or its instincts, natural waves of clear light activity associate simply with the subtlest creative drop and the subtlest wind. Working together, they give rise directly to the four enlightening networks of a Buddha. The enlightening networks also encompass waves of physical expression, verbal expression, quiet experience, and joyous pleasure. They also consist of awareness, loving concern, and energy. As a Buddha, however, the network of these seven facets of clear light activity brings only benefit.

The scheme of four waves and three aspects of clear light activity producing either confusing experiences or enlightening networks suggests that balanced sensitivity comes from removing confusion from our innate network of seven facets of experience. These are (1) our physical activity, (2) our verbal expression, (3) our sensory and mental experience, (4) our expression of warm concern, (5) our expression of energy, (6) our rest, and (7) our expression of pleasure. Let us therefore focus on identifying and removing triplistic appearances specifically from these seven facets of experience.

A Linguistic Scheme for Identifying the Forms These Problems May Take

The Kalachakra system also describes the external, internal, and spiritual or alternative worlds as parallel in structure. An important aspect of our internal world is the structure of language. Kalachakra texts present this structure in terms of Sanskrit grammar. This suggests a powerful tool for analyzing and remedying problems associated with mind's natural functions.

Sanskrit verbs generate active and passive, simple and causative, indicative and subjunctive, and past, present, and future forms. They also occur in the affirmative and negative. For example, we speak to someone, are spoken to by someone, make someone speak to us, would speak to someone, spoke to someone, will speak to someone, or do not speak to someone. Since each of the seven natural facets of mental activity is a verbal noun, each facet may take some or all these verbal forms. Sensitivity problems arise from grasping at, fearing, or trying to lose ourselves in any of them.

Exercise 19: Identifying the Syndromes of Grasping at Mind's Natural Functions for Security

To help identify these disturbing syndromes, let us survey some common illustrations of each. As in Exercise One, we need to discover the problems that pertain to us. After creating a quiet and caring mental space, we first try to recall incidents in which either we or others have experienced these forms of behavior. Then, we need to think about how such behavior may arise because of grasping for security from one of mind's natural functions or because of fearing it as a threat. Reflecting on how this confusion causes insensitivity or hypersensitivity to ourselves or to others, we try to recognize and to acknowledge the problems that may result. When we begin to understand the psychological mechanism underlying our sensitivity problems, we have opened the door to leave them behind us.

In illustrating the assortment of problems that crystallize around each of the seven facets of mental activity, we shall restrict ourselves to four categories. The four derive from the further grammatical point that we may be either the agent or the object of various forms of action that derive from each facet. The problems regard (1) expressing an action, (2) receiving an expression of it from someone, (3) being afraid or uncomfortable to express an action, and (4) being afraid or uncomfortable to receive an expression of it. If we keep in mind the linguistic scheme of variations, we may recognize various subcategories from our own or others' behavior.

For practice in a workshop, the group facilitator may choose one example for each of the four syndromes associated with mind's seven natural functions, or just one illustration for each function. When practicing at home, we may do the same or work only with personally pertinent syndromes. For advanced practice, or if we wish to be thorough, we may go through all the examples for each syndrome.

Grasping or Fearing Physical Activity

(1) Mental activity naturally leads to physical actions. Nevertheless, we may hope to gain security by being the concrete agent who makes these actions occur. For example, believing that being productive justifies our existence, we may become a "workaholic," unable to cope if we lose our job. Alternatively, we may try to lose ourselves in work so that we do not have to think about our personal problems. This renders us totally insensitive to ourselves.

Because of nervous insecurity, we may feel the need to keep our hands forever busy. Wanting to feel needed, we cannot let others do anything for themselves, like tidy their desk. Doing things for others to gain a feeling of self-worth, however, is merely a form of insensitive exploitation. This is especially true when others do not want our help. Moreover, immersing ourselves in trying to help others often becomes a way to avoid helping ourselves.

Sometimes, we may try to prove our existence by producing effects. For example, we may be unable to pass an electronic gadget without pressing the buttons, even if we have no idea how to use the machine. If someone tells us to leave it alone lest we break it, we take this as a threat to our competence and value as a person. We overreact with hostility.

A causative form of the syndrome is to grasp at giving others work to do. This is the classic "power trip." To assert our existence, we boss people around. In doing so, we are insensitive to the fact that no one appreciates being ordered to do something. Subjunctive forms include feeling that if only we could find the perfect job, we could cope with life. We might also feel that if only we could be in control of everything in life, we would feel secure. Lost in such dreams, we lose touch with reality.

Focusing on the past or on the future, we may hope to achieve security by resting on the laurels of our achievements, or to establish our worth by planning innumerable projects. Such thinking often renders us insensitive to the moment. Adding a subjunctive element to this form of the syndrome, we may feel that we would now be secure if only we had accomplished something earlier in life. A negative form of the same is to think that we would now be secure if only we had not committed certain mistakes in our youth. We overreact by feeling sorry for ourselves.

We may also combine forms of this syndrome with grasping at other natural functions of the mind. For example, we may grasp for security by seeing others being active. Hoping to feel more alive or to lose ourselves by becoming anonymous, we may live in a bustling city. Similarly, we may need to go every day to the shopping mall to watch the people. Insensitive to our family's preferences, we may insist that they come with us.

Lastly, we may compulsively run from one activity to the next, because of fear of missing out on something. Making this causative, we may feel that our children should not miss out on anything either. Consequently, as an individual or as a society, we push them into a grueling schedule of sports and lessons after school. In doing this, we make our youngsters' lives as speedy and as full as those of adults working in a high-pressured office. Even the computer games that our children play are hyperactive.

(2) Grasping at being the recipient of others' actions may also take several forms. Hoping to gain a sense of self-worth from receiving others' service or to lose ourselves by not having to deal with a domestic scene, we may compulsively eat in restaurants. Our insensitivity to our partner's feelings may make the person feel that we do not think he or she can cook.

A causative form is feeling unsure of ourselves and always asking others what we should do. If the person tells us to use our judgment, we become even more insecure and nervous. Subjunctive forms include feeling that we would be better able to cope with life if we could find a partner to do everything for us. Such thinking makes us insensitive to feeling true love.

(3) Fear of being the agent of physical actions, fueled by low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence, may make us "technophobic." We may feel incompetent to handle the latest electronic equipment. Convinced that we are hopelessly clumsy, we may even feel insecure about changing a lightbulb. When faced with such tasks, we overreact with anxiety.

(4) We may also be uncomfortable with being the recipient of others' actions. For example, if someone drives the car instead of us, we may feel insecure because we want to be always in control. If someone does something for us or pays our bill at a restaurant, we may feel robbed of our dignity. Causative forms are being unable to bear someone telling us what to do or even asking us to do something, because we feel it threatens our independence.

Grasping or Fearing Verbal Expression

(1) Mental activity naturally creates waves of words to express itself. However, when we conceive of our mind as a concrete "me," we may grasp at this natural occurrence in the hope of it establishing and proving our existence. For instance, we may talk compulsively. Unable to endure silence when with someone, we may nervously chatter even if we have nothing to say. We are insensitive to anyone's need for quiet. Inflating the significance of our words, we may imagine that everyone is interested to know what we think. Consequently, we may always have to voice our opinion. Moreover, we may feel that we must always get in the last word. We have to be right. If someone says the shirt is blue, we automatically reply no, it is dark blue.

(2) When we grasp at receiving verbal expression, we may always need to hear others speaking. We may insensitively insist that someone talk to us, otherwise we feel ignored and nonexistent. Delighting in others' conversations, we may also be addicted to listening to talk shows or to following chat groups on the Internet. These forms of escape may be symptomatic of insensitivity to our own life problems.

A variant form is hoping for more security if someone else conducts business or obtains information for us on the telephone. If the person makes a mistake, however, we inevitably overreact with accusations of his or her incompetence.

(3) When we fear verbal expression, we feel nervous to tell someone what is on our mind. Afraid that the person might reject us, we do not want to jeopardize our security by proving ourselves an idiot. For similar reasons, we might also feel nervous to speak before an audience.

(4) We may also feel discomfort at being the recipient of verbal expression. For example, we may be unable to accept criticism. Whenever someone points out our shortcomings, we may immediately throw it back to the person, accusing him or her of the same fault. We may also feel personally threatened when someone says something politically incorrect, such as "waitress" rather than "waitperson." Similarly, we may feel our existence negated if someone tries to make a reservation for us over the telephone. Insensitive to the person's feelings, we snatch the receiver from his or her hand. We may also be unable to bear someone typing for us, without hovering and waiting for the person to make a mistake.

Grasping or Fearing Sensory or Mental Experiences

(1) We may grasp for security by accumulating sensory or mental experiences. For instance, when we go abroad as a tourist, we may feel compelled to visit and photograph every site. Unconsciously, we think that this will somehow make the tour worthwhile and prove that we were there. Alternatively, we may try to lose ourselves in sightseeing in order to forget our problems at home. Our insecurity and frenetic pace drive our travel companions insane.

Regarding the other senses, we may need to have music or television playing from morning until night. Otherwise, we feel lost in a frightening vacuum of silence. We prefer deliberately losing ourselves in music instead. Or, insensitive to anyone else's comfort, we may insist on having all the windows open, even in subzero temperature. We feel that we must always smell fresh air in order to feel alive. Moreover, when we go to a buffet, we may compulsively need to taste every dish. Otherwise, we feel we were not really there. We take no account of what others might think at our display of greed.

Insensitive to other shoppers, we may mindlessly touch every item of clothing in the store as we walk past the rack, to ground us to reality. Needing frequent body contact to reassure our existence, we may give each person a hug when we enter or leave a room, even if this is inappropriate. Wanting to know all the latest news, we cannot bear to be uninformed about our family, our friends, or world affairs. Having information somehow makes us feel more real. Similarly, we never know when to stop asking questions. Not knowing what is happening, or where we are going when someone takes us out, makes us feel completely insecure.

Teenagers act under the influence of this syndrome when they play music at ear-shattering volume, enhance their senses with recreational drugs, and endure the pain of body-piercing. The more intense their sensory experiences are, the more they feel that somehow they exist despite the impersonal, deadening world around them. Alternatively, the more intense their experiences are, the more they hope they can lose themselves in them.

(2) We may also grasp for security by being the object of other people's experience. For instance, we may feel the need to be seen at the right parties and the right places, wearing the latest fashions. If someone else is wearing the same shirt or dress, we feel shattered. We may also need others to hear us singing at Karaoke bars to affirm our existence, even if we make a fool of ourselves. Feeling that our experiences become real only if others know about them, we indiscriminately tell our personal affairs to people sitting beside us on the plane. We are insensitive to the possibility that they may not be interested. Alternatively, we may constantly complain about our problems to others as an unconscious mechanism to avoid dealing with them ourselves.

(3) We may also fear having sensory or mental experiences. We may be frightened to make eye contact during a conversation, despite the unsettling effect our looking at the floor may have on the other person. Looking away is often an unconscious way of trying to avoid someone seeing the real "me." Being overly sensitive, we may feel threatened by the unfamiliar odors of a foreign market or be afraid to taste something new. They seem to challenge who we are. We may also be frightened to feel our emotions. Feeling nothing seems more secure. Similarly, we may be uncomfortable even to be in the same room with someone who is terminally ill, because of unconsciously feeling our own existence threatened. Therefore, we may insensitively treat such people as if they were no longer human beings with feelings.

(4) When we feel uncomfortable with being the object of other people's sensory or mental experience, we may overreact if anyone sees us undress. We do not want them to see the real "me." We may also feel self-conscious if someone records our voice during a speech, because of feeling that now what we say actually counts. If others' bodies touch ours on a crowded subway, we may feel threatened. Physical contact with someone seems like a more real encounter than being one inch away. Obsessed with privacy, we may also be paranoid about giving information about ourselves to anyone.

Grasping or Fearing Expression of Warm Concern

People often grasp at mind's natural warm concern for a sense of security, mostly in combination with grasping at one of the previous three qualities. The object of our concern may be a partner, a friend, a child, or a family member.

(1) When we grasp at warm concern for security, we may feel that life is not worthwhile or that we are unreal unless we are in an intimate relationship with someone. We may also long for a baby so that we will feel needed. We may do this even if we are not ready to be a responsible parent. Alternatively, we may wish for a baby so that we can lose ourselves in taking care of it.

Combining this syndrome with grasping at physical or verbal activity, we may compulsively feel the need to show our affection. We may do this by perpetually hugging, kissing, or doing things for someone, or by constantly verbalizing our love. It feels as if our affection does not exist unless we express it. Moreover, our feelings are completely hurt if the person shuns our advances or responds with passivity or silence.

Similarly, to confirm the reality of our love, we may compulsively have to see or touch our beloved or to look at his or her photo on our desk. Insensitive to other demands on the person's time, we may incessantly call him or her on the telephone, for similar reasons. We may feel insecure unless we share every aspect of our life with a partner – intellectual pursuits, sports interests, business matters, and so on – despite this being an unreasonable expectation or demand. This comes from thinking that sharing everything will make our relationship more real. Here, we are grasping at both mind's natural warmth and its leading to sensory and mental experience.

(2) Grasping at being the recipient of warm concern, we may feel unsettled unless we hear "I love you" or receive a kiss whenever parting from our loved one. It feels as if, without it, the person's love for us is unreal. We may similarly feel insecure and overreact unless we know every detail about our beloved's day.

(3) When we are afraid of feeling warm concern, we may fear losing control if we fall in love. We may also feel uncomfortable to show our love by giving someone a good morning kiss, by saying "I love you," or by calling him or her each day from work. When our loved one asks us to do any of these, we overreact, as if it would kill us. This aggravates the person's insecurity in our relationship.

(4) We may also feel afraid of being the recipient of warm concern. For example, we may fear losing our independence if someone falls in love with us. Someone hugging or kissing us, telling us he or she loves us, or calling us at work may also make us feel uncomfortable. Saying, "Don't be stupid," we respond insensitively, either by rejecting the person's expression of love or by offering a passive martyr's response. Acting as if the hug or kiss were an attack on our sovereignty, or some childish indignity we have to endure, devastates the person who loves us.

Grasping or Fearing Expression of Energy

This syndrome usually underlies the previous sensitivity problems.

(1) When we grasp at expressing our energy to feel more secure, we may feel the compulsive need to assert our will to prove our existence. We might also insensitively push ourselves on others, for them to confirm our existence by their response.

(2) When we grasp at receiving others' energy, we may insensitively demand that everyone focus their attention on us, to make us feel significant and real. Hypersensitive to people ignoring us, we may make a fool of ourselves to gain notice. We may even pretend to be sick or act horribly, to force others to accept or reject our existence.

(3) We may also be afraid to express our energy. We may fear that if we assert ourselves, others will reject us. Such oversensitivity blocks our emotions and makes us insensitive to our feelings. Moreover, we may fear that exerting ourselves will leave us with no energy or no time. We resent demands that others make on us and feel them as a threat to our existence.

(4) Fear of receiving energy from others may make us self-conscious and uncomfortable if others show us attention. We may feel undeserving. If we need to visit someone who always complains, we might also be afraid that his or her negative energy would infect us. Consequently, we put up emotional barriers to defend ourselves.

Grasping or Fearing Rest

(1) When we grasp at taking a rest to feel more secure, we may constantly need to take breaks at work so as not to lose sight of being a person. Hypersensitive to noise, we may feel that we need peace and quiet to maintain our composure. We may long for sleep or even for death to escape our problems.

(2) Grasping to receive a rest from others, we may feel that if others would give us a break and leave us alone, everything would be all right. Coupling this syndrome with previous forms of grasping, we may feel that we cannot fall asleep unless our loved one is lying next to us, unless we make love, or unless we read a book.

(3) When we are afraid to take a rest, we may feel that we will no longer be a person if we stop being active. We may be unable to relax or to fall asleep from fear of missing something or of not being in control. We may also insensitively feel that no one can handle our job if we retire or go on vacation.

(4) We may also be uncomfortable at receiving a rest from others. If people do not call or ask us to do something for them, we may overreact by feeling unloved, unneeded, and unwanted.

Grasping or Fearing Expression of Pleasure

(1) Investing the experience of pleasure, happiness, or joy with the imagined power to establish our existence, we may grasp at it. This usually occurs in conjunction with fearing or grasping at one of the previous qualities. For example, terrified of boredom or wishing distraction, we may feel the need for sensory experience to provide us pleasure. Thus, feeling a need for constant entertainment to feel alive, we may compulsively roam the shopping malls or play computer games. Unable to watch a television program for fear that we may be missing something better, we drive everyone insane by incessantly switching channels.

We may experience a similar restlessness with our sexual life. Never satisfied with what we have, we endlessly seek something more exciting to make life feel worthwhile. Moreover, we may hope to lose ourselves in the pleasures of sex. People who are psychologically dependent on recreational drugs, cigarettes, or alcohol may feel that they cannot enjoy a meal, a movie, or making love unless experiencing the effects of their favorite substance of abuse.

We may grasp at pleasure by measuring it with physical activity or verbal expression. For example, we may feel that we have to do something in order to have "fun." We cannot simply enjoy someone's company without having to run with the person from one activity to the next. We may also feel that our happiness with someone is not real unless we verbalize it. This may make the other person feel uncomfortable and, inevitably, it ruins the mood.

When we grasp for pleasure from rest, we may look forward all day to coming home after work or to putting the children to bed. Only then do we feel that we can relax and be our "real selves." It seems as if during the rest of the day, we are not ourselves. This makes us overreact if anyone deprives us of the pleasure of our "private time off."

A causative form of this syndrome is compulsively feeling that we have to please everyone or just someone special. Insensitive to our needs or emotions, we sacrifice everything in this quest. For example, we may feel ourselves worthless as a lover unless we bring our partner and ourselves to orgasm.

Moreover, when someone comes to see us, we may feel that we have to entertain the person. Otherwise, he or she will not enjoy the visit. We may also feel that we always have to be the clown and make others laugh. Otherwise, people will not accept us as we are. Even if we joke to try to lighten people's moods, we need to remember that Buddha himself was unable to make everyone happy. How can we possibly succeed in his place?

(2) When we grasp at receiving pleasure, happiness, or joy from others, we may be obsessed with winning others' approval. We may feel that unless others approve, we either cannot or must not be happy. Thus, insensitive to our needs and goals, we may "do good deeds" to try to justify our existence and worth in people's eyes. Another form of this syndrome is feeling that we need others to entertain us or simply to be with us. We feel incapable of being happy on our own.

(3) We may be afraid to express joy or to feel pleasure or happiness. For example, we may not "allow ourselves to be happy" because we feel that we do not deserve it. We may also find it difficult to relax and have a good time because of fear that others will disapprove. Some people with this syndrome may even have the irrational fear that a severe parent will punish them for having pleasure, as if catching them masturbatinig as a child. A causative form of this problem is feeling uncomfortable to give someone physical pleasure, because of fear of inadequacy or that we have nothing to offer. Consequently, we become a passive lover.

(4) Lastly, we may feel uneasy receiving pleasure or accepting expressions of others' joy or happiness. For example, we may feel discomfort at someone trying to give us physical pleasure. It feels as if we were being invaded and so we are frigid. Moreover, we may feel frightened or threatened if someone tries to derive physical pleasure from us, as if it would deprive us of something. We may also be uncomfortable at others' being pleased with us and offering us praise, because we feel we do not deserve it.