Developing Balanced Sensitivity: Practical Buddhist Exercises for Daily Life / Edition 1

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Alexander Berzin introduces a series of techniques for overcoming insensitivity and hypersensitivity. Based on traditional Buddhist sources, they are presented in non-traditional forms suitable for workshops and private practice. The exercises deal with difficult, everyday situations and show how to access our mind's natural talents; dispel nervousness, insecurity, and low self-esteem; make decisions; deconstruct deceptive appearances; and recognize the clear light nature of the mind.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Alex has given us a precise, thoughtful, and sophisticated book on the central question of human sensitivity. As one of Buddhism's most knowledgeable western teachers, he creatively combines analytical Buddhist psychology, trainings of the mind, intuitive heart practices, and dozens of practical techniques to nurture a life of sensitivity."—Jack Kornfield

"Berzin has pulled off the tricky feat of bringing an erudite discussion of Buddhist psychology to the here and now without falling into either psycho-babble or translationese. . . . Intellectually lucid and eminently practical."—Tricycle

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781559390941
  • Publisher: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/28/1998
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 236
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 8.97 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

Alexander Berzin received a PhD from Harvard University in 1972 from the Departments of Far Eastern Languages and Sanskrit and Indian Studies. A member of the Translation Bureau of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives since 1972, he is the author of numerous books and articles. He frequently travels to the Americas, Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, lecturing on Buddhism and Tibetan culture and helping to establish programs of co-operation between the Tibetan community and academic and religious institutions.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Identifying Sensitivity Disorders

What Is Sensitivity?

Certain people seem naturally more sensitive than others. Sometimes this is an admirable quality. Partners are sensitive to each other's moods and do not make demands when the other has had a difficult day. Because of this type of sensitivity, our relations are healthier and our lives are happier. Let us call this ability "balanced sensitivity." In other cases, being sensitive is a disability. Insecure people are sensitive to the point that their feelings are hurt at the slightest remark. This syndrome is known as hypersensitivity. At the other end of the spectrum lies insensitivity. Self-centered persons are insensitive to the effects of their words on others and say whatever comes to their heads.

    Sensitivity, then, is a variable that encompasses a wide spectrum. It ranges from insensitivity to hypersensitivity, with balanced sensitivity somewhere between. The degree and quality of our sensitivity, however, are not mathematical constants that remain fixed for a lifetime. Through education and training, we can change them if we wish. To do so, we need to look closely at what sensitivity means. Doing this enables us to differentiate the factors that make it an advantage or a drawback. We can then explore various techniques for developing or enhancing the positive factors and for reducing or eliminating the negative ones.

    Sensitivity has both physical and mental forms. Physical sensitivity depends on the body's sensory apparatus or immune system. A surgeon, for instance, has sensitivefingers and a person with allergies is sensitive to dust. In this book, we shall deal exclusively with the form of sensitivity that is a quality of the mind and heart. Such sensitivity may be to the environment, business, politics, wildlife, other persons, or ourselves. Here, we shall explore the last two forms.

    Sensitivity is a function of two variables—attentiveness and responsiveness—each of which may be either dysfunctional or balanced. With attentiveness, we note the condition of someone, the consequences of our behavior toward him or her, or both. Responsiveness is our reaction to what we notice. We may respond with an emotion, a thought, words, actions, or some combination of the four.

    Two additional factors—empathy and understanding—contribute to balanced sensitivity, but need not be present for us to react constructively. Suppose a relative suffers from terminal cancer. Although imagining his or her pain may be difficult, we can still nurse the person with sensitive care. Further, when we come home in a terrible mood, we may not understand what is bothering us. Nevertheless, we can still have enough sensitivity to go to sleep early. The more empathy and understanding we have, of course, the more able we are to react appropriately.


Identifying Sensitivity Disorders

The eighth-century Indian Buddhist master Shantideva explained that unless we can see a target clearly, we cannot shoot an arrow into its bull's-eye. Similarly, unless we can recognize the specific types of dysfunctional sensitivity from which we suffer, we cannot effectively treat them. Therefore, the first step in our program is to consider various forms of hypersensitivity and insensitivity and then to check whether or not we ever experience them. As both are multifaceted disorders, we shall use schematic outlines to unfold their varieties. Although these lists are not exhaustive, they include the more common sensitivity disorders.

Forms of Hypersensitivity

The first scheme presents five sets of alternative forms of behavior regarding others or ourselves. The alternatives are either a balanced way of acting or a hypersensitive one. Pausing after each pair of alternatives, we need to consider which of the cited examples is more typical of us. If neither example fits our pattern, we may try to find illustrations that are more relevant to our personal life. Recalling specific incidents, we need also to consider which of the alternatives leaves us or others with peace of mind and which makes us or others upset. This helps us to pinpoint our problematic areas and to motivate ourselves to do something about them.

    (1) We may pay attention to a situation in either a balanced or an overintense manner. Regarding others, we may ask our sick child, for example, how he or she feels or we might pester him or her with this question every five minutes. Concerning ourselves, we may watch our health or be a hypochondriac.

    (2) Paying attention to the consequences of our actions may take either a balanced or an anxious form. Regarding others, we may consider their opinion when deciding something or we might be so frightened of disapproval that it disables us from doing what is best. Concerning ourselves, we may take care to do well at school or we might worry obsessively about failure.

    (3) We react to what we notice in two ways—either dispassionately or emotionally. Regarding others, suppose we notice someone trying to pass us on the highway. We may react soberly and shift lanes or we might become heated and mutter obscenities. Concerning ourselves, we may react calmly to misplacing our keys and search systematically, or we might panic.

    Furthermore, an emotional :reaction may be balanced or disturbing. In either case, the reaction usually takes one of two forms. Either we react by accepting or embracing the matter or we respond by rejecting or eliminating something. The following examples in the death of a loved one clarify this distinction.

    (4) We may accept the matter, focus on the deceased, and either compassionately say prayers or obsessively long for the person. Focusing on ourselves, we may either mourn with dignity or wallow in depression.

    (5) Wishing to eliminate something, we may focus on the deceased and either responsibly clear away the person's unfinished business or begrudge him or her for having deserted us. Focusing on ourselves, we may either gain the strength, to overcome our dependency or punish ourselves who we feel should have died instead.

Manifestations of Insensitivity

The second scheme presents six common manifestations of insensitivity, each of which may also regard others or ourselves. Continuing our introspection, we need to look for traces of the cited examples or of other illustrations we may find in ourselves. When balanced alternatives to a form of insensitivity exist, we need to consider which alternative is more typical of us.

    (1) We may not notice or pay attention to a situation. Regarding others, we may not notice that a relative is upset. Our lack of attention may be due to preoccupation with other matters, or laziness, or not caring. Concerning ourselves, we may not pay attention to the fact that our relationship with our partner is unhealthy. This often occurs when we are insecure or have low self-esteem.

    (2) Similarly, we may not pay attention to the consequences of our actions. Regarding others, we may not notice that we have hurt someone's feelings. Concerning ourselves, we may not notice that overwork is causing us stress. In these first two forms of insensitivity, our inattention may go beyond not noticing something. We might also deny its existence.

    Even if we notice and acknowledge either a situation or the consequences of our actions, we may still not do anything about it. This may take (3) an appropriate form or (4) an inappropriate one. In the former case, a balanced feeling or no perceived feeling may accompany our inaction. In the latter case, a mixed feeling, an overreaction, or no perceived feeling may be present. A mixed feeling is one that has both balanced and detrimental aspects. Except when a balanced feeling accompanies appropriately refraining from action, the other reactions are all insensitive.

    Regarding others, we may notice someone who has fallen in the street and not stop to offer help. Our reaction is appropriate or inappropriate depending, for example, on whether or not someone competent is already caring for the person or calling for help. If others have taken responsibility and we would only be in the way if we stayed, we may feel compassion as we pass by or we might feel nothing. The former reaction is balanced; the latter is not. If no one is helping and we do not stop, we may have mixed feelings: we may feel compassion but be afraid to become involved. Alternatively, we may become upset or we might feel nothing.

    Regarding ourselves, we may notice that we feel tired. Yet, we ignore this and do not stop working. Our response may or may not be appropriate depending on whether or not we need to complete an urgent task. Further considerations include whether or not we are physically and emotionally able to continue working, and whether or not we have responsibilities that are more important. If not taking a break is the appropriate choice, we may feel a sense of responsibility in ignoring our tiredness. In such a case, our emotions are balanced. On the other hand, we may be insensitive to our feelings. Suppressing resentment, we may feel nothing.

    If not taking a break is a neurotic, inappropriate response, we may have mixed feelings in ignoring our tiredness. On the one hand, we may have kind feelings toward ourselves but, on the other, we may be compulsive about work. Alternatively, ignoring fatigue maybe an overreaction: we may be upset about personal problems and want to lose ourselves in work. When we are out of touch with our emotions, we may have no perceived feelings as we unnecessarily refuse to take a break.

    (5) Even when we notice something in others or ourselves and act in response, we may not feel certain emotions that are typical for the situation. This may occur in a balanced way, in a mixed way, or with no perceived feelings at all. Concerning others, we may attentively care for a sick person, feel compassion, and use maturity and wisdom to dispel any fears that might interfere with helping. In such a case, our sensitivity to the person is emotionally balanced. On the other hand, we might care for the person, feel compassion, and suppress our fears because of not wanting to appear weak. Here, our sensitivity to the person mixes compassion with a disturbing attitude of pride. When pride prevents caution or when distraction causes suppressed fear to arise, we may become insensitive to the person's needs despite our compassion. We may also care for the person without any feelings at all, like a nurse attending a patient in a cold, businesslike manner, simply as a job. When this happens, we may become insensitive both to the person and to ourselves.

    Concerning ourselves, we may follow a special regime when sick and not feel certain typical emotions in the same three manners. We may be concerned about our health and use emotional maturity to dispel our anxiety because we know that a positive outlook will speed our recovery. With a mixed healthy and neurotic attitude, we may be concerned and suppress our anxiety because we want to appear strong. On the other hand, we might be totally out of balance and not feel anything while nursing ourselves. Not feeling anything, however, either positive or disturbing, is different from being dispassionate and calm. Calmness is a state of balance, not an absence of feelings.

    (6) Suppose we notice something in others or ourselves, act in response, and feel something while acting. Still, our decision of what to do may be insensitive because our judgment is unbalanced. Regarding others, we may give them what we want, such as economic security, rather than what they want, such as more understanding and affection. Alternatively, we may give them what they want, for example toys or candy to a screaming toddler, rather than what they actually need, more of our time and attention. Concerning ourselves, we may do what we feel like doing, for instance eating a piece of cake, rather than what we need to do, keeping to our diet.

Excerpted from DEVELOPING BALANCED SENSITIVITY by Alexander Berzin. Copyright © 1998 by Alexander Berzin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Preface 13
1 Identifying Sensitivity Disorders 19
2 Generating a Feeling of Loving Compassion 26
3 Imagining Ideal Sensitivity 38
4 Affirming and Accessing Our Natural Qualities 46
5 Refraining from Destructive Behavior 51
6 Combining Warmth with Understanding 57
7 Shifting Focus from Mind and from Ourselves to Mental
Activity 67
8 Appreciating the Clear Light Nature of Mental Activity 78
9 Accessing the Natural Talents of Our Mind and Heart 85
10 Applying the Five Types of Deep Awareness 90
11 Validating the Appearances We Perceive 101
12 Deconstructing Deceptive Appearances 112
13 Four Exercises for Deconstructing Deceptive Appearances 120
14 Grasping at Mind's Natural Qualities for Security 132
15 Relaxing Dualistic Appearances of Mind's Natural
Qualities 144
16 Dispelling Discomfort at the Eight Transitory Things
inLife 159
17 Dissolving Disturbing Emotions into Underlying Deep
Awareness 172
18 Adjusting Our Innate Mental Factors 189
19 Unblocking Our Feelings 201
20 Making Sensitive Decisions 216
Bibliography 233
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