Developing Balanced Sensitivity

The following article is from the Spring, 1998 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

A Workbook of Practical Buddhist Exercises for Daily Life


by Alexander Berzin. 275 pp. #DE BASE $14.95 June

Developing Balanced Sensitivity presents a series of practical techniques for overcoming both insensitivity and hypersensitivity that can be practiced by people from all backgrounds. Deriving these techniques from traditional Buddhist sources, it presents them in non-traditional forms suitable for both sensitivity workshops and practice at home. The book indicates how to apply these methods to everyday difficult situations such as those that may arise in relating to partners, children, colleagues or parents.

The exercises are adapted primarily from the Gelug and Kagyu practices for gaining more balanced sensitivity toward ourselves and others. Topics include: accessing our mind's natural talents, recognizing the clear light nature of the mind, understanding the relation between mind, appearances, and feelings, deconstructing deceptive appearances, dispelling nervousness, insecurity, and low self-esteem, sorting out feelings, overcoming alienation, and making decisions.

Following is the preface to the book:

Buddha taught that life is difficult. Achieving emotional balance, for example, or maintaining healthy relationships is never easy. We make these challenges even more difficult than is necessary, however, for a variety of reasons. Among them are lacking sensitivity in certain situations and overreacting in others. Although Buddha taught many techniques for overcoming hardships in life, traditional Indian and Tibetan Buddhist texts do not explicitly address the topic of sensitivity. This is because the Sanskrit and Tibetan languages lack equivalent terms for insensitivity and hypersensitivity. This does not mean, however, that people from these cultures do not suffer from these two problems. Rather, they do not organize the various manifestations of them under two general terms. In adapting Buddha's methods for self-improvement to the modern Western context, however, it is necessary to address these issues as formulated in a Western idiom. This book attempts to meet this challenge.

Some people object to learning from ancient sources. They feel that modem timeScall for new solutions. However, the basic obstacles preventing more balanced sensitivity are universal. Some modern factors may contribute to the proliferation of our lack of sensitivity, such as overexposure to violence on television and isolating the elderly in institutions. Others, such as dramatic background music in movies, highlight and glamorize overreacting. These factors, however, merely aggravate the deeper causes that have always been the caseself-preoccupation, insecurity, fear, and confusion. Furthermore, throughout world history, people living through the horrors of war, famine or natural disasters have become immune to others' suffering. In many societies, only the strong and healthy survive and are visible. And people have always overreacted to gain attention, as with toddlers crying for candy. It is cultural self-centeredness to think that we and our times are unique, and that we cannot learn from the past or other societies.

My main Buddhist teacher was Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpochey, the late Master Debate Partner and Assistant Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I had the great privilege to

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

serve for nine years as his interpreter and secretary. Whenever Serkong Rinpochey would give initiations into practices of the highest class of tantra, he would explain that five types of deep awareness naturally endow our mind. He would illustrate this point with examples from daily life. For instance, we each have the deep awareness that is like a mirror: our mind takes in all the visual information we see. Normally, however, we do not pay full attention to the details. Receiving an empowerment stimulates such forms of awareness to grow. As a result, we attain the five types of Buddha-wisdom, such as the ability of a Buddha to be attentive to everything. During the years following Rinpochey's death, I reflected deeply on the significance of this point. Gradually I realized that it suggested a profound guideline for developing balanced sensitivity.

Serkong Rinpochey displayed great flexibility in his teaching style, always adapting it to his audience. Inspired by his example, I set about developing a set of meditative exercises for recognizing and enhancing the five types of deep awareness as a method for improving sensitivity skills. To make these exercises more accessible to Western audiences, I borrowed several approaches used in encounter groups for self-development. These techniques include having the participants sit in a circle and look at each other, and also having them work with a mirror. I began to teach these exercises in 1991 in various Buddhist centers around the world and refined the techniques based on experience and feedback. A transcript of one of these courses was published in German as Fí_nf Weisheiten: im Aryatara Inslitut e. V., Mí_nchen (1993) (Munich: Aryatara Institut, 1994).

Many people found these deep awareness practices helpful and requested me to write a book on the topic. I originally planned to use as the basis for this work a transcript of one of my courses. When I found the material too short for a book, I began expanding the topic and formulating further exercises on other aspects of the issue. As my work progressed, it soon became apparent that these exercises could be organized in a logical progression to form a complete program for developing balanced sensitivity.

This workbook of exercises addresses primarily two audiences. The first consists of members of Buddhist centers of any denomination, either within or outside the Tibetan fold, who have reached a plateau in their practice andare looking for further material to stimulate their progress. Often people reach a plateau when they are unable to apply their meditation to daily life. To meet this need, this program weaves together facets of diverse traditional practices into new exercises. They are directed not only at their customary focuspeople in our imaginationbut also at other members of a group and finally at ourselves. These exercises can thus supplement the standard meditation practices of such centers, especially when these centers lack a resident teacher.

The second audience is anyone who is seeking techniques for overcoming sensitivity disorders. Although these exercises derive from Tibetan Buddhist sources, they have been especially designed for practice either at home or in sensitivity workshops independent of any Buddhist context. Although the book provides the Buddhist sources for each exercise, understanding or even being aware of this background material is not essential for undertaking the training.

The first draft of this book was completed in Dharamsala and New Delhi, India, during the spring and summer of 1997. During the autumn of that year I taught this program in various Buddhist centers in Mexico, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, and the Ukraine. Based on the feedback, I modified the exercises and prepared the final draft of the text during the winter of 1997/98 in Munich, Germany. I wish to thank the organizers and participants of these courses, as well as Rajinder Kumar Dogra, Gary Goodnough, Steve Carlier, and my editors at Snow-Lion for their invaluable suggestions, and the directors of Aryatara Institute Munich for their kindness in providing me the facilities for completing this book. I also wish to thank the Kapor Family Foundation for funding this project, and the Nama Rupa Foundation for administering the grant.

Alexander Berzin received a Ph.D. 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 Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East, lecturing on Buddhism and Tibetan culture and helping to establish programs of cooperation between the Tibetan community and academic and religious institutions.

Other books by the author: The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, Taking the Kalachakra Initiation, Kalacluikra and Other Six-Session Yogas Texts.


Table of Contents



  • 1. Identifying Sensitivity Disorders
  • 2. Generating a Feeling of Loving Compassion
  • 3. Imagining Ideal Sensitivity
  • 4. Affirming and Accessing Our Natural Qualities
  • 5. Refraining from Destructive Behavior
  • 6. Combining Waimth with Understanding


  • 7. Shifting Focuslrom Mind and from Ourselves to Mental Activity
  • 8. Appreciating the Clear Light Nature of Mental Activity
  • 9. Accessing the Natural Talents of Our Mind and Heart
  • 10. Applying the Five Types of Deep Awareness


  • 11. Validating the Appearances We Perceive
  • 12. Deconstructing Deceptive . Appearances
  • 13. Four Exercises for Deconstructing Deceptive Appearances
  • 14. Grasping at Mind's Natural Qualities for Security
  • 15. Relaxing Dualistic Appearances of Mind's Natural Qualities
  • 16. Dispelling Discomfort at Eight Transitory Things in Life
  • 17. Dissolving Disturbing Emotions into Underlying Deep Awareness


  • 18. Adjusting Our Innate Mental Factors
  • 19. Unblocking Our Feelings
  • 20. Making Sensitive Decisions