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The Tyranny of the Sensitive

On bodhisattva intention in the age of gluten free

I like to invent theories or hypothesis, then check them against friends’ reactions.  My newest hypothesis is that, unless you’re careful, your sensitivities will make you a pain in the anus to yourself and everyone around you.  I shared this notion with a friend at brunch, and the reaction was a stricken silence. Apparently, it really stings.  She thought I was saying she was a pain to herself and everyone around her.  Well, no, not just her — all the sensitive people, especially including me.  Ever since then, she been ascribing the most insensitive remarks to me, as a comic routine.  Fun.

There are three categories of ‘sensitive’.  The first is the need to be accommodated.  Gluten free pastry, no ice, a certain degree of sunniness or shadiness, a certain level of noise or quietness, a certain amount of salt on our steak, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.  There are all sorts of things we demand of the world.  The second category of sensitivity is the need for attention.  Pay attention to my needs.  Pay attention to my warts.  Pay attention to my pain.  Pay attention to my beauty.  The third category of sensitivity is the category of hurt feelings.  You injured me through your thoughts, words, and actions.  You hurt me.  I felt hurt by what you said. I felt angry when you . . . . Call them the sensitivity of complaint; the sensitivity of lack; and the sensitivity of injury.

Of course, of course of course of course. My healer says ice water is bad for you.   I react badly to gluten.  My needs are important too. Sure, why not? Why not live in a world that caters to you?    Your feelings are important and deserve to be attended to.  But are disturbing sensitivities really an inevitable part of life with other people?  Do they have to be?  Are they really that inevitable?  This is a litigious country, and identity politics has made outspokenness a land mine. What is important to one person at an individual level of emotion and self-expression must be taken seriously by all of us, no matter how alien or trivial-seeming to me. No matter how many protestations of “no drama” on your profile.

This is where I whip out a few lojong slogans and some pithy advice about how to make the world a better place.  But first I want to ask, what is the enormous and enduring appeal of the machismo character, in so many cultures in the world?  That the person has no sensitivities.  The machismo personality doesn’t request water with no ice; certainly doesn’t need your attention; and is never hurt by the vicissitudes of life.

That is to say, there are obvious ways to escape from one’s sensitivities; meditate all the time and pretend they’re not happening, for one, or whatever your favorite way of making yourself oblivious is.

Obviously, that’s no solution. And of course, sensitivity is a great thing for the most part.  It makes us see and feel the presence of others, and tune into our own wants and needs.  I feel a great achievement in becoming sensitive, to whatever degree I am, because I was raised in a clannish environment with lots of rough games and aggressive language.  The prime directives were not to bother our mother, because she was busy, and eat what’s put in front of you.  Therefore, discovering or uncovering my own sensitivity was a lifetime of work, which I’m glad of, despite my nostalgia for that intense family world.  Now, as an aging female of the Boomer generation, on a scale of one to ten, I’m too sensitive to watch Close Enemies, but not too sensitive to badger my friends about their weaknesses.

The recommended way to deal with sensitivity is to express your feelings, when feelings become apparent, in a calm, succinct, and kind way.  That can alleviate the pressure that builds up. But I feel fed up enough with my own and others’ sore heads, that I seek a more permanent solution.

Isn’t a change of attitude in order when you find yourself on the wrong end of the stick over and over again?  The slogans that come to mind are “Drive all blames into one”, or in 12-step language, “Clean up your own side of the street.”  Resentment is a grind and it stinks. In the 12-step world, resentments need to be dealt with as a matter of the greatest urgency, like a noxious weed about to go to seed.

Even more so, isn’t Buddhist training to be sensitive to other people?  If sensitivity to one’s own whatevers is a precursor or co-emergent with being attuned to others, then so be it. But at least keep the ultimate goal in mind.  At least recognize the kind of privilege it represents to hassle your waitress to replace your ice water.

The protocol, the mannerisms, and everything we have created, everything you have been taught, everything you have studied quite diligently – the purpose of all that is to have concern for others.

Chögyam Trungpa 1979 Kalapa Assembly, Big Sky, Montana

It’s not just those of us who are really sensitive who suffer from that proclivity.  Those who are tasked with accommodating all our wants & needs get it too.  I accommodate my own neurosis as much as anyone, and try to meet the wants and needs of friends.  But I’ve found there are two problems to be overcome when accommodating others all the time; one is the knee jerk response of ‘when is it my turn?’ which just creates a perpetual chain of excessive wanting and dissatisfaction.  The other is that accommodating someone’s essentially neurotic complaints, or demands, is that it makes something real that is not real.  When I agree to meet my friend at one of the two restaurants she deems supportive of all her vulnerabilities, aren’t I the lacky in some power dynamic set up by her neurotic need to be in control? Yes, I think I am.  Do I do it? Of course.  Anything for a social life.

In the widest perspective, it’s helpful to recall the two truths, or relative and absolute reality, as defined in Mahayana Buddhism. In light of the absolute emptiness of all phenomena, our proclivities and outright needs are simply a web of codependent causes and conditions, which will fall apart when those conditions disappear.

At the same time, our needs exist in a very real way in our minds.  As every relative phenomenon, needs must be treated properly. If you don’t relate properly, you risk numerous pitfalls: self-imperialism, and denial of human frailty, not to mention obviating some basic realities of life with an ego, in society. Which is to say, hurt people hurt people.


When I try to lay out the relative and absolute view, I picture myself straddling the fulcrum of a teeter totter, trying to find the perfect balance between these two views, which are said to co-exist and interpenetrate each other.  It’s gentle and tough.  Fearless and gentle.

Maybe it’s better to present a list of Top 10 Ways to Quit Being So Sensitive:

  1. Remember the frailty of others
  2. Have a sense of humor about yourself
  3. Remember emptiness
  4. Know your hurt feelings are important, but temporary
  5. Feel your feelings and nurture yourself
  6. Relax
  7. Take a bigger view
  8. Manifest strength
  9. Get engaged; be active and productive

I can hear the voices of my psychotherapist friends, sitting on my shoulder, pouring into my left brain that ignoring needs leads to legions of problems, and I understand that.  It’s no solution to ignore what you need in this life, nor is neglecting to express yourself to significant others.  And don’t forget the tender heart of sadness, or the accomplishment of bodhicitta.

Those kinds of sensitivities are too important not to make the distinction between them and the kind of sensitivity that leads to high demands, anger and resentment, and hurting other people. Let’s separate the dharmas on sensitivities, however fraught and strewn with land mines the topic seems. This all being in service of drala, above the enemy.  I wish to suggest that the attitude and habit of complaint, lack, and injury leads to an oppositional state, in other words, enemies, and is therefore to be avoided as poisonous to society, relationships, and one’s own heart.

One Response

  1. It’s refreshing to see something like this addressed. I have a friend who is celiac. If he eats so much as a crumb of gluten, he’ll be throwing up for days. So that’s as real as a “sensitivity” can get, I think. But here’s what seems like the essence of it. You might have your preferences, comforts, and outright needs, but none of it requires a self-entitled aggression toward everything and everyone else.

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