Scholars on Aging Series: Transcendence for a Good Life

Notes on Life-Balance Through Buddhism and Western Psychology  

This blog explores what distinguished psychologists, philosophers, sociologists, and spiritual folks have to say about health, well-being, and how to pursue more meaning and purpose in life during old age. Some anecdotes from my life in its current early-old-age (64) stage are interspersed throughout, along with a good portion of personal opinions.

My latest research expedition has been taking me around information focused on the self and happiness. I started with two excellent sources on this topic who are French: Michael Dambrun, psychology professor at University Clermont Auvergne, and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk.

Self-centeredness vs. Selflessness
They have delved deep into notions of the self – self-centeredness and selflessness – and how each foster different levels of behavior and cognition, or “psychological functioning.” These two notions of the self are very similar to what psychologists and philosophers frequently identify as hedonic well-being vs. eudaimonic well-being. I tried to tackle this topic in a previous post. From reading Dambrun and Ricard, my views have expanded to include their theories about the self and happiness. Additionally, their work includes a good number of citations to what other researchers on this topic have to say, one of which is also synthesized here.

First off, no surprise, being selfless is an enormously healthier way to live than being self-centered. Dambrun’s and Ricard’s explanations as to why, along with proposing ways to perhaps grow into being selfless, are presented in a paper they co-authored that was published by the American Psychological Association in 2011, titled “Self-Centeredness and Selflessness: A Theory of Self-Based Psychological Functioning and Its Consequences for Happiness.”

Their paper emphasized how self-centered folks experience mostly fluctuating/temporary happiness, whereas selfless folks experience authentic-durable/long-lasting happiness. Along these lines, the authors developed a theoretical model that integrated western- and eastern-style (Buddhist) psychology and philosophy to reach authentic-durable happiness.

My interest, as always, was to ask how this relates to aging. Their conclusion, based on their study and several others:

“One can expect an increase in selfless type of functioning and a decrease in self-centered functioning with age,” which ultimately brings better overall health and well-being.

Notions of Self-decentering
So, how does one reach a truly authentic level of selflessness? Through what the authors call a “self-decentering,” which brings about “inner peace, fulfillment and serenity, as opposed to a life filled with ruminations based on hopes and fears and impulses of attraction and repulsion.” How does one reach a self-decentering place in life? Through mental training or meditation that includes a focus on eastern spiritual traditions that promote selfishness, such as Buddhism, in conjunction with western notions that relate strongly to positive psychology and research.

Along with presenting their own theories, Dambrun and Ricard pointed to an excellent paper titled “Mental Balance and Well-Being: Building Bridges Between Buddhism and Western Psychology”, and many others, to support this point of view. The Mental-Balance and Well-Being paper was written by B. Alan Wallace from the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies and Shauna L. Shapiro from Santa Clara University.  Wallace is a Buddhist monk with a doctorate in religious studies from Stanford. Shapiro is a clinical psychologist, and internationally recognized expert in mindfulness. While Damburn’s and Ricard’s paper brought forth all kinds of great insights, I felt that the Wallace and Shapiro paper, which had numerous similarities, was easier to follow. Hence, I synthesize their paper below.

Life-balance and Awareness
Wallace and Shapiro explain how 2,500 years of Buddhist tradition cultivates “exceptional states of mental well-being as well as identifying and treating problems of the mind.” They go on to show how focusing on Buddhism in conjunction with western psychology “can be mutually enriching and particularly relevant to current psychological interest in exploring the nature of positive mental health.” A fourfold model of mental balance – conative, attentional, cognitive, and affective – forms the bedrock of their theories.

Before diving into each of the four, Wallace and Shapiro provided thoughts about how to sincerely cultivate life-balance. To begin with, both the Buddhist and western psychology traditions honor the basic overall precept that emphasizes the reduction of suffering in our lives and the realization of happiness for well-being. But well-being here is “fundamentally different from hedonic well-being,” or stimulus-driven pleasures, even the satisfaction we might experience from “being praised, acknowledged, respected, and loved.” This kind of eastern philosophy is also evident in today’s positive psychology movement, whereby “expectations and striving for such things as wealth, fame, approval, and power lead to discontentment, anxiety, and frustration.” Additionally, western psychological findings line up with two Buddhist-oriented claims:

  1. What people frequently think will make them happy actually does not lead to lasting well-being.
  2. “The level of one’s happiness is not fixed but can be consciously cultivated” well into the oldest old age.

Back to the fourfold model, here’s a synopsis:

Conative Balance
What are your intentions, your desires, your goals, your volition? This is the central priority that sets the course for the three other mental balances – attentional, cognitive and affective. Wallace and Shapiro claim – in typical Buddhist fashion and in a balanced view between self-centeredness and selflessness – conative balance should entail the development of “a reality-based range of desires and aspirations oriented toward one’s own and others’ happiness.” Without such balance, one may find his or her self moving “away from psychological flourishing and into psychological distress.” Finally, “people do not exist independently from others as their well-being cannot arise independently of others either.”

Attentional Balance
“Attention is dysfunctional when people focus on things in afflictive ways, those that are not conducive to their own or others’ well-being,” they write. This is what happens when we become overly lazy, for instance, or hyperactive. It is caused by an inability to focus. In the Buddhist tradition this can be “remedied through the cultivation of mindfulness, which is sustained, voluntary attention continuously focused on a familiar object, without forgetfulness or distraction. Another remedy recommends meta-attention, which is “the ability to monitor the state of mind, swiftly recognizing whether one’s attention has succumbed to either excitation or laxity.” Breathing-oriented mediation can help, say the authors. In today’s overly distracted world, it’s no wonder that mindfulness mediation practices have grown in popularity in western psychology.

Cognitive Balance
This is basically a “sense of knowing as opposed to discursive thought” or viewing the world “without the imbalances of cognitive hyperactivity, deficit, or dysfunction,” according to Buddhist tradition. While this is mostly identified as a form of psychosis, it is also evident in healthy folks when we get absent-minded, or caught up in assumptions, or fail to distinguish between reality and fantasy.  Again, this too, points toward attending to mindfulness training as a viable solution for cognitive imbalance, such as western psychology’s mindfulness-based stress reduction theories as well as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, both of which have demonstrated “positive psychological and physiological outcomes in clinical and nonclinical populations,” write Wallace and Shapiro.

Affective Balance
This is all about regulating your emotions, so to speak. We experience affective imbalance when our emotions vacillate widely; when we become apathetic; when we have inappropriate hyperactive emotions, such as taking delight in someone else’s misfortune; or when we experience excessive adulation of others, or contempt and/or aversion toward others. Again, in the Buddhist tradition, meditative practice can help, in particular, by cultivating a loving-kindness habit. This is very much in line with the self-centeredness/selflessness theme touched on at the start of this article.  “In one method for cultivating loving-kindness, for example, one begins by yearning for one’s own happiness and its causes, then gradually extends this aspiration to dear friends and loved ones, strangers, and finally even enemies,” Wallace and Shapiro write. “The ideal is to cultivate loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity for all beings impartially.”  The authors go on to say that western psychological research, with an emphasis on behavior and neuroscience along the lines of loving-kindness, hasn’t yet fully developed but is showing great promise.

So what does all this have to do with aging? I think most of us experience imbalanced states relative to the four just described throughout of lives, regardless of age. I also believe that many folks have not yet overcome such imbalances, regardless of their age. The message here, I think, brings a recognition that it’s never too late to change.

Image by Jason Cooper, Unsplash.com

Thanks for stopping by,

George

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