I am so excited to welcome Marcello Spinella, Ph.D. as a guest blogger on The Psychology of Wellbeing. He is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. I have come to know, admire and respect him for his incredibly knowledgeable and insightful postings on the “Friends of Positive Psychology” listserv. He has become my “go to” person for any questions in the areas of mindfulness and meditation, which is why I invited him to write this article. I hope you enjoy learning from him as much as I have. –Jeremy
Maybe one of the greatest discoveries by humans or about humans, is that our choices shape us. They shape indirectly, because how we interact with people and our environments, in turn, have effects back on us. People who are more generous, for example, will build better relationships and experience greater generosity in return.
What is less appreciated is that our choices also shape us directly. By no means is this idea new or revolutionary. Epictetus said “As you think, so you become.” Mary Anne Evans (under the pen name George Eliot) wrote that “The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice,” and Thomas Jefferson wrote that “dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body, acquire strength by exercise.” We’ve heard this message a thousand times, from all different cultures and times. For years now neuroscience has been showing us that these changes in the mind parallel changes in brain plasticity, the connections between neurons. The more a neural pathway is exercised, the stronger it becomes and the easier it is to activate it in the future.
While this is fairly well understood, to what degree do we recognize the implications of this and use it to its fullest potential? If our intentional choices shape what we become, then greater awareness of the choices we are making gives us more freedom in this process of becoming. Awareness is a critical factor.
Meditation teacher Gil Fronsdal noted that “people who do not see their choices do not believe they have choices.” It’s not a matter of whether or not the choices exist. There are multiple possible choices, both external and internal, in every situation. This is one of the messages of mindfulness: in order to live in a healthier and more satisfying way, it’s important to become aware of what is already going on inside us. Living on autopilot, sooner or later, gets us into some very uncomfortable holding patterns. In having mindful awareness, we may recognize how some of the choices we make contribute to suffering, for ourselves and others, while other choices lead to alleviation of suffering and greater happiness. So the strategy is rather simple–not easy, but simple: Do more of the things that contribute to well-being and less of the things that detract from it.
A theme in Buddhism, as well as many other religions and secular philosophies, involves how we perceive ourselves. The more we interpret ourselves to be separate from others and the world around us, the more likely we are to act in self-centered ways. Conversely, the more we see ourselves as interconnected and intertwined with others, as part of a whole, the more inclined we are to act in a way that is beneficial to all. Everyone wants to be happy and free from suffering. Some have wiser strategies than others, and some are using downright tragic strategies, but we all have that fundamental similarity.
So how do we develop healthier strategies for happiness? If you want to play the piano more skillfully, then you practice playing the piano. If you want to develop greater interconnectedness, then you mentally rehearse it. This can be done in formal meditation and in everyday life. Buddhist psychology distinguishes four Brahma-viharas, which translates as “divine abodes” or “sublime states.” “Sublime” indicates that these states are intrinsically enjoyable and enriching, especially when they are not confused with similar but less desirable states. “Abode” here refers to the fact that these can become enduring characteristics states of one’s mind, not just temporary and fleeting feelings.
The first of these is loving-kindness, which is a general attitude of benevolence, caring, good will toward oneself and others. When an attitude of loving-kindness encounters happiness or good fortune, appreciative joy naturally arises. As William Shakespeare put it, “joy delights in joy,” whether it’s in response to one’s own happiness or another’s. When an attitude of loving-kindness encounters difficulty or suffering, then compassion naturally arises, the wish for suffering to end.
All of this care for others, however, can be a bit unnerving. We have enough on our plates as it is, and being very sensitive to others’ ups and downs would seem to make life even more of a roller coaster ride. For this reason, the final sublime state, equanimity, is needed. Equanimity means an even-keeled emotional stability and composure that comes from facing our experiences, pleasant and unpleasant with impartiality, with non-judgmental acceptance. Rather than struggle against what we feel, exercising equanimity allows our emotions to move through us more fluidly. We most certainly feel them, but we don’t complicate, exaggerate, or exacerbate them. It takes practice, but even the most intense emotions are much more manageable than we think, if only we can get out of the way and let them flow more smoothly.
Equanimity balances out the other sublime states. If appreciative joy is unchecked, it can lead to an over-exuberance that puts us out of touch with others and even ourselves. Compassion without equanimity causes stress and overwhelm. However equanimity without compassion is marked by apathy and indifference. When both are developed and carefully balanced, we develop an enormous capacity to empathize and act altruistically, but in a way that is of mutual benefit rather than a drain.
The happier, healthier and more balanced we are, the more we can be of benefit to others. Self-neglecting martyrdom generally is not a good long-term strategy: it only wears us out, preventing us from helping others and enjoying the benefits of altruism. Our happiness is highly dependent on our sense of connection to the world around us. Choosing loving-kindness, and its cousins joy, compassion and equanimity, in meditation and/or in daily life, creates “upward spirals” that can bring you to a life well lived.
References and Recommended Reading:
Fronsdal, G. (2005) The Issue At Hand: Essays On Buddhist Mindfulness PracticeThe Issue At Hand: Essays On Buddhist Mindfulness Practice, 3rd ed. Redwood City, CA: Insight Meditation Center.
Eliot, G. [Mary Anne Evans] (1876). Daniel Deronda. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Epictetus (1995). The Art of Living : The classic manual on virtue, happiness, and effectiveness. (Sharon Lebell, ed.). New York: HarperOne. (Original work from 1st century C.E.)
Jefferson, T. (1975). Letter to Robert Skipwith, in The Portable Thomas JeffersonThe Portable Thomas JeffersonThe Portable Thomas Jefferson. (M.D. Peterson (Ed.) New York: Penguin. pp. 349-51. (Original work from 1771).
Salzerg, S. (2010). The Force of Kindness: Change Your Life with Love and Compassion. Sounds True, Inc.
Shakespeare, W. (1916). Sonnet #8, in The sonnets of Shakespeare from the quarto of 1609, with variorum readings and commentary. (R. Alden, ed.) Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. (Original work from 1609).