Jim, who’s in his early 40s, consulted me about a troubling dilemma. He told me that he’s worked on himself for years, both with and without the help of therapists, and that he’s “tamed many demons” from the traumas and family dysfunctions he experienced growing up. He’s now living a stable and reasonably successful life. Yet he finds himself asking “Now what?” and “Is this it?” He explained that he’s learned to manage and cope pretty well with the residue of conflicts that had, in the past, derailed successful relationships as well as his career. Nevertheless, he feels trapped by the past actions that continue to have a shelf life. And, especially, he wants to experience a more fulfilling, expansive existence, beyond the “flat-lined comfortableness” that Cheryl, a 38-year-old small-business owner, described about her own life.
They and others reflect the impact of living in today’s world, especially since the new century began. Our lives now exist within a new normal of uncertainty and turmoil, of unpredictable events and rapid social change, as well as ever-evolving technology that infiltrates every aspect of daily life. This new environment raises an important question: What describes a fulfilling, positive and psychologically healthy life today? Moreover, what can you do to create it?
That’s where our traditional thinking and prescriptions fall short. Many of our assumptions about psychological health remain frozen within a 20th-century mindset, which has diminished relevance in today’s world. To explain, take a step back and look: Prior to 9/11 and especially since the economic meltdown of 2008, you were more likely to experience adversity or disruptions that were more predictable, more linear, than those today. Disruptions followed a fairly understandable course. Back then, you could reasonably anticipate returning to some level of stability. Wars eventually ended. The economy went through recessions, then recovered. You might suffer a career or relationship setback, but could assume there was a path to recovery.
In that world, a psychologically healthy life was mostly equated with successful management and coping with emotional damage from early trauma and conflict, which can occur during early development or subsequent life experiences. If left unhealed and unconscious, the damage becomes visible in symptoms and dysfunction, to different degrees. Increasing your consciousness about how your conflicts play out in life, and learning to manage their residue, are of course essential paths toward a happier and better-functioning life.
The problem is, that’s not enough, today. It won’t ensure what you need for continued growth and development of your emotional, mental, and relationship capacities. Yet you need all that, along with a positive, proactive spirit, to adapt to change and disruption in ways that create well-being and success in life.
Actually, even before the current era, the old formulation had its downside. Managing your old conflicts and adapting well enough to achieve reasonable success also included embracing certain values and behavior, such as adversarial competition, power-seeking, emotional disconnection, and materialism. As the 20th century came to a close, that often meant living with accumulating trade-offs and compromises within your soul, in order to maintain your “success.”
Today, people face new kinds of challenges and events in the quest for well-being and success. They reflect a world of rapid global interconnection, constant flux and unpredictability — a world turned upside-down by the events of the first decade: terrorism that’s come home to roost, economic meltdown at home and abroad, the rise of previously “underdeveloped” nations, social and political upheaval and polarization, and career uncertainties.
In short, we live in a highly interconnected, unpredictable, digitalized world of continuous flux, disruptions, uncertainties and insecurity. In contrast to previous decades, there’s no longer any equilibrium to return to after disruption. The healthy person has to be able to live successfully with disequilibrium. Consequently, a description of a psychologically healthy life and what supports it must be relevant to 21st-century realities.
East Meets West: A Psycho-Spiritual Path
A promising path to healthy personal development — both success and well-being — lies in the growing convergence and cross-fertilization between Western psychology and Eastern spiritual traditions. Some examples: the series of collaborations between Western scientists and Buddhists, sponsored by the Dalai Lama and the Mind and Life Institute, Deepak Chopra’s work on the nature of consciousness, and Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan’s meditation teachings that incorporate modern scientific knowledge. Moreover, a growing body of clinical observation and research in psychology and psychotherapy shows that long-term emotional, relational and creative well-being and success are linked with collaboration, mutuality, flexibility, transparency, empathy and compassion.
A theme emerging from this growing East-West convergence is that dysfunction and stagnation within the “non-equilibrium” world we now live in stems from too much self-interest and preoccupation with one’s self — intense focus on “getting” for yourself or extracting from others for your personal gain and benefit. Several practices and perspectives can help you move through such self-absorption and toward the mentality, spirit and behavior that support healthy, continuous “evolution” in your life, psychologically and spiritually. Some examples:
Practice “forgetting yourself.” A healthy personality grows from curbing self-interest and engaging in in something larger than just “me.” That includes looking at others and situations in your relationships and work through an expanded perspective, one that extends outside of your own narrow vantage point — outside your own lens. It includes looking at yourself through the eyes of others, including those you are in conflict with, and reflecting on what you see from that vantage point.
Expand and grow your dormant capacities and latent qualities. You can help them flower once you realize that you’ve been living within a self-imposed, limited definition of who you are. The latter is shaped by family, career and social conditioning. And that narrow view of yourself, including some of your beliefs and values, constrains rather than frees your capacity to grow and evolve. However, it’s possible to free yourself from those self-imposed constraints. It starts with recognizing the self-imprisonment you’ve lived with. Then, you can identify and begin to activate dormant capacities and qualities, and discover more of who you can become in life.
Put your energies and capacities in the service of the common good. That means something larger than just yourself. Doing that supports both success in your outside life and internal well-being. In today’s rapidly-transforming world, you need both. This might include a mission outside of your work, or within it. It might mean making an effort to let go of your resentments and reconciling with family members with whom you have differences or grievances, or extending yourself to engage with diverse people you usually keep at a distance.
Embrace the reality of impermanence and change. It’s the nature of life itself, no matter how much you try to avoid or deny it. Doing the latter only leads to frustration or bitterness when you have to face that reality, eventually. Whether in your relationship or at work, embracing impermanence and change pulls you out of the fixation with your own thwarted wants or desires. It enables you to put your energies into another form, another venue, that could lead to new kinds of fulfillment and positive energy.
Understand and learn from your karma. That means healing the residue of old issues in your past, perhaps with a therapist who also understands that healing includes incorporating and living with the aftereffects of your past actions, like scar tissue. Even after you’ve changed or corrected what caused problems in your life, you have to find a way to co-exist with their consequences, while also continuing to grow beyond them.
Describe the “life footprint” you want to leave behind. What do you want it to look like, and for whom? Examine how your current way of life will lead to your becoming a “good ancestor” to the generations that follow you.
This article was originally published in The Huffington Post