As I am developing this intervention model of Buddhist Therapy, I have had a few people ask how individuals and counselors can help develop change.
“Mind precedes things, dominates them, creates them” (Mano pubbangamadhamma mano settha mano maya). ~ Dhammapada
The core of change comes from the acknowledgement and understanding of decision-thinking is self-motivated. Even the decisions we are not consciously making, at some level was created to short-cut purposed solutions. Anyone who had gotten in their car and discovered that they drove home instead of where you had originally intended to go can see an example of this. All actions are motivated even when we are not mindfully aware of the motivation.
And motivations are conditional. The choices we may make in one environment may not be the same choices we make in another. So in addition to understanding why we make the choices in actions and emotions for ourselves, we must also recognize the context of who “we” are within any given environment. Where we may be competently in charge at work, we may be afraid and timid at home. It is one more way in which we can see that the definition of “I” is conditional.
Our motivations are normally broken down into its place on a spectrum of “thriving or striving.” When we are in a thriving mode, our decisions are within healthy stress levels, there are decisions made competently and without anxiety, relationships are open with trust. In contrast, when we are not thriving, our decisions processes are fear-based for survival, and our lives seem distressed and unmanageable.
What happens in a “thrive or strive” model is an awareness of where we are in our lives. People who are thriving very rarely notice the normal daily stresses and operate with a sense of confidence and place. However, when we are in the strive mode, our stresses are strained. Dangers, real or imagined, effect our decisions that are focused on the tasks of survival. In strive modes, we activate the hormones associated with short and long-term stress. Our focus narrows to the immediate tasks at hand and eventually our mental and physical well being is compromised.
When our lives work in strive modes long enough, these conditions can start to seem normal and routine. It becomes difficult to see that our hedonic treadmill has established a new “normal” to our lives and redefined what happiness, success, and reality should be. Nevertheless, through a mindful-investigation we can identify which decisions we are making that are fears or confidence based; and work towards new senses of normal that are more thriving than striving; more confident than fearful.
- How am I feeling? Are they positive and confident feelings or negative and stressful?
- Do I feel I am at ease in my life?
- Do I believe the world I am living in is how I would like it to be? It is unmanageable and distressing?
- Am I making choices to make it through the day or building on goals in the future?
- Would I rather be someplace else? Are expectations of the way the world “should be” not being met?
Because there are so many processes and actions we make in a day, the mind and body becomes efficient with its resources and creates routines. When the routines are reinforced over and over, they become unconscious and responses that trigger these responses inform our understanding of the world and our personal truths. When we are able to identify those routines, we can stop our automatic reactions and focus on our mindful (and hopefully more appropriate) responses.
- Do I feel at ease or uneasy?
- Do some of my actions seem to be “just the way it is” or “this is who I am” based?
- Would you like to avoid an activity or decision?
- Are you scared or angry?
- Are your routines fixed? If you were to change a routine, say a bedtime ritual, would that cause you stress or at least a more effort than usual?
- Do you ever just say “that is wrong” and you don’t know why?
- How many of your actions and your thoughts can you say you don’t really have to think much about because the world in which you live works well with your regular routines? How many of your routines seem to create conflict with the world you live in?
Our world is like a fish tank. Anyone who has owned fish knows that you have to create a conducive environment for the fish, and systems in place to keep the environment sustaining and healthy. If the filters are not working, if the water is the wrong temperature, etc.; then the fish that live within have to find ways to compensate. If the environment is too caustic, the homeostasis environment is unable to sustain life and the fish die. Our lives are not much different. Our personal life, our family, our work: they are all environments that have to be maintained appropriately to support us and allow us to thrive.
As an individual (or with assistance with a counselor) it is important to know when we are feeling distressed and with a sense of unease. This is the report card that our homeostasis is not where it should be. This is the time for us to investigate our relationships, our mental wellness, and our environment and see what is and is not creating distress. It is from that investigation we can ask ourselves what compensations we are making to keep our world in balance. When these compensation techniques are no longer functioning, or creating their own distress; we call those maladaptive processes. By creating conducive adaptive processes and/or rebalancing our relationships, mental wellness and environment—we can find a live more at ease in keeping homeostasis. The image of a balance is a good one, because in order for an individual, workplace, or family to function that equilibrium (or balance) must be maintained. People adjust themselves to keep that balance.
So just as we, as individuals, are systems of psycho-physical processes; we are also part of a variety of mezzo and macro systems. We belong to workplaces (workplace and corporate), families (nuclear and extended), faith groups, organizations, etc. Coping and adaptation tools and processes that work in some conditions may be maladaptive in others. A homeostatic equilibrium at work may be a refuge from a tempestuous home-family situation; or vice versa. Sometimes looking at a more holistic level, one environment of disequilibrium may unbalance an otherwise balanced environment (e.g. stress at work effecting home life).
When these environments are unbalanced, our compensations often turn from “thrive” decisions to “strive” conditions. And all too often, our “strive” coping mechanisms rarely make for long-term harmony.
- What do you believe a good homeostatic environment looks like? Do you believe your relationships are healthy? Do you feel mentally balanced or are you constantly struggling?
- When sitting quietly do you find your mind constantly bombarded of thoughts of a person, worry, work, home, family member? If you were to record all the thoughts that come through your mind in a minute, which ones appear most often?
- Are you avoiding aspects of your life that you “just can’t deal with?”
- Has anyone made comment on an aspect of your life and you have responded “well that is just the way we do and it works for us.”
- Do you ever find yourself romanticizing situations others may find to be negative and dysfunctional?
The purpose of this article is not to provide answers, but offer a process of inquiry to create enough insight to identify areas an individual may want to work on. They could decide to make decisions on their own for their own solutions, or work collaboratively with a counselor. What is important is to see that there is opportunity for change and improvement in our own lives at all times. It just takes the time to look mindfully at the who, what, when, where and why of our motivations.