“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”– Marcus Aurelius.
We return now to the modern approach to contentment as presented by philosophy’s nearest science, psychology. We have already looked at Erich Fromm’s theory of happiness and pleasure as derived from authenticity in action and self-assessment, some lessons of the mid 20th century psychoanalysts, variations of contemporary cognitive-behavioral therapy, and the contemporary field of positive psychology. Today we examine some self-guided psychological techniques as pathways to contentment and inner calmness, where Edward J. Bourne1 will be our navigator. His approach, it seems to me, dovetails particularly well with the positive psychologists.
Let’s begin with his explanation of anxiety and un-wellness. He thinks it results from ‘cumulative stress’ originating out of the rapidity of societal change, lack of constant standards and values, and lack of general stability. We often reach a state in which we fear loss of control and failure, suffer inability to cope with circumstances, worry about rejection, abandonment, and even death. The consequent anxiety and low mood are sustained by negative ‘self-talk’ and mistaken beliefs combined with an unhappy or unbalanced life style. The discontented or neurotic individual benefits from establishing a program of relaxation and personal wellness and by learning positive ‘self-talk’ and self-nurturing. Bourne also thinks that “by getting more in touch with a larger sense of purpose, and where appropriate, cultivating spirituality, you gain a sense of meaning…”2
For mild cases he thinks we can succeed in overcoming our anxiety and discontent through some well-established techniques. At the most basic level this includes nutrition, aerobic exercise, and freedom from stimulants. One also needs to modify a high stress lifestyle and seek meaning and purpose. Some efforts must be ongoing including the elimination of negative ‘self-talk’ and self-critical thinking for example phrases that begin with “I should…’ or “I have to…” or “I am not…” and all forms of catastrophic thinking. Such ruminating must be reconstructed into self-supporting and confidence-building language. Beyond this, one may consider the following specific techniques practiced on a daily basis:
- Abdominal breathing
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Peaceful scene visualization
- Guided imagery
- Autogenic training
- Sensory deprivation
I might add self-hypnosis, a technique I have used with some success during difficult times. Regardless, details of these techniques are beyond the scope of this site, but can be found in many books including Bourne’s and on the internet. However the reader may see some spillover from this psychology into Eastern disciplines such as yoga or tai chi. If you find contentment elusive, as I have, you may have to overcome a certain natural bias to these seemingly ‘pop’ culture methodologies, but in fact, many of these methods date back to antiquity. Some of them will reappear in the upcoming section on ultimate reality.
1Bourne, Edmund, The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook. New Harbinger Publications, Inc., Oakland, CA, 1995. ISBN 1-57224-003-2. (Winner of the Benjamin Franklin BOOK AWARD for Excellence in Psychology). Once again I am repurposing his text for our needs – contentment for those without a clinically diagnosed mental disorder.
2Ibid., page xiii.