Sunday, 2 October 2016

Flourishing in the 21st Century: Learnings from Dr Alan Wallace's Public Lecture

Photo from Pinterest 


Guys, apologies here. I meant to publish this post more than a month ago, but my perfectionistic tendencies hindered me from finishing what I started. I am working on it! So, here it is.

I went to a public lecture at Melbourne University on the 27th August. It was a talk by Dr Alan Wallace titled, "Flourishing in the 21st Century: The Rise of Contemplative Science", presented by the Center of Positive Psychology at the Graduate School of Education at the university. The talk inspired not just me, but many among the audience as well, to think more deeply about what is it that we are pursuing in life, are we actually flourishing, and how do we get there to where we want to be?

I aim to provide some key nuggets of wisdom I think everyone to have a think about at this very moment of your life. Are you happy? Do you think that you will be happy after you have achieved some goal, like work achievement, or marriage, or obtaining wealth and prestige? Dr Wallace invites us to really rethink our pursuit in life.

I have typed detailed notes on my computer during the lecture, but I wish to present several essential points. I will start with the definition of happiness.

Two types of happiness

The first type of happiness is the hedonic pleasure. This type of pleasure is characterised by seeking pleasant stimuli and avoiding unpleasant stimuli. In other words, if we are having hedonic pleasure, what we mainly do is seeking pleasure and avoiding pain on a daily basis. This is also called the hunter-gatherer approach.

The second type of happiness is genuine wellbeing. This is defined as "wellbeing derived from an ethical way of life, mental balance and wisdom." Genuine wellbeing is also called the "cultivator approach".

Disadvantages of pursuing hedonic pleasure
- Constantly flourishing = something wrong 
Dr Wallace explains that the by the nature of us pursuing hedonic pleasure, such as the chasing for status, wealth, prestige, we are competing with others. Because we are trying to constantly seek pleasure and avoid pain, we may want to constantly flourish. And if we see people who seem to be constantly flourishing, there may be something really wrong going on there. Think about it, is it possible that our lives be always filled with joy, happiness, excitement etc, and not even a brief moment of negative emotions, such as fear, disgust, sadness, grief, frustration?

Also, flourishing does not come from a technique, like mindfulness or meditation. Only people in the West enjoy going to retreats for meditation when meditation in and of itself can be incorporated in our day-to-day lives.

- Hedonism leads to exhaustion of the Earth's resources
If everyone in the world is focused on hedonic pleasure, we will all exhaust the planet, i.e., digging all the mines, using up every resource we can to generate wealth, inventing more nuclear weapons etc. These all do damage to the environment. There may be no more efforts invested in conservation for the environment, because everyone is so obsessed with increasing wealth, improving "Quality of Life" by earning more and more, even though they may have more than sufficient amount of money to get by. The rich become richer, the poor become poorer. What good does this bring?

The ethical way of life
The ethical way of life, Dr Wallace explains, is rooted in non-violence, and this form of life does not stem from self-centeredness for "no wars have been fought on the basis of non-violence". The flip side of violence is benevolence. When we practise benevolence, we give ourselves more opportunity to bring something good to the world.

Displeasure - Genuine unhappiness

Genuine unhappiness is when we are unhappy within ourselves, and when we get out there in the world, we bring to the world unhappiness as well. It is my personal view that sometimes this is not very much controllable for many who are less aware or reflective of their inner world, that they may be unable to see the unhappiness they are bringing to the world.

Dimensions of human flourishing 

Now, from the realm of unhappiness, we will move to the three dimensions of human flourishing. They are ethics, mental balance, and wisdom. I will discuss each of them in detail.


1. Ethics (social, environmental flourishing)

Ethics is divided into social and environmental flourishing. If we summarise the concept into one word, it's harmony - harmony within one's own communities, family, country and internationally; with the environment (or ecosphere), maintaining a sustainable economy, without environment destruction.


2. Mental Balance (psychological flourishing)

Psychological flourishing or mental balance is "a sense of wellbeing not contingent on external or internal stimuli, and is qualified by serenity, joy, and contentment, rather than excitement and arousal". It is a state of conative balance. We can of course stimulate ourselves in many ways, such as excitement, food, movies, relationships etc, but it's still hedonic. And the problem about hedonic pleasure is that when we stop doing it, or stop having those stimuli, the wellbeing vanishes. This is the core issue of all addictions. I would venture to say it's a never-ending cycle for those addicted unless they find something healthy to replace the excitement or dopamine surge that their addicted substance (beyond drugs) are giving them.

Dr Wallace points out that the notion that happiness must relate to excitement, arousal and stimulation is essentially a Western concept. He gives an example of how young people in Western cultures these days equate doing fun things as being happy. It's equating exciting activities as happiness. On the flipside, Eastern perspectives will say otherwise. More often than not, the eastern world also value things like serenity and solitude, meaning that excitement is not necessary for one to be happy or feel a sense of wellbeing.

Mental balance has four components: conative, attentional, cognitive, and emotional. It is when these four components are somewhat imbalance in an individual that problems start to occur.

1. Conative Imbalances
Conative Intelligence: "Do you have the intelligence of not eating the third dessert?" if you are wanting to keep fit. This form of intelligence guides us in adopting goals and desires which cultivates wellbeing.
-Conative deficit: A state where we are have an apathetic loss of desire for happiness (Too little desire). When we experience conative deficit, it's when we say to ourselves, "I don't know". There is no vision in our lives. This signifies lack of mental health.
-Conative hyperactivity: A state where we have an obsessive desire that causes the reality of the present to be blurred (Too much desire). When we experience conative hyperactivity, it is not an indication of mental balance according to Dr Wallace. It's a state where we are obsessive, fixated or addicted to something. Anything.
-Conative dysfunction: A state where our desire for something is not conducive (or helpful) for our own and others' wellbeing. An example of this is when we are addicted to something.

Resolving conative imbalances - Use the Fourfold Vision Quest

Upon explaining what conative imbalances are, Dr Wallace challenged us (the audience) to ask ourselves these four questions:

  • What would make you truly happy? 
  • What would you love to receive from the world to help you find such well-being? 
  • How would you love to transform and mature inwardly in order to realize such well-being? 
  • In order to lead the most meaningful life possible, what would you love to offer to the world? 

He also shared that we can't really do anything entirely alone. We need people in our lives. As death is the natural endpoint, perhaps it's important to reflect from time to time that as time passes, do answers to these questions change or flatline?

2. Attentional Imbalances
-Attentional deficit (Laxity): This is when we lose clarity and the vividness of our attention. In other words, distracted.
-Attentional hyperactivity (Excitation): This is when we are involuntarily agitated and distracted by compulsive desire. We could use an example of drinking alcohol. If you are reaching for a bottle everytime you feel stressed out and unable to stop yourself and focus on what's most important, then you could be suffering from attentional imbalance. ADHD is also an example.
-Attentional dysfunction: This is when we attend to things in a dysfunctional way.

Resolving attentional imbalances - Use two faculties to refine your attention

-Mindfulness: The buzz word nowadays in psychology. "This is the faculty of our mind to sustain voluntary attention continuously on a familiar object, without forgetfulness or distraction." Being mindful about what we are doing when we are doing it can reduce our tendency to mind-wander.
-Introspection: This is the faculty of monitoring the mind, recognizing the occurrence of excitation and laxity.

The result: Relaxation, stability, and vividness of attention.

How do we then cultivate this? Dr Wallace suggested that we attend intelligently to everything we are currently doing. Being present is key. How often do we attend to human beings and human beings? Not as preys or something to be beaten down? It's learning how we can change from "I x It" --> "I x You"

3. Cognitive Imbalances
-Cognitive deficit: This is when we fail to perceive what is present in the six fields of experience. For example, Dr Wallace used an example of women voting and the idea that women cannot vote because if they do they are going to vote the same candidate as their husbands anyway, so what's the point?
-Cognitive hyperactivity: A conflation of conceptual projections with perceptual experience. Hyperactivity in cognition results in what we think we see with the reality. 
This happens in paranoia (being too concerned about others having malicious intent), schizophrenia (having hallucinations and delusions), bipolar (swinging between extremes of mania and depression).
In all these conditions, people are too absorbed in a local reality.-Cognitive dysfunction: This is when one have distorted perceptual and conceptual experience of reality.

4. Emotional Imbalances
-Emotional deficit: This is when one feel dead within and have a cold indifference to other people and events.
-Emotional hyperactivity: Examples of this is Elation - Depression, Hope - Fear, Adultation - Contempt, and Attachment - Anger. This is when we experience too much of an emotion and do not have balance within ourselves.
-Emotional dysfunction: This is when one have inappropriate responses to situations.

The materialistic worldview, Dr Wallace added, is that "only matter exists, and we are only matter, and we have really no control over things". If one is materialistic, how will one get more eudaimonia? This materialistic worldview, hedonic way of life is very destructive and it is making mental health worse. There is lesser kindness, more hatred.

Remedying emotional imbalances - Four ways 
-Hedonism: Learn to use loving-kindness.
-Aloof indifference: Be compassionate.
-Depression: Empathetic joy
-Self-centered attachment (fixation on "I, me, mine") and aversion: Use equanimity (i.e., composure).

3. Wisdom (spiritual flourishing)

Finally, is wisdom or spiritual flourishing. This is a quality of wellbeing that carries one through all the ups and downs of life and till death. When we flourish spiritually, whatever way you prefer, whether through meditation, yoga, mindfulness, religions, philosophies, we find that we can make it through.

As a close, genuine happiness is cultivated by way of ethics, mental balance and wisdom. Mental health is cultivated by having conative, attentional, cognitive and affective (emotional) balance. And finally, exceptional mental balance is the basis of knowing reality as it is. Not wanting more in the moment, or wishing more, but accepting the current reality as it is.

Disclaimer: 99% of the content here are notes I have taken from Dr Alan Wallace's talk, except for my brief comments here and there. I am just summarising them to benefit those that didn't manage to go to the talk and for public learning.