A principal focus of the Santa Barbara Institute’s integrative research program is what is traditionally called “practice”—the pragmatic study and cultivation of human flourishing or well-being, a topic that is rapidly gaining attention in the new field of “positive psychology.” The roots of this concept can be traced back to the ancient Greek notion of eudaimonia, commonly translated as “genuine happiness.” This term was later adopted into the Christian tradition by Augustine, who glossed it as “truth-given joy.” Understood in this way, it is closely analogous to the classical Indian term ananda, referring to the bliss that is innate to the deepest dimension of consciousness.
In the modern context, this may be understood as a state of well-being or human flourishing that stems from one’s own mind when the mind is in a state of healthy balance. Thus, such happiness is quite distinct from the transient pleasures that are directly aroused by pleasurable sensory and intellectual stimuli or drugs. Most notably, this state of contentment is not the result of finding distraction from misery through some kind of self-indulgence. Rather, it is the fundamental bliss that arises in experiencing things as they are.
The mental balance that gives rise to such bliss may be understood to have four components: motivational balance, attentional balance, cognitive balance, and emotional balance.
Motivational balance pertains to the cultivation of healthy desires and motivations that are centered on the pursuit of genuine happiness, as opposed to superficial, transient pleasures.
Three types of imbalances may be identified and remedied: motivational deficit, hyperactivity, and dysfunction. When the mind succumbs to a motivational deficit imbalance, the person falls into an apathetic loss of desire for happiness and its causes. In cases of motivational hyperactivity, the mind is dominated by obsessive desires that obscure the reality of the present moment. And motivational dysfunction refers to the arousal of desires for things that are not conducive to one’s own or others’ well-being.
There are correctives for addressing motivational imbalance and achieving motivational balance:
- Apathy can be remedied by recognizing the possibility of genuine happiness.
- Obsessive desires can be calmed with the cultivation of contentment.
- Mistaken desires can be abandoned by recognizing the true causes of genuine happiness as distinct from the causes that make us vulnerable to suffering.
Attentional balance is a state in which the mind is free of the hyperactive extreme of agitation, the attentional deficit of dullness, and dysfunctional attention that is applied in unhealthy ways.
Scientific study in this area is especially urgent in today’s world, where there is a growing epidemic of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders (ADHD). While drug therapy is often necessary in the treatment of such disorders, few people regard it as an optimal, or totally satisfactory, form of therapy. We clearly need to develop other forms of intervention, not only to counteract the disorders, but also to prevent them from arising in the first place.
In speaking of the importance of healthy, balanced attention, the philosopher William James comments, “The power of voluntarily attending is the point of the whole procedure. Just as a balance turns on its knife-edges, so upon it our moral destiny turns.”
The faculty of sustained, voluntary attention plays a particularly crucial role in education. More than a century ago, James presented us with the following challenge: “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.”
The development of tangible techniques to “bring it about” is one of the areas to which the Santa Barbara Institute is most deeply committed.
Cognitive balance refers to apprehending reality as it is. A common characteristic of a cognitive hyperactivity disorder is the inability to distinguish between one’s own conceptual projections and the perceivable world of direct experience. In cases of such cognitive imbalance, projection and perception are commonly conflated. While this is most conspicuous in the mentally ill, it is to a lesser degree all too prevalent among people who are considered healthy – people who, in Freud’s terms, suffer from only “normal neuroses.”
A cognitive deficit disorder entails the denial of, or simply an inability to note, internal or external phenomena that are presented to one’s senses, and cognitive dysfunction occurs whenever one’s way of perceiving or conceiving of reality is distorted by physical or mental aberrations.
At the Santa Barbara Institute studies will be conducted and classes held on methods and disciplines for enhancing cognitive balance, especially through training in mindful discernment. Such training may be instrumental in treating the mentally ill as well as in training “normal” individuals to achieve exceptional degrees of mental health and well-being.
Emotional balance is crucial to any understanding of mental health. Emotional imbalances fall into three categories: emotional deficit, hyperactivity, and dysfunction.
The Institute will examine the nature of destructive and constructive emotions: How do they arise, and what are their distinguishing characteristics? What impact do they have on our overall well-being as individuals and as members of society? Practice will be undertaken to explore pragmatic ways in which destructive emotions can be attenuated and constructive emotions cultivated.