page title icon Book Summary Review: Constructive Living

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Life cannot be an uninterrupted high. On the contrary, we occasionally face high and low moments. In the Bible, the apostle Paul stated that he had adapted himself to every kind of circumstance, good or bad. Buddha also pointed out that life has many inevitabilities, including loss, sickness, aging and death. So, if we are bound to suffer occasional lows, we must have a strategy for overcoming them. In David Reynolds’ book, Constructive Living, he directs us on how to outgrow life-related issues. The book explores the Japanese therapy techniques known as Morita therapy and Naikan, both influenced by Buddhism to treat grief, depression, anxiety, shyness, fear, and lack of energy. 

The Constructive Living book talks about choosing the course of changingness, and acting upon the choice. As per Reynolds, feelings are uncontrollable and we should never belittle ourselves for experiencing them. On the other hand, behaviors are changeable. Controlling behaviors results in crafting an ideal life. When faced with a feeling, for example, sadness, Reynolds argues that we should never feel guilty about it. On the contrary, we are supposed to strive toward understanding the feeling and later, take action. We also learn that every feeling, pleasant or unpleasant, has its purpose. Fear as a feeling helps us move away from a threat; guilt helps us reexamine purposes; grief provokes reevaluations and behavior change.

If feelings are uncontrollable, how are we supposed to deal with them? As per Reynolds, the first step toward dealing with feelings is to recognize them. Next, we should resolve to accept the feeling as it is and avoid wasting time struggling with it directly. Instead of wasting much time examining a feeling, we should examine its main cause and what it signals us to do about the present reality. Take action to alter what needs altering and let the feeling take care of itself.   

Another point of constructive living explained by Reynolds is that no one can guarantee pain-free living. No one can promise that our best effort will result in success. Although success chances improve when we behave responsibly, it does not guarantee success every time. Reynolds also writes of how tamed behavior can permit spirited feelings. Behavior can also be used to generate desired feelings. For example, you can create a hyped-up feeling through dancing, and a calmer feeling through sitting quietly and meditating. The notion Reynolds passes on in this case is that you can make rational use of behaviors to bring about desired tempers and moods. 

The book also challenges active, expressive therapies mostly adopted by Western therapists. According to Reynolds, getting the patient to relieve childhood traumas never works. The “me-now” never feels or even sees what the “me-then” did. Many things tend to change between childhood and the current age. Among other changes, the nervous system changes, the body has grown, and understanding has developed. The individual who once went through childhood traumas has already edited memories of the “me-then.” In this case, relieving childhood memories may be ineffective. 

The Five Principles of Feelings

The book also offers five principles that explain the feelings’ function. The principles are nothing more than common sense observations of how feelings influence us, and how behaviors affect feelings. Once we understand these principles, we can effectively control our lives. The first principle is–Feelings are uncontrollable directly by the will. This explains why feelings are never directly controllable; you cannot make yourself feel anything. Even though one can control the feelings of sadness, and joy, attempting to change them is rationalizing, which is not a good idea. We should acknowledge that we may never change feelings, but should focus on our behaviors.

The second principle states–Feelings must be recognized and accepted as they are. Since we are not responsible for our feelings, the best way to deal with them is to accept and learn from them. In most cases, feelings send signals of something we need to do. For instance, if I continuously feel anxious before a speech, the best way to deal with the feeling is to prepare better. This shows that feelings tend to arise in situations that can be changed. The third principle of feelings is–Every feeling, however unpleasant, has its uses. For example, fear as a feeling helps us move away from a threat, as mentioned earlier.  

The fourth principle argues that Feelings fade in time unless they are restimulated. With time, the worst kind of sorrow, shock and pain lose their edge and become a memory. What causes re-stimulation? Reynolds argues that a quarrel can provoke faded resentment and anger, and movies can tend to reenergize buried feelings of joy. The fifth principle argues that Feelings can be indirectly influenced by behavior. We can use our behaviors to beckon desirable feelings and reduce the influence of undesirable ones. In this case, we are encouraged to take action in response to our feelings. 

Big Ideas from the book

  • The goal is self-mastery–the mature human being goes about doing what needs to be done regardless of whether that person feels great or terrible. Nurturing self-control brings needed satisfaction and confidence. 
  • In changing reality, the first step is recognizing reality as it is now. There is no need to wish it were otherwise
  • Start with–Now, what needs to be done next?–then do it
  • Unpleasant emotions can be helpful. For example, fear is a healthy emotion since it provokes carefulness and assists people to survive. 
  • Self-focus and self-centeredness lead to a miserable life (suffering). Self-centeredness and self-serving produce neurotic suffering. On the other hand, self-abandonment in serving toward a positive goal reduces the neurotic feeling.
  • Feelings are for feeling, nothing more. They are not for justifying, explaining, or even acting out. They are to be noted, experienced and recognized, as you do what needs to be done.
  • If it starts raining and you have an umbrella, use it. This means that you should never get comfortable experiencing unpleasant circumstances when you can change them.
  • Make friends with unpleasant feelings, e.g., fear–struggling with fear as adversity worsens its effects. Instead of struggling, recognize it as an old acquaintance; treasure it and allow it to fade in time without stimulating new struggles. 
  • When faced with a challenge, run (try solving it), edge (use recourse to move towards the moment of solution) and stop (separate from the outcome). 
  • Symptoms are misattention–psychological symptoms come to reality after invading awareness and interfering with your doing of what needs to be done. When attention is re-focused on constructive activity, symptoms vanish.
  • Unpleasant feelings do not mean bad. Anxiety and fear breed caution and preparation, and worry provokes planning.

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