What can we do to help our own wellbeing? Dr William Van Gordon, Associate Professor of Contemplative Psychology at the University of Derby Online, discusses what contemplative psychology is and how we can apply it in our everyday lives.
Contemplative psychology is emerging as an important new area of psychological enquiry. It involves the psychological study of contemplative principles and processes, including aspects of introspective awareness, existential awareness, meditation, mindfulness, metaphysics and ontological beliefs (how we believe we and other things exist), reflexive thought, metacognition and attention, and the self-regulation of emotions and thoughts. The Greek philosopher Plato believed that contemplation can help the mind reach high levels of wellbeing and wisdom. The following wellbeing tips are inspired by insights from my own and others’ research relating to contemplative psychology.
- Let go of your ego: A new contemplative psychology theory called Ontological Addiction Theory suggests that we are becoming increasingly egotistical and self-absorbed, and that “self-addiction” underlies a lot of the distress and mental health issues we experience. For example, if you do an act of kindness, is it genuinely selfless or are you hoping for some kind of recognition or reward? Do you frequently think about how others view you? Start reflecting on how much your ego influences your choices and behaviours, and experiment whether being less egotistical makes you feel better.
- Stop and breathe: Taking time throughout the day to stop and observe the breath has been shown to calm both the body and mind. Once during the morning, afternoon and evening, take five minutes to do nothing except focus your awareness on the natural flow of your in-breath and out-breath. Breath awareness helps to “tie” the mind to the present moment, which is the only place where we can truly experience and embrace life.
- Take a social media detox: Over-immersion in social media can actually make us anti-social. It can smother our capacity for contemplation and cause us to become disengaged from the people we love and what is happening around us. In fact, if we don’t keep our engagement in check, rather than use social media, it can start to use us. Therefore, one day or at least half-a-day each week, go on a “black-out” from social media and give yourself time to experience your existence.
- Don’t be mindless: An example of a behaviour indicative of being mindless is eating in a manner more akin to “feeding” and/or while focusing on what will be eaten next rather than properly tasting food that is currently in the mouth. Mindlessness not only leads to health issues for ourselves but also reduces the quality of our social interactions with others. In other words, being mindless is bad for us but it’s also not nice for others. Therefore, get into the habit of taking a mental step back in order to observe your own mannerisms and level of self-awareness. Ask yourself whether you are the type of person you would like to sit next to on an airplane or share a table with in a restaurant.
- Be cautious of attachment: There’s a difference between healthy and unhealthy forms of attachment. For example, the attachment formed between a mother and baby is essential for the baby’s healthy growth and development. However, research shows that some forms of attachment, such as being firmly attached to possessions, concepts or experiences can negatively impact our health and wellbeing. This is because when we hold on too tightly to things, it tends to limit our ability to adapt to new situations or knowledge. My own research indicates that teams and organisations function better when leaders and employees leave their attachment complexes out of the equation (or out of the office). Therefore, reflect on whether unhealthy forms of attachment might be stunting effectiveness and wellbeing within your own relationships, family, teams or organisation.
- Expand your contemplative horizons: You don’t have to be a great philosopher or meditator to engage in contemplation. However, contemplation gives us time to think and reflect, which is essential for maintaining our sanity and wellbeing in this fast-paced materialistic and technology-driven society. Therefore, consider learning a contemplative practice such as meditation, buying some books or studying a course linked to contemplation, or exploring whether you could actively infuse some of your existing activities with contemplative principles, such as when knitting, walking, running, cooking, gardening or cleaning.
- But don’t be too mindful: While mindfulness is known to be good for us, it is actually possible to be too mindful. In other words, if you choose to practise mindfulness, try to be a “participating observer” who observes themselves being spontaneous and natural as they go about their day.
- Embrace impermanence: Research shows that keeping in mind the fact that our time on this earth is finite helps us to apply ourselves to things that are meaningful and important. But unless we embrace impermanence, we can’t fully embrace life. Once a day, contemplate on where you will be in 20, 50, or 80 years from now. Then ask yourself why you are fighting with somebody that you love, why you are stressing over money problems, or why you aren’t making the most of every second of life you are fortunate to have remaining.
- Don’t be small minded: Unfortunately, it appears that small mindedness is becoming more prevalent. Small-minded people get lost in unimportant details and lose sight of the big picture. Small-minded people also get lost in themselves. Reflect on whether you’re somebody who gives importance to trivial things, somebody who impedes rather than empowers others, or somebody who always tries to find a person to place the blame on.
- Become a Psychonaut: Have you ever tried asking somebody exactly who they are? When people are asked this question, they generally respond by stating their name, job title, or by describing aspects of their personality. However, the truth is that it is difficult to find a definitive answer to this question because we exist in a manner that is much less ‘concrete’ than we might think. Therefore, consider becoming a “Psychonaut” who, unlike an astronaut seeking to explore outer space, takes a journey to explore the inner space of their own mind and being.