Mental Yoga: Why Psychological Flexibility Matters

By Jeremy McCarthy
Organic Spa Magazine, May-June 2011

In an era of terrorism and economic decline, materialism is losing its luster in the cultural mindset of the West, and "happiness" seems to be the new trendy measure of success. We stock our bookshelves with titles like "Authentic Happiness," "The Happiness Project," or "The How of Happiness," and hope that within the pages we will find the key exercises to bring us more joy and fulfillment. Instead, we find a new standard for bliss that seems impossible to attain, and we are left feeling disappointed and frustrated.

Over 2,000 years ago Siddhartha Gautama (now known as the Buddha) is said to have found enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree. Prior to the moment of his transcendence, he had experimented with living a life of luxury indulgence, sampling pleasures and positive experiences of all kinds. He also experimented with a life of sheer asceticism, denying himself food and even the most basic of comforts, to see if a life of suffering was the pathway to enlightenment.

Finally, the Buddha found enlightenment on "the middle path" between the extremes of sensual indulgence and austere masochism. He identified the cause of human suffering as the yearnings we all have for something better. He taught that salvation does not come through achieving positive experiences, but from letting go of striving altogether and accepting reality (including suffering) as an inevitable fact of life. This "mindfulness" approach of accepting things as they are, whether positive or negative, continues to be espoused today by modern Buddhists and other "new age" practitioners.

Today, science seems to be finally catching up with these ideas, as psychologists are now doing research on a new concept of mental wellbeing known as "psychological flexibility." The idea is not to strive blindly for more of everything that is perceived as "good" or "positive" but rather to use the entire rainbow of emotions that we have at our disposal (positive and negative) to move us towards the things that we value most. This makes a lot of sense because not only is it impossible to eliminate negative feelings entirely (we're only human), but they can actually serve us, helping us to learn and grow and protecting us from danger. Psychological flexibility is the ability to use the right emotional resources at the right times in order to create the kind of lives we want.

So what would "mental yoga" look like? In other words, what are the exercises you can use to develop psychological flexibility? Here are three ideas that researchers are exploring to stretch your emotional muscles:

  • Acceptance. Pain, sadness, anger, regret are all a part of life. Accepting negative emotions and experiences, rather than trying to control or eliminate them, is a healthier way to approach the complexities of human life and establish a good foundation from which to make better decisions. Acceptance breaks the vicious cycle of having anxiety about the fact that you are having anxiety.

  • Curiosity. A curious mindset allows you to observe your negative reactions without judgment and see what you can learn from them. Curiosity engages your sense of logic and inhibits emotional "gut" reactions, allowing you to learn from these situations and identify intelligent next steps that lead you towards your goals.
  • Commitment. Once your mind is freed from the exhausting struggle that comes from resisting or stressing about emotional states, it is easier to commit to the right actions or behaviors that lead you towards the things that you value most.
  • If you already do physical yoga, you know that sometimes you have to go through some discomfort to get the most out of your practice. In fact, sometimes it is because you challenged yourself to endure some discomfort that you progress to the next level. Your yoga instructor may tell you to observe how your body is feeling but not to make judgments about it. Accepting these moments of discomfort and recommitting to your yoga practice is what makes you better over time.

    Mental yoga is no different. If you are experiencing negative thoughts and emotions, they signal an opportunity for you to stretch emotionally, learn (wisdom), and grow (maturity). Observe them, but don't judge yourself for having them. Ask yourself how they are serving you or if other thoughts or emotions could serve you better. You have a number of mental or emotional states at your disposal, and your new psychologically flexible self benefits from all of them.

    Contributing writer Jeremy McCarthy is the director of spa operations for Starwood Hotels and is on the board of directors of the International Spa Association. Check out more of his musings at psychologyofwellbeing.com.

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