Basic well-being is a stable sense of inner peace, ease, and harmony that is natural to human existence. It is the natural way to be in the world – a mind and body working together with effortless ease, much as they were designed. But this natural sense of well-being does not last long. The traumas of early childhood and the demands of an outer oriented culture override our basic nature.
As adults we become accustomed to living without this basic sense of wellness. To one extent or another this natural easeful self is covered over by persistent restlessness, subtle discontent, and non-stop mental activity. We take this subtle state of mental agitation and disharmony for normal, unaware of our underlying natural state. Although we do not recognize this loss of an easeful inner life, we are quite aware of the overt symptoms left in its wake. Endless busyness, over-sized ambitions, ceaseless striving, anxiety, and an overactive physiology are its most apparent symptoms. We simply cannot rest. We cannot be still. We cannot, as the poet Mary Oliver says, “be idle and blessed.” We are always on the move, rarely satisfied with what is.
Consider a time when you have experienced, if even for a few moments, a complete sense of ease, comfort, and inner peace. Perhaps this was at a time of communion with nature, in the abandon of dance and music, in the early days of romance, at the moment of sexual union, after a great massage, or in the relaxation phase of yoga. Close your eyes for a moment and allow this experience of rest to permeate your body. This is a taste of the natural mental and physical experience of basic well-being. It is a glimpse of what once was our natural state of being.
Now consider the moments following this experience of rest and ease. Notice how your everyday life returns. Before long the muscles get tense, the mind fills with chatter, concerns mount, anxiety returns, and an underlying sense of restlessness and agitation reasserts itself. We rapidly and automatically shift from a moment of simple ease to our usual runaway mind and relentless doing.
The Loss of Our Natural Well-Being
Consider the following. What is it like when an infant is fully satiated by the nurturing of a caring and present mother – nurtured by the mother’s body, gaze, touch, breast, and assured presence? Can you imagine this natural and innate rest, ease, security, and peace? In contrast imagine the agitation and restlessness – mental and physiologic – of a child denied this constancy of care, adoration, and tenderness.
We each seek to recapture this basic sense of well-being. To accomplish this we mistakenly look outwards. We seek success and achievement, fame and name, relationship and material possessions. We glorify the excesses of ambition and endless striving, the 60-hour work week and non-stop multi-tasking. This all seems quite normal. It is what we learned. It is what our culture offers us, as a so-called remedy, for the loss of our natural self.
When teachers from the eastern traditions began teaching in the West they were confronted for the first time with our “modern” way of life. What they experienced was unusual and interesting. They observed what I have just described – high levels of mental stress and an unusual degree of ambition, striving, and restlessness. In their effort to understand the source of this inner dis-ease they actually came to the same conclusion as western psychologists. The cause of this problem, they believed, could be traced to emotional disruptions in early childhood.
There was a time when children were raised by an extended family that shared responsibility for meeting a child’s needs. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, and siblings were ever-present sources of care and affection, tenderness and warmth. In our times it is very difficult for a single parent or over-worked parents, suffering from the loss of their own basic wellness, to raise a child while struggling to make ends meet. No one is at fault here. It is just a side effect of modern life – the nuclear family and economic necessities. As a result, we no longer grow up with consistent and high quality intimacy, inner security, ease, comfort, and the confidence it bestows. We learn quite early that we need to perform to feel better inside. We learn to look outside for what we lost within. And this is the source of our excessive drive, ambition, restlessness, and the compulsive need for achievement, success, and approval.
When we enter the educational system we sustain a second blow to our capacity to experience basic inner well-being. Our educational system, a product of the industrial revolution, is designed to prepare us for an occupation. That preparation focuses on developing our intellect. As a result we know how to deal with complex problems requiring language, logic, and reason. We are active and successful doers. We have educated the intellect but have failed to provide the education which is necessary for a healthy emotional life, a loving, kind, and connected heart. Too often our educational system, like the nuclear family, has failed to teach and cultivate values that support basic wellness.
We learn to substitute money, materialism, sex, fame, name, relationship, and adult toys for the simple lost presence and loving gaze of a stable parent. Because these outer satisfactions are inherently impermanent we continue on seeking more and more of the same, and it is never enought We don’t know why. We just do it and rarely stop. In time, we become exhausted, fatigued, anxious, and discontent. That is the inner dis-ease of modern life, reflected in body, mind, and spirit. That is what they observed. Coming from a traditional society where children are raised in extended families with many hands and hearts, they were unfamiliar with the restlessness so prevalent in western societies.
Symptoms that Masquerade as Normal
The cost of our loss of basic well-being is quite high. It is seen in body, mind, and spirit. It is a major source of mental and physiologic distress and an obstacle to enduring health, happiness, and wholeness.
The absence of basic well-being is expressed in the mind as ceaseless mental chatter, afflictive emotions, and a persistent restlessness. We call this the ordinary mind. We cannot imagine a life without mental chatter. What will we do? Where will we go? What will happen to our mind? If we let go of our only anchor, our mental chatter, it may feel like falling off a cliff, dropping into nothingness, or leaving life itself. It is our familiar friend. It is our worst enemy.
Our mental chatter leaves no room for insight or understanding, personal development, or meaningful relationships. We run the same scripts over and over seeking a resolution to our subtle inner discomfort – to the exile from our natural home. We don’t know that that mental chatter is a symptom of the loss of basic well-being. It is the problem rather than the solution.
If we do an even cursory examination of our mental chatter we will discover the most of it is negative, afflictive, and disturbing. A good estimate would be that ninety percent of our mind talk is filled with fear, insecurity, anxiety, mood disturbances, anger, worry, and resentment. This is all a reaction to our loss of basic well-being and a mistaken attempt to regain some sense of peace and ease. But of course it doesn’t work. Afflictive emotions become the cause for further mental disturbance and endless rumination that extend through the day and then into our sleep and dreams.
Afflictive and disturbing emotions are the gross manifestations of the underlying agitation and restlessness. The sequence begins with broken intimacy and a loss of our natural peace and ease. This natural state is then covered over by a very subtle agitation and restlessness that grasps for outer sources of peace, ease, security, and comfort. This becomes the basis of and content of our mental chatter and afflictive emotions. This disturbed mental life then defines our perspectives, determines our actions, and drives our life. It invariably leads to mental distress, difficult relationships, and physiologic disharmony.
Mind and body appear distinct but in reality they are indivisible. They always move together. To mistake the appearance of distinctness for the truth of their inseparability is to defy common sense, logic, and personal experience. ”Butterflies” in the stomach, muscle tension on a difficult day, a “tension” headache, a “nervous” stomach, and the physical response to sexual imagery are among the many examples of common experiences that validate the indivisibility of mind and body.
Common sense experience is well supported by psychological research that documents the relationship of physical and mental states. We now understand the biology of the stress response and the role of neurotransmitters in translating mental distress into physiological disharmony. We know that mental distress elevates blood pressure and pulse, activates stress related hormones, dis-regulates the immune system, and effects most physiological functions. More recent research in the field of neuroscience confirms and extends these understandings. It would be difficult to find an aspect of the body that is not influenced by our mental state.
If we rightfully relate mental distress to the loss of a natural inner peace and calm, security and ease, we recognize the impact of an unsettled mind on our biology. A harmonious mind leads to a harmonious body. A disturbed mind results in a disturbed body. We can now discern the deeper sources of stress related chronic disease. It all begins with the loss of our natural self.
When we lack a sense of basic well-being – a natural ease and peace –we are unable to further develop our health. We cannot see further. We cannot envision the possibility of a life free of stress, distress, and suffering. We cannot envision a mind that is still, harmonious relationships, or enduring health, happiness, and wholeness. We cannot reveal the life-giving qualities of human flourishing. We are too busy trying to fill with outside experiences the wounds of childhood to notice our true self that is always and already there.
That is why it is so essential to understand this absence of basic well-being. Without this recognition and understanding we are constantly looking on the outside for what can only be accessed within. Without a correct understanding of the problem we can neither restore the innate natural balance of mind and body, nor aspire and to and actualize the highest levels of well-being – what the wise beings have called the perfection of health.
Basic well-being is the launching paid for optimal health and human flourishing. This possibility is present within us at the beginning of life, the middle, and at the end. But it cannot be revealed, known, or realized until we reclaim a basic wellness.
Restoring Basic Well-Being
How do we address this? A very important approach is the practice of inner development. Why, because from the earliest stages of practice we begin to experience moments of mental peace and ease. At first it may be only a fleeting glimpse. But when you touch this special peace and ease, for that moment you have directly experienced basic wellness as an adult. The great news is that we can re-establish basic well-being in adulthood, not by reaching backwards to relive the past or outwards seeking false substitutes, but by reaching inward and re-parenting our self through inner practice.
Time and time again I have had the opportunity to observe this in my classes or counseling practice. I learned that with proper guidance every individual can re-experience basic wellness. When it arises during a practice session I immediately point it out. I point out that this is the precise experience missed in childhood. It is basic well-being. “There it is! It is in you. No one injected you with calmness and mental ease. It is there, waiting for you.” I follow this with a clear statement re-affirming once again that this natural experience of well-being arose from within through practice – nothing changed externally, nothing changed in ones past history. The mind quiets and stillness and well-being arise together. Everything becomes still and all is peaceful and well. That is how, through practice and inner development, we re-experience well-being.
For many individuals this is the first time such inner rest has been experienced. With no change in outer circumstances calm has replaced restlessness, ease has replaced persistent striving, and peace has replaced agitation. And it seems so natural and simple. I point this out by stating the obvious – that I have not injected that experience into their blood. It is there, has always been there, and with practice it can become increasingly permanent. Basic well-being can be restored through mental training.
Calming the mind allows us the space and distance to understand its workings. We can explore how thoughts, feelings, and mental images arise, abide, and dissolve back into awareness. We can ascertain how an early experience gets erroneously fixed in the mind and body. We can understand the flawed workings of the mind and how and why an experience of childhood becomes our life. And in this way we can re-orient our mind, more easily than you would think, recovering its normal function. We are not chained to our past history. We can recover our lost childhood. Contemplative approaches can restore basic well-being – our innate way of being and serve as the essential foundation for a larger life and optimal health.