Battling Burnout, Addiction, and Depression with Positive Psychology

I just got off a Skype call with my wife Pam and a colleague of ours from South Africa, Guy du Plessis. Guy is a brilliant man, and he’s written a number of papers on Integral Recovery, which is one of the things that I’ve been involved in—applying Integral theory and practice to the disease of addiction. We’re really looking into how to get this out to more people (both of us have books coming out on the subject in 2013). Guy was just talking about how drugs are devastating parts of the population in South Africa, especially among the poor. The methamphetamine plague is spreading; it’s hard.

Battling Burnout, Addiction, and Depression with Positive PsychologyWhen we look at something like this, at the pain and suffering worldwide and in so many different dimensions, and we feel that we are just one person, sometimes it seems absolutely overwhelming. At times like this, I always go back to a quote from Gandhi, and I’ll paraphrase, “What one individual can do is so seemingly small, but it is absolutely essential that you do it.” I like to take comfort in that and in the fact that we take on what we feel we are called to do.

Somebody once said that morality is the desire to alleviate senseless suffering, ignorant suffering, useless suffering. Some suffering is actually noble, and it’s the way we have to go in order to heal and integrate; this is how we grow up and be who we’re supposed to be. But it’s the useless suffering, the unnecessary suffering, that we’re trying to eliminate.

I think it’s very important, whether our calling is to be a good parent or a leader in some particular field, that when we approach anything, we roll our sleeves up and take the position that “Nobody is enlightened until we’re all enlightened,” or to use a more Christian version, “Nobody’s saved until we’re all saved,” or “Nobody’s sober until we’re all sober.” In order to take these things on, we have to have a deep, renewing practice—or at least most of us do.

Maybe some of us are tough enough to do it on our own strength, but I never was. For years and years, I worked—as an activist, in treatment centers, or in wilderness programs—with very beautiful but very wounded people. Often, I would see chronic burnout in myself and in others. Since I adopted an integrally informed practice seven years ago and started to meditate using brainwave entrainment technology, it’s been a game changer. My practice never fails to provide me with a place of refuge and renewal when things get tough.

A couple of the things we talked about in the conversation with Guy du Plessis, which are becoming an ever more important part of the growing model of Integral Recovery, are mindfulness and positive psychology. Wikipedia says, “Positive psychology is a recent branch of psychology whose purpose was summed up in 1998 by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: ‘We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise, which achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving individuals, families, and communities.’ Positive psychologists seek ‘to find and nurture genius and talent’ and ‘to make normal life more fulfilling,’ rather than merely treating mental illness.” Authentic Happiness and Flourish are Martin Seligman’s books on the subject.

As I understand it, positive psychology is based on Abraham Maslow’s brilliant work back in the 50s and 60s, with the intention of carrying it forward and getting it out to the world. Maslow was one of the founders of humanistic psychology and later on transpersonal psychology. One of Maslow’s great insights was that there should be a field of psychology that studies actual exemplars of human beings, people that we can really look up to as inspirations and role models in what it means to be human, instead of always basing our models of the human psyche and ego structure on people who are ill, neurotic, or wounded. Maslow thought we might find commonalities in very healthy and rockin’ people that we could learn from—people like Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and great creative artists like John Lennon and Bob Dylan.

I think that we’re off to the races with positive psychology. In recovery from addiction, or in my case depression, it’s not enough to only have the negative—in other words, “You can’t do drugs or alcohol anymore.” A lot of times, in the later progression of the disease, people are so demoralized, sad, and depressed that they would rather choose the easy way out and continue to commit suicide and self-destruction by using drugs, while their despair grows and hope diminishes.

All this to say, Jesus said that if we keep that which is in us inside, it will kill us, but if we bring it forth, it will bring us life. (From the Gospel According to Thomas, found in the Nag Hammadi desert in 1945.) The way that I understand this is that if our essential gifts are not brought forward into the world, then we end up as very unhappy people, and we end up failing to actualize who and what we came here to be. This is a tremendous tragedy, on a personal level as well as a tragedy for the rest of our human family.

My hope is that if we continue doing the work that we’re doing now, within our individual selves and our communities, that with diligence, compassion, discipline, and intelligence we will set the stage for those who come after us. I think that they are going to be able to get to what we currently call the cutting edge much more quickly and at an earlier age; they are going to build on what we have; and they will reach higher levels than we can even imagine. That is why the work that we do, and this developing technology that we use, is so essential. We’re actually evolving our brains, our consciousness, our states of moral being, and our inner healing much more rapidly and effectively than we ever could before.

Painting by David Holladay of Boulder, Utah.


Adapted from iAwake Technologies’ free, weekly teleconference call on October 17, 2012.

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  1. Eric on May 17, 2014 at 6:11 am

    as usual, you echo so eloquently my process. After spending close to 60,000 for my Naropa graduate educating, the single most profound tool I learned there was Shamatha (i.e. loving kindness meditation). Developing my sacred witness and the sacred witness of the sacred witness continues to assist me in transforming my “shadow” into “gold”. The journey continues as we say in MKP. Nameste brother!

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