Constructive Living - by David K. Reynolds

Life Is Attention

Awareness, awareness, awareness. That is where we live. That is all we know. That is life for each of us.

The mature human being goes about doing what needs to be done regardless of whether that person feels great or terrible.

The more skill you develop in doing everything well, the more satisfaction and confidence you bring to your life. Whether you are reading, or carrying on a conversation, or making love, or playing tennis, or giving that speech in front of a group, you can be creating who you are and who you will become by doing the activity well, with full attention.

Constructive Living teaches you to pay attention to all of life's activities. You practice living moment by moment with all your attention. And you become skillful at living.

Common Sense About Feelings

  • The first principle: Feelings are uncontrollable directly by the will.

  • The second principle: Feelings must be recognized and accepted as they are.

  • The third principle: Every feeling, however unpleasant, has its uses.

  • The fourth principle: Feelings fade in time unless they are restimulated.

  • The fifth principle: Feelings can be indirectly influenced by behavior.

Taking Charge of Behavior

The more control we develop over our actions, the more chance we have of producing a self we can be proud of.

We are responsible for what we do no matter how we feel at the time.

Yet it is precisely our ability to manage our behavior that opens the door to a rich emotional life.

Behavioral responsibility grants me permission to feel. There is an old saying that temptation is understood fully only by the person who resists it repeatedly. Certainly, resisting our passions gives us a special perspective on them that the emotional glutton can never achieve.

Self-Centeredness and Suffering

Satisfaction comes from abandoning the self.

The goal of Constructive Living is not merely noticing what others need but noticing the requirements of the situations that reality presents to us moment by moment. If we are distracted by our own nervousness and desires we don't attend to what is happening in our immediate world.

On Being "Realistic"

The problem with all of us at one time or another is this: When we ignore the fact that reality acts on us in an orderly, understandable way, we begin thinking in very unrealistic ways.

The first step in changing reality is to recognize it as it is now. There is no need to wish it were otherwise. It simply is. Pleasant or not, it is. Then comes behavior that acts on the present reality.

What to Do About Life's Rough Times


It's in the responding to every moment's needs, regardless of success or failure, that we mature. Morita said that self-development doesn't mean making life easy; it means making efforts to succeed even while we are failing.

Sometimes no matter what you do there is no immediate relief from the disappointment. In that case you must simply accept the discouragement and go about your business. The feelings will pass. The sooner your attention shifts to responsible behavior, the sooner your feelings will fade.


Never deny reality. To pretend, to ignore, to wish never changes anything. While accepting the reality of your shyness, go on doing what you need to do in life. That means in spite of quivering knees and pounding heart, call that guy or gal you'd like to know better, tell your boss you'd do better work if he didn't stand at your shoulder all the time, make that speech, do the shopping in that crowded store. Call, tell, make, do--those are all actions. Get on about living even though you are shy. Paradoxically, the more you do these things, the less shy you will feel. Not only will you become more skillful and confident in social situations by gaining experience in them (no one ever became a good golfer just by watching) but you will be turning more and more attention away from yourself (and your own problems) toward the reality out there.

I am not suggesting that you deny or ignore your anxieties. I am saying that going on about your business of living, bringing your attention back to the tasks at hand (the requirements of the situation), will result in the pleasant side effect of less shyness. Someday, with much practice, it absolutely will not matter to you whether you are feeling shy or not. You'll be able to make the date, make the speech, do the shopping, propose, demand, refuse, whatever, however you are feeling at the time. That's the secret of overcoming shyness. It is really overcoming the interference of shyness in daily life. That's what maturity is all about--not feeling confident all the time but doing what needs doing regardless of your feelings. Incidentally, the shy feelings will eventually fade--you just won't have time for the self-indulgence of noticing them. You'll be too busy living.

Feelings follow behavior. That principle is emphasized throughout the book. Influence feelings through purposeful behavior.

Fear and Stress

When you don't do anything to change what is happening, when you just sit in the pressure cooker with the burner turned up high, when you don't build or learn or move or oppose or educate or otherwise respond to your circumstance, you are in for trouble unless kindly Fate steps in and turns the burner down for you.

Chronic Pain and Chronic Illness

You don't like it. Of course you hurt! Yes! Now what needs to be done?

Illness sets up a new set of constraints and possibilities for life. To be alert to the life rules which apply to the reality of the moment, to respond positively to the options available, to lose one's self in the doing of what needs doing--that is the way to a satisfying existence. People who moan endlessly about what is happening to them, lost in their misery and self-centered despair, focus almost exclusively on their own suffering and thus feel it more acutely. They actually hurt more, subjectively, than their counterpart who has precisely the same disease but lives constructively.

What meaning does Morita's system of thought offer? I suggest to you that every situation, every moment, provides the opportunity for self-growth and development of your character. Reality keeps bringing us circumstances--sometimes I picture them as waves breaking on the shore--and we have the chance to keep merging with that reality, to fit ourselves to it, to dive into those waves. If we simply stand and let the waves crash over us, if we mistime our dive or plunge at the wrong angle or try to flee from the waves, we get battered around by their force. But a clean dive sets us up for facing the next series of waves. Afraid or not, we dive into the wave. Hurting or not we dive. Weak or not we dive.

Lack of Energy

Most of the people I see use sleep and rest as escapes from their dreary daily routines or relief from anxiety-producing situations. They need to learn the Constructive Living lesson that refreshment can come from switching from one task to another. The movement from job to job during the day keeps us interested and involved in the activity rather than in ourselves.

Again, the perpetually exhausted person is self-focused. All the minor bodily complaints arise because this person's involvement is only with himself. With the attention turned inward, any minor disturbance in bodily functions is exaggerated. We all have ringing in our ears to some degree if we stop to notice it. There are minor aches and stiffness in everyone's body. The secret is to be too busy living to notice them.

After an exercise program is under way, my next suggestion is to work hard. At the office, the assembly line, the school, or at home, put effort into doing even the most routine tasks as perfectly as possible. The way we form letters and numbers as we write, the preparation of an exquisite salad, the most efficient movements, purposeful conversations, well-planned breaks, thoughtful acts of service--every action should be carried out with awareness and full attention

The next step is to use our newly found energy for other people. It's amazing what wellsprings of vigor are available to people who truly give themselves to those around them.

Troubled Romance and Marriage

We start with a surprise present and a secret act of service each week. Ralph is to get something for Mabel, wrap it himself, and present it to her. We agree on an approximate weekly cost. He doesn't have to feel like buying it or giving it to her. He doesn't have to feel that she deserved it. Buying, wrapping, and giving are enough. Ralph is also instructed to do something for Mabel without letting her know that he did it. The act of service must not benefit Ralph directly in any way.

Each spouse gives up part of his or her life for the other. Acts of service deserve words of appreciation. In a healthy marriage the air is filled with communications of politeness and gratitude. What can I do for you now? What do you think about this? Do you know how important you are to me? Of course, there are times when we are tired, unconcerned, and wish to be alone. Even then words of politeness, expressions of concern, and acts of service need not be neglected. Behavior is behavior. Whatever we are feeling, our partners deserve the finest. Then the feelings come to align themselves with the thoughtful behavior.

Notes on Constructive Living

What Are the Limits?

Put simply, the general idea is to accept your feelings as they are and focus on behaving intelligently in the situation at hand.

"I can't get on an airplane." "I can't stand up for my rights." "I can't break up the relationship with him." Notice that "can't" in these sentences means not an inability but an unwillingness and an unreadiness. It means "I won't," "I didn't," "I don't want to." Now I won't permit my clients to use the word "can't" in this latter sense during our time together. They must be clear on what is possible but difficult as opposed to what is truly impossible.

We work hard on the troublesome areas that are possible but difficult.

Thanksgiving Not Thanksfeeling

There is a difference between recognizing that others deserve my gratitude and actually feeling that gratitude. The way to reduce the discrepancy is, again, through behavior. Thanking others, serving them, showing consideration for their convenience more than my own, writing thank you notes, buying token gifts, smiling your appreciation, offering the courtesies of speech--these acts do not merely reflect gratitude but generate it when it is weak. One must be aware and poised to use these actions to create the desired feelings, and one must push against the inertia resisting constructive behavior. But the thanksgiving emotions will grow with thanksgiving behavior.

The Culture Factor

Let us be honest here. Constructive Living offers a lifestyle of worth and dignity. But this mastery of life grows slowly, painfully, and only with effort. It requires attention, patience, self-discipline, honesty. It asks you to face your feelings, pleasant or unpleasant, to check out your purposes, large and small, to guide your own behavior, whatever the pain, in constructive directions. It advises you that when you fail, you must try again and again. It is in that very exertion, in that strain toward impeccability, that the suffering self is lost and a triumphant lifestyle is gained.

Behavior: The Bounded Ring of Order

On the inside there are uncontrollable feelings and sometimes controllable thoughts. On the outside is the external world: neither controllable nor just in any obvious way. The only area of control, then, is the area of behavior--disciplined behavior. It can be dependable even though feelings fluctuate and the external world sends reality careening to our senses.

Doing well--paying strict attention to what reality brings for us to do--provides the only stability.

Furthermore, it is reassuring that, like feelings, the results of my behavior lie outside the sphere of responsibility

Exercises and Applications

Exercise II

On the whole an organized life is simpler and more satisfying than a scattered one. And it leaves you a whole lot more time to pursue your personal interests in an energetic fashion. Once the schedule becomes habit, it can be used more flexibly to respond to the varying conditions that life brings you. Yet it continues to provide a stable base for your daily existence. Give it a try.

Exercise IV

The next three exercises constitute one set. They involve making a gift, writing a letter, and cleaning up your neighborhood. The next time you feel depressed and unloved make something with your own hands for someone else. The gift can be brownies or macramé or potted clippings from your plants or whatever. The important elements are that you make (not buy) the gift for someone else (not yourself) and that you start on it when you are feeling terrible (not thoughtful and loving).

The second task involves writing a letter to someone you care about when you are feeling abandoned or isolated. The letter should contain nothing at all about your current sad state. It should inquire about the other person's activities, it should mention your gratitude for specific things that person has done for you, and it should contain an apology for specific things you have done or failed to do in keeping the relationship close.

For the third task, pick a time when you have been sitting around feeling sorry for yourself, grab some big bags, and set out to fill them with litter from your neighborhood. You may wonder what people will think of you wandering around stowing rubbish in your bags. That's fine. Let them think what they want while you help clean your community. Need I explain the purpose of these exercises? They aim to pull you into constructive, self-sacrificing activity just at the time when your feelings were pulling you into self-centered activity. See what happens to your mood as you get involved in giving yourself away.

Exercise V

For this experience I would like you to spend at least one whole day exploring your purposes. Throughout the day keep asking yourself "What is my purpose in doing this now?" Then answer that question for yourself. What is my purpose in brushing my teeth now? What is my purpose in making this telephone call that I'm dialing now? What is my purpose in lifting this spoonful of ice cream to my lips now?

These questions call for specific replies, personal replies, current replies. Of course, there are no wrong answers to these questions. There are dishonest answers, though. If you catch yourself lying to yourself about your purposes simply ask yourself about your present purpose in lying to yourself, too.

Exercise VI

This exercise gives you practice in noticing your surroundings. One of the key aims of Constructive Living is to pull your attention away from excessive self-focus and push it outward until you begin to see your self as part of your own surroundings. That perspective requires a lot more attention to our environment than we normally give it.

Try the same exercise at a party or other social gathering. Notice the details of people's names as they are introduced, their clothing and accessories, their fragrances and sounds. Attend to the room decor, the play of lights, the rising and falling of party noises. What makes this last part of the exercise so hard is that a social get-together requires our participation. We aren't permitted merely to stand back and observe. We have the responsibility (and pleasure) of joining in. So we must slip in and out of this meditative state as the social circumstances require.

Exercise VIII

Get through an entire evening or weekend without once sitting down at home. Watch television standing up or exercising. Go out. Eat standing up. Read with the book propped on your fireplace mantle or some other high place. Fall into bed physically tired, and see how your sleep is affected. These suggestions help you to break the habit pattern of just sitting around. Physical activity, movement of your body, is helpful in keeping your spirits up. Rather than sitting while trying to decide what to do next, start doing something constructive. Anything at all. If there is a task that is more important for you to be doing at that time, it will pop into your awareness as you work. Put notes about your purposes on the refrigerator, on the bathroom mirror, in your car, and elsewhere. They will be reminders of your new resolution to live purposefully. Remind yourself in other ways through rearranging furniture, dressing differently, changing your hairstyle, and so forth. The tendency to slip back into old, undesirable behavior patterns must be overcome by constant alertness and recharging of purpose. Changes in your dress and food and environment and reading material will keep you aware that you're working toward a constructive lifestyle.


  • Don't put your life on hold.

  • All I can do is . . . the next thing and the next thing and the next.

  • What needs to be done next? Variants: Hmmmm, what needs to be done next? That's interesting; what needs to be done next? I'm feeling...; what needs doing now? That's reality; what needs to be done now? Rather than fixing on some feeling or circumstance we are simply to note its existence and move on to what reality has brought for us to do.

  • Keep on doing what needs to be done.

  • Give and give until you wave goodbye. In some relationships (the principle applies to jobs, as well) there is psychological disengagement long before the breakup. We recommend that both members give themselves to the relationship right up to the moment of separation. Sometimes the separation becomes unnecessary when this effort is put forth, but in any case there is no regret for something left undone. We aim at doing everything well until we begin something else. Then we do that well, too.

  • Quit only when you're succeeding.

  • Unpleasant doesn't mean bad. Variants: Pain brings us to the present. Anxiety breeds caution and preparation. Worry provokes planning.

  • Action brings experience; experiential knowledge is dependable

  • Active rest. Rest can often be achieved by turning from one sort of task to another.

  • Self-centeredness is suffering.

  • Two kinds of "can't." In neurotic moments we may use the words "I can't" to mean something other than "it is, in reality, impossible for me to do." We sometimes use "I can't" to mean "I won't" or "I didn't in the past" or "I'm afraid to." In the latter case we may forget which sort of "I can't" we used and wrongly convince ourselves of an action's impossibility. Only the first kind of "can't" is allowed in Constructive Living.

  • You care about what you care for. By taking care of something, physically caring for it, a genuine interest and affection for it may be developed. Love is not only demonstrated by actions; it is developed by them.

  • Freedom through discipline.

  • There is always just enough time to do what needs to be done. Why rush? What needs doing in this moment can only be done in this moment. Then comes another moment.

  • Behavior wags the tail of feelings. Behavior can be used sensibly to produce an indirect influence on feelings. Sitting in your bathrobe doesn't often stimulate the desire to play tennis. Putting on tennis shoes and going to the courts, racket in hand, might.