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A Practical Introduction to Constructive Living

The author holds an MFA in Creative Writing, is a produced screenwriter, essayist, blogger, and creative consultant in Los Angeles.

What is "Constructive Living?"

Constructive Living is the synthesis of two Japanese therapeutic ways of thought: Morita Therapy and Naikan Therapy. The combination of these two ways of thinking were organized and written about extensively by Dr. David K. Reynolds. Over the years, Reynolds has written more than a dozen books on the topic, has trained hundreds of certified Constructive Living instructors worldwide, and, prior to his retirement, held Constructive Living seminars all over the world.

The main principals of Constructive Living are "doing what needs to be done" and becoming mindful of your debt to the world and the support that reality provides (without asking for anything in return). Moreover, as Reynolds wrote, there are six main tenants of CL. These are:

  1. Feelings are not directly controllable.
  2. Feelings must be identified and accepted the way they are.
  3. Every feeling can be useful.
  4. Feelings go away with time unless you keep feeding them.
  5. Feelings can indirectly be influenced through behavior.
  6. We are responsible for our actions independently of the way we feel.

We will explore what grows out from these ideas in this article.

My Personal Connection to Constructive Living

As a practitioner of CL, I had the good fortune to meet with David K. Reynolds in Japan back in 2008. Prior to our meeting, I had written about the topic at an academic level as well as through old blog articles, and since our meeting have continued to study and engage myself in CL on a daily basis. I can say with confidence that this life-way is worth your attention if you want a more realistic approach to "doing your life on purpose."

A Constructive Path


"Do the now well."

— David K. Reynolds

The Morita Side of Constructive Living

Shoma Morita was a Japanese psychotherapist. His methods of curing his shinkeishitsu or "neurotic" patients was to engage them in constructive activities so as to better connect with the external reality that surrounded them and of which they were an integral part. Simple acts like sweeping the floor or tending to a garden were typical of Morita therapy.

Interestingly, Morita's shinkeishitsu patients were not that much different from you or me. Some patients might have had difficulties expressing themselves in the workplace. Some patients may have suffered anxiety or fits of excessive worry. Some patients had many moments of procrastination. And so on. As I said, not too different from the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our world.

With this is mind, Morita's objective was always to get his patients to meld themselves more fully with reality so as to "lose themselves" in constructive activity.

Let's go over some practical ways this can help you:

  • You don't have to give yourself permission to start on a project. Just start.
  • Some people never start a project, because the thinking about it overwhelms them. Don't overthink what needs to be done.
  • When you have anxiety, try cleaning a room in your house. What you'll find is that your attention, when not focused on the anxiety, drowns out the anxiety while you are engrossed in the task at hand.
  • Doing what needs to be done is a timeless act.
  • Hold to your purpose and do what needs to be done.
  • What needs to be done right now? ... How about now? Every moment provides another opportunity to do what needs to be done.
  • You can only sweep one room at a time. What needs doing now?
  • "If it's raining and you have an umbrella, use it." - A Japanese proverb. This means that it's okay to do something constructive when you are suffering. You might even find it to be useful, since you'll have done something constructive in your moment of suffering.
  • Neurotic moments don't exist when you are not paying attention to them.

As you can see, the Morita side of Constructive Living is focused on doing what needs to be done. It's simple. And yet, it's a profound struggle for most people. I hope you can see how this easy way of approaching reality can have beneficial effects on the story of your life. Most often, we fail to do what we know we need to do. And, how do we figure out what needs to be done? Well, that's different for each and every one of us. I think we already know what we need to do. Sometimes we stand in our own way. It's time to regain our lives by focusing our attention on a more constructive approach to living, one grounded in taking action and doing life as opposed to being done by life.

Reality's Response

"Acting on reality gets us some response from reality. And it is that response that tells us about ourselves in the world. We learn our true capabilities, our true limitations, and, invariably, what needs to be done next."

— David K. Reynolds

Cultivating Gratitude and Guilt Through Naikan

The other side of CL is "Naikan." Naikan in Japanese means, "inner looking." We could translate that as "self-reflection" or "self-contemplation." But it's much more than this. Naikan is a system of guided meditation as developed by a lay Buddhist priest named Nishimoto. You don't have to be Buddhist to engage in Naikan. All you have to have is a willingness to truly think about and answer the questions that it asks. The purpose of meditating on these three questions is to elicit a stronger sense of indebtedness to reality, and what we have received (and continue to receive) from reality and other people.

Thus, the three questions that Naikan therapy asks are:

  1. What have I received from _______________?
  2. What have I given to ________________?
  3. What troubles and difficulties have I caused _____________?

Let's look a little deeper.

What have I received from....?

Choose a particular person who raised you. It may have been your mother. It may have been your father. Make a list of all of things from birth (or your earliest memories) to the present. Or, choose a particular time in your life and list out all of the things that you received from this parental figure. Things that students often focus on are the meals that were prepared, the diapers that were changed, the clothes that were washed, the bathing, the attention, the care put into keeping you healthy, etc. Let the list grow. Spend a day contemplating this question with that one person in your mind.

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What have I given to...?

Now, take the same person and go back to the same time in your life. Instead of focusing on what you have received from that person, focus on what you gave back to that person in return. I think you'll find quite quickly that there is a great imbalance in what you have received from that person and what you have given back to that person. This second question should give you a more balanced perspective on how other people have given you so much. So often, we think about what we have received and not about what we have given. This new Naikan approach encourages you to spend time thinking about what you have given to others.

What troubles or difficulties have I caused...?

This is the third and final question. The purpose of this question is to implant in your mind the idea that you were cared for much more than you probably remember. All of us, when we were children or young adults, took greatly from the world and other people. We were (probably) very focused on getting what we wanted. We probably didn't spend much time giving back to the world around us, and we almost certainly didn't spend time thinking about the troubles and difficulties we caused other people.

Engaging your mind in this this question will most likely cause a great sense of guilt and gratitude. If it doesn't, that's fine. Emotions are like the wind. They come and go. But if they do come, you can use them in your new, more reality based approach.

Your mind is always contingent upon how you feed it. If you are always focused on taking from the world, you will come to see the world in that way. What Naikan offers is a way to shift the focus to a more other-centered way, a way that fits more closely with the gift of reality.

Remember, we are all receiving the world at every moment of the day. Our minds are built out of how we interpret what we receive. Receive wisely and you'll build a wise mind.

Accept Feelings and Do What Needs Doing


Try and Try

"Morita said that maturity isn't succeeding all the time; maturity is continuing to try even when we are failing."

— David K. Reynolds

The Synthesis of Morita and Naikan

So, briefly looking at Morita and Naikan gives us the essence of Constructive Living. Everything that Reynolds' built evolved out from these two modes of thinking. What he gives readers in his books are useful meditations, a unique approach to accepting one's emotions and feelings, a "good" sense of guilt, and the message that "Doing the now well" and "holding to your purpose" are worthy ways of living, and that both firmly plant one in a productive reality-centered worldview.

How are you feeling now? What needs doing? Can you see that each of these has their own consequences? What I mean is that an extreme focus on one's feelings, whether happy or sad, will not get anything done, especially if there are things that need to be done (which there always are). If you're feeling unproductive on a Monday morning at the office, what's the best way to go on? Well, a CL approach would be to accept that you're feeling unproductive and get on with doing what needs to be done. You might find that in the stapling of the paper, in the organization of the data, in the preparation for the meeting, that -- in the doing -- your feeling of being unproductive passed, and you got a lot done. That's a reality-centered approach to being constructive. The synthesis of these two Japanese therapeutic approaches has a great value no matter where or who you are. Upon finishing this essay, will you do what needs to be done? Maybe you reading this essay is what needs to be done in this present moment.

We are Supported by Reality


The Myth of Being Self-Made

David K. Reynolds writes, "The myth of the self-made person is bankrupt." For our purposes, what this could mean is that most people like to assume that they "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps." While this might be true in one sense, there is another sense that is profound and productive. The idea here is that someone crafted those boots. Someone threaded the laces. Someone contributed to your business in some way to allow you to earn the money (nicely provided by some government agency) that allowed you purchase the boots from the shoe store (a store very nicely managed and owned by people you might have never met). The number of people that go into your surrounding world are innumerable. And the story you tell yourself about who you are, though crafted out of "your" thoughts, wouldn't even be possible if someone in your life hadn't taught you how to speak and read and communicate within the culture that you live in.

Who you are is a beautiful assemblage of what you think about, and what you think about always and inevitably comes from how you feed your mind. Constructive Living encourages us to think about the relationship of dependencies that support us (both physically and mentally) every moment of our life. Whether or not feelings of gratitude arise from this is uncertain, but if anything, it should stir you to be thankful for those things and people who have colonized your mind. And to be more mindful of how you mind the world around you.

Now... after all of this, just one question remains...

What needs to be done?

Constructive Living


Jack Mahler (author) from Los Angeles on February 28, 2019:

Thank you for your thoughts, Ken!

The basic Morita idea involves looking at feelings as natural and, thus, beyond our control, while actions as directed by us are, thus, under our control. The Stoics share this sentiment (which just sparked an article idea for me!)

It's the idea that -- for example -- desire for another person is perfectly acceptable and natural, but acting upon that desire (taking action, i.e. behavior, i.e. what we do) is where we should focus our responsibilities, for therein lies controllable behavior.

Over the years, I've found this way of thing to be a practical "band-aid," especially for those moments when I might not want to do a certain task, but wanting to or not, I do the task. CL would encourage students to focus on the doing and not to get overly caught up in the feeling. I hope this makes sense.

There are many paperback and ebooks by David K. Reynolds available on Amazon. Highly recommended and probably more engaging than my brief essay.

Onward, we go!

Ken Burgess from Florida on February 28, 2019:

Interesting read, some of it I can say I agree with fully, while other beliefs, such as accepting one's emotions and not being in control of them I find my experiences lead me to believe otherwise... but my understanding of the main tenants is lacking as this is new to me.

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