Supermaturity

In the last chapter we suggested a parallel between Eastern and Western ideals. Both the Buddhist monk and the clinical psychologist work toward understanding the forces that determine the inner life. As a result, they both work toward behaving compassionately with others. The present chapter describes another ideal that we share with the Eastern tradition.

In our culture, it is good for an adult human to act like "a mature human being" and it is bad to act in an immature way. "You're being immature" is not simply a description but is a pejorative epithet—a criticism. Everyone I've ever suggested this to has agreed. For adults, being mature is good; being immature is bad. Here we seem to have a universal value.

When I present this assertion to one of my classes, say to my graduate students, they all nod in easy agreement. This is folk-psychology—familiar ground. But then I ask "What do we mean by maturity? Give me an example where you would particularly say of someone 'He's mature,' and then give me a general definition." Now a long silence follows. This is clearly not an easy question. You, the reader, might consider it now. See how you have to grapple to formulate an answer.

We can arrive at an answer by considering first the opposite. What do we mean by immaturity ? When do we say that someone is behaving in an immature way ? That's easier. A person is immature when he or she behaves, as we say, like a child (meaning, of course, the more unpleasant aspects of childish behavior). What are the hallmarks of this childish behavior? Here are a few: (a) Children want things now! Their cravings are such that they can't wait; (b) Children have temper tantrums over the most minor frustrations. Anger can run their behavior to a sometimes baffling degree; (c) Children do not spontaneously share and will frequently be seen pulling a toy or cookie out of another child's hands. Greed so dominates their behavior that they ignore the unhappiness of others; (d) Children frequently tease and make fun of and even bully other children.

Ego needs push them to look better than other children to the point of being insensitive to the pain of these others; (e) Children are bad losers—and bad winners, for that matter. They grouse and grumble when they lose and gloat ("Ha, Ha. I beat you!") when they win. Again, their ego needs strongly run their behavior.

These are only some types of childish behavior. Of course, not all children show all these patterns and certainly not all the time, but they happen often enough that we readily associate them with children. Part of growing up is learning to (a) be patient without complaining, (b) control one's temper, (c) be fair with others, (d) be sensitive to the feelings of others, and (e) be good sports. In short, part of growing up entails learning some self-transformation.

When an adult has failed to learn one or more of these lessons, that person will, from time to time, behave "childishly." Thus, we are starting to get a sense of the meaning of immature behavior. The man who (a) fusses because his dinner is half-an-hour late, insisting he is "starving," or (b) is furious because someone cheated him out of a quarter, or (c) covets the goods of others and is stingy with his own, or (d) puts others down, laughs at others, tries always to be one-up, or (e) is a poor sport, cheats, and takes losing badly is said to be immature.

It is now easier to articulate when we say a person is acting "maturely." First of all, he has learned all the lessons of self-change that lead away from childish behavior. Of course, this is true of most adults. When, however, we say that being mature is an ideal, we mean something beyond normal adult behavior. When we say of someone that "he's being very mature about this," we intend that as a compliment We mean that he is behaving well to a provocation or loss that would upset even normal adults.

We can now characterize three way s that adults might respond to a provoking event: childishly, normally, and maturely. These levels can be placed along a kind of scale as shown in the following examples.

A man with an income of $50,000 is cheated out of some money by another person, Mr. X. Mr. X. has left the country— he is gone forever. No strategy or even hope exists for getting the money back. Suppose the amount were $20.00. The childish person fusses noisily about being cheated; he obsesses, "If I ever get my hands in that guy.." He generally makes the time unpleasant for people around him. Furthermore, he loses half a night's sleep berating himself for having been so trusting. He keeps imagining scenes in which he humiliates Mr. X.

By contrast, the normal adult would put it out of his mind. It's only $20.00. He readily sees how pathetic it is that someone would stoop to cheat for $20.00. Any way, there is nothing to be done; it's history. He turns his attention to the present.

Suppose, instead, that the amount were $200. Now, if the person reacted with complaining and with loss of sleep, we would be more understanding. That, we would say, is a normal reaction. We would have been impressed, however, if he had shrugged it off, didn't let it ruin his (and our) evening, and had indicated that he sensed the desperation in Mr. X's action. This, we'd say, was a mature response. Thus, the more mature individuals can accept greater losses without being upset.

As we suggested at the outset, this ideal of becoming mature is similar to the Buddhist ideal of transforming oneself. The Eastern ideal, however, carries us further along the scale. Suppose the loss were $2,000. Now, we'd be understanding if even the most mature person were upset, if he fussed, and lost a night's sleep. But why, asks the Buddhist, should we draw a line between $200 and $2,000 dollars? Why not show equanimity— emotional poise, balance—to any amount of loss?1 There is a Hindu saying: "If a man cheats you and you lose a night's sleep over it, then he's cheated you twice." Why be cheated of your inner peace by any amount of loss? The Eastern ideal means that we take our Western ideal of maturity and move it further along the scale, to what we here call supermaturity.

'We are here talking about a situation where it is clear that nothing can be done. It's a different matter if there are strategies (e.g., dealing with the person or going to the police) that might solve the problem. Such strategy-appropriate situations will be considered in Section 3.

This scaled comparison between maturity and supermaturity applies to all the aspects of childishness. The mature person can tolerate necessary delays, and wait patiently, despite privations; the supermature person can tolerate even longer delays despite even greater privations. A Buddhist monk once wrote a poem whose refrain was "in waiting is freedom."

The mature person doesn't complain if his meal is late by hours; the supermature person doesn't complain if he must go without food for days. The mature person takes modest losses with equanimity. The supermature person takes all losses, big and small, with equanimity. The mature person puts the pleasure and pain of others as equally important to his own; the supermature person lives by the maxim: "Take joy in the joy of others; feel sorrow at the sorrow of others; care less about your own joy and sorrow."2

In general, a mature person feels disturbed (angry, impatient, envious) by fewer provoking events than a normal person; the supermature person has moved further along the scale and is disturbed by even fewer provoking events. As we transform ourselves, we move further along that scale.

We can view this scale, this comparison of the Eastern and Western ideal, in another way. The mature person experiences less inner turmoil and works more harmoniously with others than the immature person. It is fair to say, therefore, that the mature person is generally happier than the immature. Let us think, then, of our scale as a scale of happiness. This scale is shown in Fig. 12.1, which summarizes the relationships under discussion. At the extreme left is the happiness scale, going from some arbitrary low point up to some maximum (MAX). The left-hand panel shows the happiness over time of Person A, a normal adult. Happiness varies—now higher, now lower, depending upon events—around some intermediate level.

2This aphorism is cited as one of the Buddha's "great ethical principles" in a biography of King Mongkut, a 19th century Buddhist king of Siam (Moffat, 1961, p.17).

The next panel shows Person B, someone whose overall level has dropped. There is a great deal of anguish and turmoil in Person B's life. This is the typical person seen by a therapist or counselor. The therapist views his or her task as bringing Person B's overall level up to Person A's "normal" level.

The next panel shows Person C, who has greater maturity than the normal person (A). Person C shows less inner turmoil and he experiences more harmony with others. We are justified, therefore, in showing that his overall level of happiness is higher than that of the normal person.

We also suggested that Person C represents a widely held Western ideal. It is good to be mature, to be so transformed that minor frustrations can be tolerated with good cheer. The Buddhist asks: Why does our ideal reach only some level below the maximum? Why not aim at the very maximum available to

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0: ANGUISHED (Sees Therapist)

C: StfFtFt-MATURE (The Eastern Ideal)

HAPPINESS SCALE

0: ANGUISHED (Sees Therapist)

TIME

FIG 12.1 The degree of happiness as it varies under four conditions.

us as humans? On this view, even the people who reach the Western ideal (Panel C) are still subject to too many of the pushes and pulls of Dukkha. One can continue striving to bring the level even higher, to the realm of maximum harmony and minimum turmoil—panel D portray s this ideal. We characterize this state as supermaturity.

A difference here between the Western and the Eastern emphasis is worth noting. Traditionally, clinical psychology patterned itself after the medical profession. It was oriented toward helping people who were severely distressed psychologically and returning them to ordinary conditions of living—from Condition B to A in Fig. 12.1. The Eastern approach, on the other hand, is to help people go from ordinary conditions to enhanced conditions of living—from A (or B) to C and beyond.

In recent years an approach parallel to the latter has appeared in Western psychology. The movement began (arguably) with Abraham Maslow's work (1970) and, under the rubric of positive psychology, is currently fostered by Seligman (1999). Some aspects of this new approach are described in Part III.

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