A Matrix of Mental Balance


Rather than a fleeting emotion or mood aroused by sensory and conceptual stimuli, sukha [genuine well-being] is an enduring trait that arises from a mind in a state of equilibrium and entails a conceptually unstructured and unfiltered awareness of the true nature of reality.

Richard J. Davidson, Paul Ekman, Matthieu Ricard, and B. Alan Wallace (2005),
“Buddhist and Psychological Perspectives on Emotions and Well-Being,”
American Psychological Society, 14(2), 60.


1. Conative balance

Mental balance is based first of all upon conation, that is, our intentions, our desires, and our aspirations. Conation is the mental faculty associated with our sense of purpose and volition. It relates to our ideas, our values, and what we consider worth striving for.

Conative balance refers to our ability to discern which desires and intentions truly lead to our own and others’ well-being. We may have impulses that, if acted upon, might lead to instant gratification, but with consequences that would not turn out so well in the long-term. Thus, we can learn to recognize which desires bring us short or long-term benefit, and which ones are harmful.

Conative intelligence enables us to set wise motivation, goals, and priorities, and to develop aspirations that are conducive to our own well-being and that of the people and other living beings around us.

2. Ethical balance

The second dimension of mental balance focuses on the cultivation of ethics, or wholesome conduct.

Ethical balance includes knowing how to act in ways that contribute to social and environmental well-being. This includes choices that maintain harmony within our families, communities, and nations, as well as our international relationships. Ethical balance also means that we nurture harmony within the ecosphere, learning how to maintain a sustainable economy, without contributing to environmental degradation.

Ethical intelligence is not simply a matter of knowing. It is based on principles of inner regulation and balance, and requires development, discernment, adaptation, and application of our inner values and ethical principles in our everyday life. A continuous bearing in mind of our ethical principles is a fundamental meaning of the term “mindfulness,” that is, bearing in mind the ways in which we can lead a nonviolent, benevolent way of life.

According to Buddhist thought, the cultivation of ethical intelligence includes the development of three aspects of ethics:

… an ethics of restraint—deliberately refraining from doing actual or potential harm to others; an ethics of virtue—actively cultivating and enhancing our positive behavior and inner values; and an ethics of altruism—dedicating our lives, genuinely and selflessly to the welfare of others. —His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Thus, ethical balance requires effective application of our ethical principles to all our actions of our body, speech, and mind. That is, we apply ethical intelligence to our outward physical actions, to the way we speak, and to the way we think about and develop our intentions into action. Eventually, as we pay more and more vigilant attention to our actions, it may become apparent whether or not the mind is the primary source of everything we do and say.

3. Attentional balance

The third aspect of mental balance includes cultivation of attentional balance. Attentional balance refers to qualities of composure and clarity. It is defined as the ability to sustain a voluntary flow of attention with relaxation, continuity, and clarity. Balanced attention is a key component for manifesting our highest intentions and greater awareness of our bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions, as well as attentive awareness of other sentient beings and the environment at large.

4. Cognitive balance

The fourth dimension of mental balance includes cultivation of cognitive balance or the ability to accurately know the world of experience without omission, projection, or distortion. Balanced cognition formulates the basis of our attitudes, beliefs, and choices—an ability to perceive things as they are, without turning a blind eye to empirical evidence and without conflating reality with our own projections.

5. Emotional balance

The fifth component necessary for mental health is emotional balance. It is based on the quality of our awareness of our own and others’ behaviors, experiences, and triggers.

Indeed, cultivating emotional balance—avoiding the extremes of hypersensitivity and apathy—requires integration of conative, attentional, and cognitive balances.

6. Spiritual balance

We propose that the culminating dimension of inner balance is spiritual intelligence and maturation—a quality of well-being that carries one through all the vicissitudes of life and death. It derives from knowing ourselves and our relation to reality as it is. This leads to liberation through insight. Such insight, or spiritual intelligence, is sustainable only in dependence upon the prior cultivation of psychological well-being, stemming from the cultivation of the preceding modes of balance. It also builds upon both the social and environmental flourishing that derive from the development of ethical intelligence.

The cultivation of spiritual intelligence, which makes spiritual balance possible, includes an intentional and deliberate exploration of the innermost depths of who we are and how we relate to the rest of reality. It includes seeking time-tested teachings and qualified teachers who inspire one to keep striving for genuine happiness, regardless of discouraging obstacles. It integrates meditation practices for exploring the actual nature of one’s own identity, so that one might gradually discover the true source of all well-being and fundamental healing.

Cultivating spiritual balance includes ongoing communication with teachers and fellow practitioners, consistently checking oneself and one’s practice in relationship to a supportive community, and emulating established examples from the past. It focuses on truth.

As so many sages of the past have emphasized, the highest joy—the highest eudaimonia, the summit, the pinnacle—is a truth-given joy. This comes from discovering the innermost source of well-being and wisdom. That is the highest bliss. It is in accord with the most ancient aphorism of western civilization, the Delphic Oracle, “Know thyself!”

Achieving mental balance

Throughout the process of cultivating ethics and wisdom, there are the concomitant psychological aspects of flourishing. We can find mental balance by identifying extremes: recognizing imbalances. When we are not caught up in imbalances, then what remains is the middle way. This is a common theme that traces back to the teachings of Gautama, at the very origin of Buddhism.

The theme of balance is central to Asian systems of traditional medicine. Health is achieved through a balancing process, while ill-health is understood to come about due to imbalances: too much, too little, or dysfunctional. The proposed format of deficit, hyperactivity, and dysfunction is common to both Tibetan medical texts and Indian Ayurvedic texts, wherein they describe the humoral constitution of the body (wind, bile, and phlegm). We are actively in the process of developing diagnostic measures and therapeutic remedies based on a proposed theoretical framework involving these six types of mental balance.