Pay Attention and Act Purposefully—the Heart of Constructive Living

Constructive Living is the name of a book and a body of teachings by David K. Reynolds. The book is one of my favorites — a simple and eminently sensible path to mental health.

You can easily test the principles of Constructive Living for yourself:

  • Accept your feelings
  • Act on your values
  • Refocus your attention
  • Reflect on what you’ve received, what you’ve given, and the difficulties you’ve caused

Accept your feelings

Unpleasant feelings are…well, unpleasant. Our natural tendency is to try to “fix” ourselves with a variety of strategies for making those feelings go away.

David says that our attempted solution is in fact the problem. Trying to control feelings is like trying to control the weather. Since we cannot change them by sheer force of willpower, the wisest course is simply to accept them.

Accepting feelings is easier to do once we see their true nature — complex, often illogical, and morally neutral. Feelings are not good or bad, right or wrong. They simply are.

Moreover, feelings are fluid. Over time, most feelings — even the most intense — will fade on their own. We can simply allow them to wash over us and let them pass without fanfare.

Note: Nothing in Constructive Living is an injunction to deny or suppress your feelings.

Feelings are important. They help us survive. They are cues to take care of ourselves: Fear is a signal to avoid danger. Sadness prompts us to slow down and take to grieve a loss or recover from a failure.

The point is that we can heed such messages and channel them into constructive behaviors.

And when we give up on fixing feelings, we are free to focus on what we do control to a far greater extent — our behavior and our attention.

Act on your values

Instead of dwelling on unpleasant feelings, we can accept them and simply ask: Now, what is my purpose? What is important to me? Today, how will I translate my core values into action?

Remembering to separate feelings from behavior allows us to avoid the trap of motivation — believing that we have to feel inspired, energized, or enthusiastic before taking action. For in fact:

  • We can feel sad and still do the laundry.
  • We can feel uninspired and still sit down to write.
  • We can feel fear and still stand up to give a speech.

In short, motivation is a luxury — nice when it happens, and not necessary.

This is good news: Our feelings don’t have to stop us from acting our intentions. And once we move into the stream of action, our unpleasant feelings will often start to fade: We might even feel less sad when the laundry is done.

In short, we can respond in a constructive way to our circumstances — no matter what they are, or how we feel about them in the moment.

To understand this at a gut level is a taste of unconditional freedom.

Note: It helps greatly to define your values as areas of activity and then translate them into clear next actions

Refocus your attention

There’s a saying in Constructive Living: “Self-centeredness is suffering.”

When I’m feeling sad or angry, my attention is usually on myself — often on my resentments and fears. This line of thought serves little purpose but to increase my negative mood.

The alternative is to refocus my attention on the world outside my head. Instead of dwelling on others’ faults and what’s missing from my life, I ask: 

  • What’s going on around me, and what calls upon me for a response?
  • What tasks in my environment remain undone?
  • What promises have I made to other people?
  • What’s the very next thing I can do to keep my promises?

This shift in perspective reveals that there are many useful things to be done in the present moment: Dishes to wash. Papers to be filed. Books to read. Bills to pay. Friends to call. And much more.

Here — in the homely details that are revealed by paying attention — is our opportunity to live impeccably.

Refocusing our attention reminds us that Reality is our most reliable and ever-present teacher. Our actions — and inactions — have visible consequences in the material world. Observing those consequences gives us valuable clues about what to do next.

Reflect on these three questions

In creating Constructive Living, David drew on a Japanese tradition called Naikan. This is a Japanese word for introspection, or “seeing oneself with the mind’s eye.”

Naikan is a structured method of reflection developed by Yoshimoto Ishin, a Buddhist monk. He taught the value of systematically answering three questions:

  • What have I received from others?
  • What have I given to others?
  • What difficulties have I caused others?

In Japan, people go on extended retreats and write out detailed answers to these questions — often focusing on specific people during specific periods of life. Naikan is also used in the treatment of alcoholism.

Yoshimoto described Naikan as developing “a thankful heart in order to prepare for death.” This is a profound practice that promotes appreciation and a visceral sense of our interdependence. It leads — quite naturally and joyfully — to the expression of gratitude.


Reduced to its core, Constructive Living reminds us that mental health springs from a balance between reflection and action. When troubled by negative feelings, we can apply the above principles to achieve this balance.

I’ll end with this quote from Constructive Living, where David sums it all up:

The key to successful living is to pay attention and act purposefully. Life won’t be trouble free that way — but then no life is trouble free. Being on top of the world depends on being on top of the world: being in control of you acting in the world.

Where to learn more

David Reynolds has written many books. In addition to Constructive Living, I recommend his “water series,” with their Taoist-inspired titles:

  • Even in Summer the Ice Doesn’t Melt
  • Water Bears No Scars
  • A Thousand Waves
  • Pools of Lodging for the Moon
  • Rainbow Rising From a Stream
  • Playing Ball on Running Water

Another wonderful resource is the ToDo Institute, a non-profit organization in Vermont that’s dedicated to the theory and practice of Constructive Living.