I decided to start this blog as a way to share some of what I've learned about the nature of human suffering and its alleviation. I'm doing this mostly with an eye on anxious suffering, and my experience with a new approach to psychological health and wellness called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT, said as one word). I won't claim to have all the answers. My intent is to share.

Acceptance and mindfulness-based approaches are changing the landscape of psychology, mental health care, medicine, and society. They are based on a very old and radical idea, namely, that a good deal of human suffering is fed by efforts to struggle with and avoid our own psychological and emotional pain. New research from many sources now shows that this war tends to amplify our pain, takes enormous effort, doesn't work very well, and can keep us stuck and suffering.

So, what's the alternative? The alternative is this: paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment, with a quality of kindness and compassion (self and other), and with both eyes on living out your values, right here, right now. These are skills that we all can learn and many studies show that people who learn them report more vitality, less illness, better quality of life, and greater freedom too.

Instead of more struggle, we learn to open up to our experience just as it is (not as our minds say it is), to hold our thoughts more lightly, to connect with our values (what we care about in this life), and to carry our minds, bodies, and personal history forward into a more vital and valued life. This set of very simple ideas goes against just about everything we've learned, at least in the West, since kindergarten. That's why they can be so powerful!

We are all in the same soup. Pain, in all its forms, is part of the human condition. Yet, that pain -- whether physical, emotional, psychological -- need not be fed and allowed to mushroom into the suffering that takes over and shrinks lives. There are ways to douse the flames that feed needless suffering -- the spin off that our mind and old history creates -- and to live well with the pains, joys, and sorrows that are part of life. This is where I think ACT can help.

Peace -john

Monday, January 28, 2008

Places Where Our Minds Dwell

Have a look at the picture to the right. I like that picture because it shows three places where our minds often take us. Here they are:
1. A past that once was
2. A future that has yet to happen
3. The present.

This is what minds do all the time. Yours, mine, and just about everyone, except for infants and very young children. If you've ever really watched them you will see that they live almost entirely in the here and now. Yet, once they start learning language, their minds gain the capacity to live in the future or wallow in a past that is long gone. This is both a blessing and a curse. Here's why:

My life and yours is lived out, moment by moment, in the here and now. That is where we are, and where we can act to make a difference in our lives. This understanding is key. Our minds will often quickly escort us in the past and future. Think about where your head was while taking a shower this morning (assuming that you did), and you'll know what I mean.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing mind you. Being able to remember and to foreshadow is a wonderful gift. These capacities can help us avoid repeating past mistakes, relish in old memories, and plan for what's to come. Yet, there is also a dark side to this piece. If we fail to recognize where our minds are taking us vs. where we are, we can miss opportunities to do the things that make a difference in our lives right where we are -- here, in this moment, fully present and alive.

And worse, we can start substituting our memories and predictions for our present experience, and can end up feeling stuck in endless re-runs of past mistakes, missed opportunities, and the like. In short, we can live more in our heads than in the moment. There is a stuckness to this that may sound familiar. I've been there many times and know what that is like. This is where mindfulness skills can help.

So, the next time your mind pulls you out of the present and leaves you feeling miserable or wallowing, just pause for a moment. Thank your mind for that reminder and see if you can gently guide your attention back to the here and now just where you are. Then ask yourself "what do I want to do now?" What do I want to be about, right here, right now?"

Here's another mantra. I borrowed it from my kids when they first were learning to ride the school bus. It goes like this: "Stop, Look, and Listen, or You Won't See What You're Missing." A good mantra to help remind us that we can't afford to miss the present, for it is in the present that we create our lives one small step at a time.

With a Kind Heart,

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Books