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

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A New Earth: Awakening Your Life's Purpose

Some of you may have picked up Eckhart Tolle's new book -- A New Earth: Awakening Your Life's Purpose. Honestly, I am a bit curious about it too because of everything that I've heard and read about Tolle's message and teachings. So, I bought the book and am starting to read. I've also lurked a bit on Oprah's message boards, with two eyes on the difference the book was making in people's lives.

Some claim to be awakened and transformed by this book. Tolle's central message is a good one -- that our Ego (or what ACT and others refer to as language or thinking), can serve us well or for ill. And, there's a great deal of value in learning to still our minds and bodies with mindfulness. It helps us fully experience life and to gain something from experience.

In short, we learn to be just as we are, and let go of the hooks and snares that our mind and old history creates. This is challenging to do. Showing up to life just as it is and just as we are cuts against much of our cultural programming. Yet, if we perist, I think we can learn to just notice our experience (pleasant, unpleasant, hard, soft, rough, pulsating, whatever) just as it is, without judgment, and without the need to be something other than we are, other than that which we are given, right in the moment. These ideas are very old; the science behind it is new.

What I wonder about, and many on Oprah's message boards seem to be struggling with, is this: how to live out "A New Earth" or the awakening that Tolle speaks to. That is, once you achieve presence and are less pulled out of experience by your thoughts, what next? This is where I think Tolle's book falls short and where ACT can be helpful.

ACT links mindful acceptance with actions that matter, and then shows us how to live out those actions to make a difference in our lives. Those actions are how we create a vital life and a New Earth too. This is what others see about us and what we'd see about ourselves if we watched what we spent our time doing or not doing.

As we become less engaged with the goings on between our ears and in our hearts and bodies we have the freedom to focus and engage our lives with our hands, feet, and mouth. Each of us, in our own way, one small step at a time. The bad news is that there is no evidence that conscious awakening will lead to a more vital life, unless we are clear about what it is we wish to spend our time doing; what it is we wish to do or move toward. ACT shows how to link presence and peace of mind with vital action, and has a growing line of research showing that it is helpful for many forms of human suffering.

As you learn mindful acceptance, or practice meditation, self kindness, or other skills to be lighter and more gentle with your emotional life, keep your eyes on what you want to do, right where you are.
  • Ask, what is important to me, right now?
  • What do I want to be about right now?
  • What do I want to do, right here, right now (however small or large)?
  • Are my actions consistent with my values -- the areas of life I cherish?
Then, make a commitment to doing that, and kindly bring your mind and body along for the ride. After that, take stock of the whole experience and see if you can connect with the vitality of doing something you care about and the vitality of doing it because it matters to you, even with your discomfort or what may show up along the way. This is how we all create a life.

Make the many small moments of this day part of what you considering a vital day.

With A Kind Heart
John P. Forsyth

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Books