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

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

We are all in the Same Soup

I just spent the last two weeks far away from home -- in Australia, running some training workshops for people interested in learning how to use ACT to help others. Going far away from my kids and wife (during the summer nonetheless) to work was a difficult choice, and yet it was a choice I made and I think without cashing out on my values regarding family. My wife supported me and so did my kids. Still, going so far away from family brings up all kinds of stuff -- mostly unpleasant stuff. In fact, last year I went to Australia to do ACT trainings and had to say goodbye to my wife at the airport. I was blubbering all the way to the security gate, with my mind feeding me all kinds of doom and gloom and "what ifs." What if something happened to me or my wife and kids, what then? Interestingly enough, I survived and so did they. This round, my wife offered to drive me to the airport, and I declined the offer for many reasons, but one was certainly the natural pain of having to say goodbye twice over. I think that was ok, and besides my wife didn't have to drive 10 miles on a Sunday evening with kids in tow to pick me up from the airport when I returned.

I titled this thread "we are all in the same soup" for a reason. My mind and body continually give me feedback about doing, or worse, not doing this or that. Sometimes that feedback can be helpful and we ought to listen to it, particularly when our experience tells us that we could really be harmed or hurt. Yet, there was none of that in the Australia trip and yet it did hurt in a way and also felt vital in a way too. When we move in the direction of what we care about, we risk feeling pain. In fact, I have come to see how my pain and hurts have something to teach me about what I care about.

Once I said that when you step in the direction of what you value, you risk hurting. Anxiety is a form of hurt, and what you are anxious about may have something to do with what you cherish and hold dear in this life. Social anxiety, for instance, is usually connected with the value of connection and open intimacy with others. It shows up in precisely these situations as it should, because it tells us that we care enough about others and value our connection with others. So here, our anxiety can be a friend or an enemy. I think it is a friend, if you are willing to "get with" what you are experiencing in those situations, just as it is -- a friend, not an enemy.

We all have painful memories too. I certainly have plenty of them, enough to book a plane to hollywood to chat about a movie deal. Sometimes those memories come up, as if playing out as old re-runs on a movie screen that has been there my entire life. Here, I've found it helpful to see myself as the screen upon which a lifetime of experiences are played out. What this means is that I am not those experiences, the movies. They play out on me, but are not me. This gives me space to look at them for what I can learn about myself -- no enemies in here. Pain, maybe. But no enemies, unless I flip the switch and treat my reminders of the past in the present as demons to be defeated. My experience tells me that when I get sucked into that, I am in for trouble and so is my life, as far as my deepest desires are concerned.

On the way back from Australia to the states, the plane tossed about (somewhat violently) in choppy air. Though I am not one to be a frequent flyer -- that is, enjoying just riding around in a plane -- I did find that a bit unnerving, and I should. Still, that experience left me again with a choice as to how I related to my discomfort. The plane and pilot did there thing and I did mine -- I noticed my discomfort, acknowledged that there was nothing I could do about the choppy air, and decided to surf the movie selections even while the plane was tossing about. That worked -- I saw a wonderful movie with the turmoil called "Bucket List." That movie speaks volumes about living your life and choosing to do that, regardless of what may come along the way. Without giving away too many details, both main characters are terminally ill and decide to live their dreams even with their fate squaurely in their sights.

Now, I am home. My journey showed me in many ways that we are all human, all likely to get snared by the traps that our minds, old histories, and emotions create. The wisest thing we can do, and something we teach in "The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety" is to keep our eyes on the prize. Our pain can be our greatest teacher or our enemy -- it is all in how we choose to relate with it. That alone was a profound moment for me. I, the doer and creator of my life, can always choose this or that, regardless of what my mind might be feeding me and what my body might be screaming at me.

With a Kind Heart,
John P. Forsyth

p.s. -- Apologies if there are typos here. I felt compelled to write something, and have to run onto other important activities. The editing can wait. The message out is more important to me at the moment. I wish you a vital day.

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Books