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, December 14, 2010

Living a Life on Purpose

As we approach the end of the year and the start of a new one, many people pause to reflect on their lives and resolve to make changes. It's interesting that we make this a priority once a year.

Thinking about the new year also got me thinking about why we don't resolve to manifest our intentions in our actions every single moment of each day. I think there are many reasons why we put off doing what matters more regularly, much of it having to do with fear, listening to our mind feeding us epithets that really are unhelpful and limiting, and the tendency to think that we'll always have tomorrow to live out our dreams.

The truth though is that tomorrow may never come. I've always known that, but nothing can wake us up to the reality that life is short than knowing someone who has died. My wife and I lost a good friend and former neighbor last week. She died unexpectedly from cancer at the age of 46. She was just hitting her stride, had three lovely children and a husband. And, she was a person who would be there to lend a hand, help with school, and was actively involved with her kids and her community. That's just the kind of person she was.

But now she's gone. Nobody saw it coming. And that's the danger here. None of us know when it will all end. We just don't know. All we really know for certain is what we have right now, just were we are. And, life asks us whether we are willing to use the "now time" we have for good purpose, and in a way that upholds what really matters to us, or not.

I'm not saying that any of this is easy either. Life routinely provides us with obstacles, problems, and pain, and often these potential barriers show up in places that really matter to us. We can learn to meet these barriers in a new and different way, or we can succumb to their mantra shouting "don't do it, you can't do it, it'll be too much, too risky, too hard .. too _____ [you fill in the blank]." In short, when we listen to the pain and buy into what our minds make of the pain and challenges that life offers, we'll often end up doing nothing. And that's not good for me or for you as far as living a life is concerned.

There is a way to go forward though. And, quite honestly, I know of no magic solution that can prevent the pain and difficulty that life offers. The trick, the way forward, is to find a way to navigate and move with the pain of life -- physical, emotional, psychological, and historical -- and not be stopped by it. This is the main aim of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy -- to cultivate a new relationship with pain and difficulty (and our old histories) in the service of moving forward in directions that matter.

In case anyone may be interested, we just put out a general ACT-infused book about life and making the most of it while we can. The book is called "Your Life on Purpose." I'm not asking that you buy it, but if you are curious you can find it on Amazon and most bookstores. It's a quick read and includes a number of exercises to help folks clarify what really matters, understand what gets in the way of living a mattering life, and then skills to cultivate a new relationship with the barriers in the service of living life on purpose and with a purpose.

At some point, we all will pause and reflect on how we are living our lives. For many, it is a sobering process, like wading through a junk yard full of missed opportunities and regrets. But it doesn't have to be that way. It can also be a wake up call, a nudge to make the most of the time we've been given. I sincerely hope that it doesn't take a major illness or tragedy to move each of us enough to take the reigns and a bold step forward into a life that matters while we can.

Said with a kind heart and warm wishes for peace now and into the new year,

John P. Forsyth, Ph.D.

Author of the "Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety," "Your Life on Purpose," and "ACT on Life, Not on Anger."

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Books