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, June 10, 2008

ACTs of Kindness With Anxiety

I've been away from my blog teaching and training and learning from others. Since the last time I posted, I traveled to London Ontario, CA, Chicago, IL, and Hamilton Ontario, CA. In that time, I've been thinking quite a bit about kindness and just how far it can go.

What is kindness? What does it mean in your life?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for anxiety and many forms of human suffering is, at the core, about self and other kindness. Why do I say that. Let me try to explain.

When people speak of kindness and compassion (a word that literally means "to suffer with"), they often think of the religious, and maybe people who lack resolve or are weak, lacking in strength. My sense is that none of this is true about kindness and compassion. In fact, when we and others are hurting, the most difficult thing to do is to look in, instead of the natural inclination to pull away. Think about it. When you see suffering in others do you truly try to see that person's life and experience through their eyes and heart, or do we tend to turn away, or attempt to avoid the pain of that kind of connection in some way.

I say this because being kind and compassionate is a hard path, but also enormously vital. Many much wiser than I have noted that kindness and compassion begins with us. That is, we have to be kind and compassionate to ourselves before we can truly extend it to others. I think I know why that is.

To be kind to ourselves, means treating ourselves with gentleness, and the greatest of care. And, part of that means that we are willing to touch our pain, without turning away, avoiding, or trying to run based on old habits. We touch it as we might a hurting young child, or someone in need of care. To do that, means going into our hurts and not fighting them. Struggle with our thoughts and feelings is warfare, and this is unkindness with ourselves. Learning to just notice, acknowledge, and let go of our judgmental mind and emotional pain is kindness. No more struggle. No more fighting ourselves. We acknowledge we hurt and we take care of that hurt as we might hold a tiny infant.

If we can do that, then we are positioned to connect with other human beings who are suffering too. There is so much about our world that creates the illusion of separation. We differ in how we look, how we dress, height, weight, eye color, whether we can walk or are wheelchair bound, are young or old, rich or poor, live in a big house or small one, drive an expensive car or a beater, have a job, are homeless, have an education or struggle to live on a dollar a day. Yet, behind all of that is something basic we all share. We are all trying to make the most of this one precious life -- we hurt, we care, we have dreams, we struggle, and on and on.

If you can connect with that, then you will be faced with the sobering truth that you and not so different from me, and from others. Inside, we are more alike than it may appear. When others hurt, it is a call to compassion, but unless we can "suffer with" -- meaning are willing to touch and experience our pain with kindness, it will be really hard to touch and connect with others that are hurting. Their pain will be just as hard to touch as our own. Our natural inclination in that situation is to withdraw, or perhaps share a superficial kindness motivated by avoidance -- "ACTs of charity that remove from view the source of despair and hurt that we contact."

I say all this, in part, to share some thoughts about how to break free from emotional pain and suffering. Practicing acceptance, mindful noticing, and defusion with your anxious thoughts and feelings (or any other form of sticky thought or feeling of discomfort) is one of the kindest things you can do. As you do that, it will give you space to live out your values, your dreams. And, it will position you to connect with other human beings just like you that are trying to do the best that they can with what they have, and do suffer just like you.

Kindness and compassion are strong, cut out the fuel of suffering, and can enrich your life. They go against the habit machine of pulling away and struggle/warfare. In short, when we stop resisting genuine aspects of our mental and emotional experience, that is a step toward kindness. When we act to live in accordance with our values and that which we hold dear, that is kindness too. The path is not easy. Yet, it just might offer you something different in your life. I know it has changed the way I see my pain and that of others.

With a Kind Heart

John P. Forsyth
Author of the Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety (for a general audience), ACT on Life, Not on Anger (for a general audience), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: A Practitioner's Guide (professional/therapist book)


Jane said...

I've just started studying your book The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety but I have a question. In the beginning of the second section you start using the letters WAF in reference to obstacles. The problem is, I can't figure out what those letters stand for as its not mentioned anywhere. I was wondering if you could let me know what the letters are referring to.

Thank you,


Dr. John P. Forsyth said...

Hi Jane -- Thanks for the question.

WAFs is just short hand of "Worry, Anxiety, and Fear." You can find talk of WAFs on p. 75 of the Mindfulness & Acceptance for Anxiety Workbook.

We use WAFs because, when spoken, you can say the acronym like the sound a dog might make when barking -- WAF, WAF, WAF. WAFs can seem like that -- irritating, demanding your attention, and threatening to take over your life space.

The book is very much about unpacking this illusion with skills that disarm it. Even noticing your anxiety as a barking dog, an annoyance, can be different -- there it is again... WAF, WAF, WAF.

I hope you find something of value to you in the workbook.

Peace -john
Dr. John P. Forsyth

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Books