Control or acceptance?

I’ve been reading a wee bit of ACT, acceptance and commitment therapy recently. I’m trying to find a relatively simple way to explain ACT to my patients, many of whom just don’t do reading, and prefer living life in a practical way, rather than an intellectual or even spiritual way. I’m not sure I’ve found an explanation that works terribly well yet.

So this is my attempt at a ‘simple’ explanation of ACT – and I’m keen to hear what others think of it!

The first step in ACT seems to be about recognising that the previous attempts we have made to control our thoughts and feelings about a situation seem to fail. Or they need an awful lot of energy. Or they compromise other important things in our lives. I can’t remember who described it as ‘creative helplessness’, but it is a great term!

The second step is to acknowledge that we have emotions, and that they don’t respond well to either being ignored or to be focused on. But emotions are part of us, and are present when we make judgements about a situation.

It’s natural to make judgements about things – this is how we simplify our lives, by making up ‘rules of thumb’ about how we think the world works based on what we’ve experienced, been taught, or seen happen to others. And the rules we live with we just don’t seem to revisit unless we have to.

Some of us are very rigid about our rules – the world just is this way, and there is no other way… others of us are more flexible and recognise that much of life is chaotic and random, and although we would prefer to have life happen in a much more orderly way, often it doesn’t. It seems that people who live according to the second way are more able to accept situations than people who live according to the first.

So if we’ve lived rather orderly lives, where everything happens the way it ‘should’, we may be secure but our world gets rocked when something unexpected happens. And perhaps some of us are more fundamentally able to be flexible about this, while others of us are not, but it seems that people who can work out a way to flow with an unexpected situation deal with it rather better than people who strongly want it to follow the rules. People who can deal with the unexpected deviation from a script also seem less emotional about it – happy when good things happen, but not awfully distressed when bad things happen.

So what I think mindfulness does is provide a way for us to flow with a situation by enjoying things that move in a direction that we ‘want’ but also allowing us to flow with a situation that doesn’t move the way we want by releasing our emotions, giving them some space to be – then recognising that they soon dissipate.

The tools that mindfulness uses, instead of being incredibly ‘talky’ involve lots of imagery and metaphor – which works really well for a visual creature like me – but I’m not so sure that it works as well for practical types. Mindfulness uses words like ‘gentleness’, ‘flow’, ‘moving with’, ‘openness’ and so on… Not that easy to describe to my practical blokes who are more familiar with a spanner than a book!

Some of the tools of mindfulness are awareness of breathing (not control), awareness of sounds (not naming them), awareness of sensations (not judging them), visualisation (such as putting judgements into ‘bubbles’ and allowing them to float away).

I wonder how I can translate this into ‘blokespeak’!

So my focus for this week’s series of posts is attempting to find some ways to help practical people understand how to become ‘mindful’ rather than ‘judgemental’, work with emotional flow rather than cognitive labelling, and finding out what is important and whether what happens is allowing what is valued in life to occur.