Searching for inner peace leads us down many paths. From the shelves of books in the self-help section to gurus, coaches and spiritual leaders, we’re often looking for a direct line from uncertainty to calm. This isn’t about a quick-fix. Far too many are mocked for supposedly wanting that. I think the vast majority are quite willing to put in the time and effort. Unfortunately explanation and instruction often replace clarity with obfuscation, as if a struggle of understanding is required for wisdom. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be shrouded in mystery.
What is being mindful?
Mindfulness is an active mental state of reflective awareness about the present.
– While mindfulness is often looked at as meditation, too often meditation ends up being a passive behavior. To be active is to be intentional and focused. This isn’t about relaxation, though that can happen, but deliberate engagement with mental life.
– Don’t let the “mental” make you ignore the physical. Our minds are embodied. Mindfulness acknowledges our physical reality and how our bodies are the means through which we put thought into action.
– Being aware is one of those behaviors we often think we’re doing, but is not as broad as we think. To be mindfully aware is to actively seek out and allow more of your experience to be seen and known. This means having no single thing take over your mindsight to the exclusion of everything else.
– Time is, within the human experience, at least as much about our perception as it is a thing we live within. To be present is to recognize the transitory nature of our experience. Every present moment is immediately followed and replaced by the next present moment.
As Daniel Siegel, in his book “Mindsight,” puts it:
“Openness implies that we are receptive to whatever comes to our awareness and don’t cling to preconceived ideas about how things “should” be. We let go of expectations and receive things as they are, rather than trying to make them how we want them to be.” (Mindsight)
Not Getting Lost In Your Own Thoughts
There are many ways to talk about mindfulness and even more declarations of what its practice can bring into your life. The focus here is on broadening the contemplation of our lives to make room for new behavior. For that, we turn to how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) utilizes mindfulness.
ACT breaks mindfulness skills down into 3 categories:
Defusion: distancing from, and letting go of, unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and memories
Mindfulness allows us to see the transitory nature of our thoughts. Mental states do not last for long at all. We only think they do because of how they loop on themselves through attention and focus. The feeling of being stuck is due to being caught in one of those loops, where all potential action becomes fused to a narrow singular thought or story. Defusion is the process of breaking free of that narrow vision.
Acceptance: making room for painful feelings, urges and sensations, and allowing them to come and go without a struggle
Our mental states change with the speed of thought. We trick ourselves into thinking they last longer through our attention and obsessive focus. This is how pain leads to suffering. Our focus is often on ‘moving past’ or avoiding the pain, but the irony is what we avoid is what ends up running our lives. Acceptance isn’t about being a doormat to be stepped on. It’s an acknowledgment that pain is an inevitable and natural part of living, an indication of change.
Contact with the present moment: engaging fully with your here-and-now experience, with an attitude of openness and curiosity
Personal stories or narratives are how we split reality into what we call experiences. No single story can hold the entirety of reality and so there are always more to our lives to be explored. The present moment fades into the next present moment seamlessly and inevitably, a fertile ground for curiosity to find new growth.
Mindfulness: The Present is Calling
We are more than any single thought, emotion or story. No single action can or should define the whole of who we are. Our Values manifest in constantly evolving behavior. Shame ties us to a past that has already gone by, holding us to a falsely narrow vision of who we are capable of being. Mindfulness skills help us explore the present to find the inner peace of healthy questioning, the calm of accepting uncertainty and the personal growth of letting go of our thoughts.
Website: About ACT
The future contains the present that the past was preparing for. Consider that for a moment. For all the time and resources spent preparing for a potential future, it will never be more than what was possible in the present. For all our lamentations and considerations about the past, it held within it the potential of the present we’re experiencing. The past and future are indelibly connected to what the present holds or becomes, yet we typically spend more time considering either than being thankful for the moment we currently reside in.
Bring to mind driving and, if that doesn’t have too many anxious associations, remember a time when you suddenly ‘woke up’ and realized several miles had gone by without full conscious awareness. Whether it was a focus on what was coming, that meeting or event, or what had happened previously, a missed opportunity or action unfulfilled, the present in which all that thinking was occurring slipped on by without your noticing. What sights were missed? Who passed us by? What dangers did we ignore? An entire section of life, a whole area of living, passed in a blur of contemplating everything but what was happening right in front of us.
Without a clear sense of where we currently are, what shape our life is in, it is profoundly difficult to engage in that nourishing practice called gratitude. Rather than simply a declaration said over the dinner table or engaged in on Thanksgiving, gratitude can be a lifelong practice reminding us to not lose sight of what’s directly around us.
The past is a recall of events seen through the lens of our current situation, removing us from contemplating what we already have. The future is a projection of our current hopes and concerns, removing us from consideration of our current situation. Both cast our vision away from the grounded reality of our current relational self, the very narrative that holds the potential to travel these roads in different ways. Think of turning a telescope to look upon a night sky, it is precisely where the lens or present is located that will determine what is seen through the other end. If we forget how powerful the present is, we may never shift our imagination to contemplate the rest of the sky above.
To start with gratitude is to begin with Value, the identification of what we hold to be important. It is to recognize our capacity to care, to connect, to hold the strings of our relational lives in our mind’s eye. To pause in that relational present, to refrain for just a moment from losing ourselves in the past or future, is to hold the now and everything it contains. That now provides all manner of lessons to be learned from what has come before and a growing list of potential outcomes out of what has yet to happen. It is precisely within the universal human process of Value-ing that gratitude springs eternal.
This is the second of a 3-part series looking into the essential characteristics of Relational-ACT, the counseling philosophy behind the services provided by Life Weavings. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), created by Steven Hayes, considers the ‘self in context.’ That context is explored through what is referred to as ‘relational frames,’ the ability of the self to explore experience through the building of perspective. Relational-ACT is founded upon a relationship model for the creation of perspective leading to change. We exist as an inevitable trajectory of intentional energy starting with Value, moving through Narrative, resulting in Behavior.
Narrative is a broad term that holds the notions of perspective, structure and intentionality. It is the process through which we decide what is important to us among the vast information in our experiences, organize our responses and direct the attention of others to the self-image we’ve constructed.
There is simply too much information in even the most simple of experiences for us to ever be consciously aware of it all. While the analogy can only be taken so far, consider life experience like a computer, with programs running in the background, but you’re only using one at a time. Perhaps, like me, you’re switching between multiple programs all the time, but the reality is there’s only one at a time you’re consciously using. Also, depending on what is being worked on, not all the programs running in the background will be accessed equally.
That background processing is similar to the experience of our everyday lives. We are inundated by information in the form of social, familial, personal, emotional and ideological programs (or memes). We must be selective in the building of our conscious experience, otherwise known as perspective.
A major consequence of this narrowed vision that we experience as conscious life is a false sense of our comprehension. Simply because we are not currently aware of those programs running, and all the information they contain, doesn’t mean they’ve stopped or that they aren’t making connections with one another. Our mind/brain’s are associational devices, connecting disparate pieces of information with other pieces. It’s why we can remember new things when recalling older experiences. It’s why multiple people can experience the same trauma and have different memories of what happened and different reactions. It’s why our emotions can connect us within so many experiences.
Behavior is any action taken in response to an event or to encourage a particular response in return. Behavior is both learned and evolving in the sense that we can associate or connect multiple items to build new responses. How we select our behavior begins with the window of our perception. That window is limited by what we have learned and the extent of the information we have available. We don’t do anything without a purpose and that is contingent upon our narrative associating information onto the stage of our present.
This way of looking at behavior means there’s no action that ‘isn’t the real me’ and allows for exploration when it’s stated ‘I don’t know why I did that.’ We’re now back to the consequence of a narrowed vision. Because we can’t keep consciously aware of every connection being made between all the information churned around in our minds, there are times when our actions don’t seem to fit the verbalized story of ourselves we’re telling. This is where calls of hypocrisy come up. Also, because we can only keep track of a small amount of the information we’re processing, the story we tell of ourselves may not always offer enough of an explanation to us. This is particularly true when, upon reflection, we realize that had we acted differently, the consequences would have been far more beneficial. Unfortunately such thinking forgets that the ability to reflect necessitates having more information.
The idea that ‘hindsight is always perfect’ is true not because we’re foolish, broken or corrupt, but because we can only decide our actions based on what we currently know. Action/behavior by its very nature will add information to our lives, in no small part because it is a way of looking back through the window of our perspective to see what we missed the first time.
Narrative provides the structure for determining what it is we will pay attention to, in order to direct our actions for a purpose, to result in the establishment of an identity within relationships. We have an innate desire to belong, but equally so we want to maintain a sense of self. Thus our identities serve the two-fold purpose of identifying for others that we are a part of something larger than ourselves even as we do so from a centralized notion of “This is me.”
One way of looking at this is seeing our relationship with identity as that of an old-style drawing compass. The circle we draw is the social group our identity connects us to, even as the center point determines the size of that circle. Anything within the circle we will feel connected to, whereas everything outside it becomes “other.” This simplification makes it easy to believe we only have the one, but no single identity can ever encompass the whole of any one of us.
Our personal stories grow out of what is important to us, guiding our responses to life and providing a grounding for our interactions. We never cease being in relationship, even as the details of those connections ebb and flow in importance based on the context our self-images are constantly shaping.
Relational-ACT recognizes the power of narrative as it leaps forward from our Values to provide the structure for our identities and guides us in developing behavior to interact with ourselves and others. By exploring our stories we can peer back through the windows of our perspective, see what we missed and find the space to grow.
Part 1: The Importance of Values
Overwrought declarations concerning the security of a nation’s people is the bread and butter of modern politics. Every potential leader of the self-proclaimed free world attempts to outdo another with over-confident pronouncements of their ability to defeat the enemy and keep us all safe. Just who “the enemy” remains to be, years and decades down the road of military engagements, is left to the practice of reinforcing memories of great emotional power. The notion of having nuanced, layered, dialogue about the variables involved in warfare and the attempt at destroying ideas with bombs is never broached. In fact, the closest we get to a conversation of this type is an almost adolescent obsession with labels.
Regardless of this lack of acknowledging the complications involved with international ideological warfare, rest assured that each potential leader will offer their variation of, quoting Obama: “Let’s kill the people who are trying to kill us.” However, the how of a war’s delivery is at least as important as exploring the why of its start and continuation. The why helps us identify the worldview and values we bring to what should be the last resort of inter-personal behavior. The how determines whether once committed we don’t lose sight of the better angels of our nature.
No form more perfectly embodies the way America does warfare than the focus on air power and drones.
1. Depersonalized Technology
From the latest gadget coming out of Silicon Valley to the ability to reach the upper reaches of our stratosphere with almost casual indifference, the power of technology is a social obsession even as it so quickly becomes banal.
“To the United States, a drone strike seems to have very little risk and very little pain. At the receiving end, it feels like war. Americans have got to understand that. If we were to use our technological capabilities carelessly—I don’t think we do, but there’s always the danger that you will—then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that’s what they can respond with.” — Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal in an interview with Foreign Affairs.
There is a curious and frightening aspect of human psychology that only the personal is deemed worthy of exploration, because only the personal has any emotional power attached to it. What technology provides for us is a means of distancing our potential emotional connections. We need never question what use it is being put to beyond our immediate surroundings.
“In fact, 12,000 or so strikes after Washington’s air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq began in August 2014, we now know that intelligence estimates of its success had to be deliberately exaggerated by the military to support a conclusion that bombing and missile strikes were effective ways to do in the Islamic State.” (Tom Dispatch)
Unfortunately, our immediate environment is constrained by the extent of the questioning we bring to any situation. We have then a causal loop of insularity, with technology removing us from considerations of consequence, which then limits our ability to see beyond our own neighborhoods, our own borders.
“Even as air power keeps the U.S. military in the game, even as it shows results (terror leaders killed, weapons destroyed, oil shipments interdicted, and so on), even as it thrills politicians in Washington, that magical victory over the latest terror outfits remains elusive. That is, in part, because air power by definition never occupies ground. It can’t dig in. It can’t swim like Mao Zedong’s proverbial fish in the sea of “the people.” It can’t sustain persuasive force. Its force is always staccato and episodic.” (Tom Dispatch)
This lack of consequentialist thinking removes us from consideration of our goals. It should be shocking to hear of 12,000 drone strikes in a war that has gone on for 15 years. There are teenagers who have never known a time in America’s history where war was not a constant. Yet questions are rarely raised.
2. Lack of Questions Leads to Moral Ambiguity
“Lethal force will not be proposed or pursued as punishment or as a substitute for prosecuting a terrorist suspect in a civilian court or a military commission. Lethal force will be used only to prevent or stop attacks against U.S. persons, and even then, only when capture is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively.”
From Foreign Policy: “However, whenever human rights groups produce credible reports about non-American civilians who are unintentionally killed, U.S. officials and spokespersons refuse to provide any information at all, and instead refer back to official policy statements — which themselves appear to contradict how the conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations is supposed to be practiced.”
From The New York Times: “The proliferating mistakes have given drones a sinister reputation in Pakistan and Yemen and have provoked a powerful anti-American backlash in the Muslim world.”
“Are our enemies any less resolutely human than we are? Like us, they’re not permanently swayed by bombing. They vow vengeance when friends, family members, associates of every sort are targeted. When American “smart” bombs obliterate wedding parties and other gatherings overseas, do we think the friends and loved ones of the dead shrug and say, “That’s war”? Here’s a hint: we didn’t.” (Tom Dispatch)
The Responsibility of War
“The utilization of force should carry with it the fullest attempt at matching projected action with internal value. If the action ceases to reflect or even begins to tarnish the value it seeks to support, then force and violence become less a tool of last resort and more a hammer seeking nails wherever they may be found. This connection is why it is incumbent upon the population and their representatives to do the utmost diligence in deciding when to use force. We have tasked our soldiers not merely with the protection of our national interests, but to do so at the cost of their lives and pieces of their humanity.” (Reflecting on the Armed Forces: The Other 1%)
“For a democracy committed to being a great military power, its leaders professing to believe that war can serve transcendent purposes, the allocation of responsibility for war qualifies as a matter of profound importance.” (Bacevich, 2013)
When we are no longer aware of or find ourselves much concerned with how our government conducts itself in the utilization of deadly force, this should serve as a scarlet flag waving upon our conscience. Yes, warfare seems to remain a necessary tool in the continued evolution of our fledgling civilization. No, warfare should not be dealt with heads held low and minds shut-down to consequence. We are not tasked as citizens of this world to merely ponder the importance of our singular lives, but to reach out and drive back the shadows of our own self-deceit.
© David Teachout
Bacevich, Andrew J. (2013-09-10). Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (American Empire Project) (p. 41). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
Whether professionally as a therapist/counselor or personally as one among many taking life one day at a time, the issue of health, particularly mental health, is often front and center, or at least a persistent, just below the surface, consideration. Unfortunately we often look at health, even mental health, through only one lens, with the physical or social or emotional taking center-stage. This myopic vision directs intervention through the question of “What is wrong?” and isolates a part from the whole. As if a life that encompasses so many varying relational connections to people, events and things can be seen as simply having a piece of bad code.
Looking at mental health from within the perspective of Wellness is one way to expand the vision of professional service and promote a broader understanding in the dialogue of everyday life. Many models of wellness have been offered, from the “Six Dimension Model” for Hettler, to the “Wellness Continuum” from Ryan and Travis and “The Indivisible Self” of Myers and Sweeney.
“A synthesis of the models defines wellness as a state of the totality of a person’s life as mind, body, and spirit interacting with environmental contexts. Throughout life, an individual moves along a continuum from illness to wellness through personal choices and action” (Hollingsworth, 2015).
Within this tripartite view of humanity, there are several common facets focused on, including “social, occupational (which could be considered school work for children), spiritual, physical, intellectual, and emotional” (Hollingsworth, 2015). Note the multiplicity of related factors, where a person is mind AND body, social AND individual, logical AND emotional. Within this paradigm a person’s wellness or mental health is a composite, not the conclusion of a simple journey from A to B.
Wellness is worked at from within a strengths-based approach, which becomes clear when considering the above related factors. A consideration of health from a single issue lends itself to seeing lack or weakness and the promotion of shame, doubt and/or judgment. This is due to at any given moment of our lives, one or more aspects of our lives being less than a projected ideal.
Wellness is strengths-based precisely because it is just as easy to note where one is doing well and/or capable of finding benefit in an area of their life. A person having difficulty with a particular idea may have great social connections; someone working through emotional difficulty may have a spiritual practice that is helpful or where social difficulties are easy to see, their physical activity is high. The key is no single facet of a person’s life is enough to condemn them or cast them aside as incapable of growth and development.
The article from Hollingsworth being looked at here contains a study focused on assessing the needs of college students, in order to ascertain where a wellness paradigm promotes self-awareness and skill-building.
“The current study included a survey of graduate students and faculty on perceived needs for which students could receive support through the university counseling center. Of 746 student respondents, 45% indicated financial issues to be a concern and 34.9% noted a concern with time management. Student comments included the observation that almost all graduate students had full-time jobs in addition to school, and some shared feelings of frustration with trying to maintain balance between family and class. Of 64 faculty responses, 91.9% indicated that students needed help developing effective time management strategies and organizational skills.”
A view from within wellness helps us move beyond the identification of problems to an appreciation for a person as a whole. Note that the graduate students are also dealing with full-time jobs and further, that they’re asking for help, not merely identifying a difficulty. In the study here, those who engaged in self-assessments and skill-building felt more competent at the end of the course. These improvements occurred precisely because time-management was not taken as an outlier, but bound within wellness relationships. Helping students identify their strengths within the social, emotional and intellectual parts of their lives, contributed to developing further the management quality needed to find balance in their lives.
A strengths-based wellness paradigm is not simply a pursuit of positivity. It doesn’t ignore the difficulties of a person’s life, rather the focus shifts from isolation to one of relational wholeness, where one or more aspects of a person’s life can and likely already does support and help other parts grow. Finding how each relates is about the expansion of one’s vision, where potential behavior that otherwise was kept in the dark, can now be brought into the light.
© David Teachout
Frankfurt, Harry G. (2006-10-31). On Truth (pp. 58-59). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Hollingsworth, Mary Ann. (2015). Wellness: Paradigm for Training and Practice. Ideas and Research You Can Use: VISTAS 2015. American Counseling Association.