. . . [T]he civilisation that beckons humanity will not be attained through the efforts of the Bahá’í community alone. Numerous groups and organisations, animated by the spirit of world solidarity that is an indirect manifestation of Bahá’u’lláh’s conception of the principle of the oneness of humankind, will contribute to the civilisation destined to emerge out of the welter and chaos of present-day society.
(Universal House of Justice: 21 April 2010 – para 26)
It must have been a couple of years before I retired. We were interviewing for people to take up the post of Clinical Psychologist in a Community Mental Health Service. I specialised in the rehabilitation and recovery of people with severe and enduring mental health problems but was also Head of the Psychology Service at the time and therefore part of this interview panel.
She was, I think, the last candidate of the afternoon – small, dark-haired and softly spoken. We were sitting in an upstairs room flooded with honey-coloured sunlight and uncomfortably warm as a result. I was beginning to wilt. In fact, I had probably wilted and was just hoping nobody had noticed.
She was about to say something that would wake me up in more senses than one.
We went through the usual polite formalities. We weren’t sure whether she would be suitable for so generic a post as she also had chosen, some time previously, to specialise, as it happened in my own area of expertise – rehabilitation and recovery. I asked her some formulaic question about her orientation, sleepily convinced in advance that I would have heard it all before. She’d only been specialised for three years or so after all. She mentioned ACT in the course of a long answer about something else.
During the time we got the something else out of the way, I debated with myself whether to show my ignorance and ask her what ACT was or whether to forget about it as it was not really important, probably, from the point of view of the post currently in question. It would have been so easy to look smart and learn nothing, but something wouldn’t let me. I just had to ask.
‘What’s A.C.T. exactly?’ I enquired as casually as I could, trying to sound as though I really knew but just wanted her to explain. She didn’t look fooled for a minute.
‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,’ she replied helpfully. She knew what I was doing all right.
‘Could you say a bit more about it?’ My follow up after quite a long pause triggered a flurry of foot and paper shuffling among my fellow panellists who were clearly not at all sure where this was going. They’d obviously expected a swift ‘I thought so’ kind of response, followed by some searching expert question.
She gave me a thumbnail sketch which blew me away. How could I not have heard of this before? – a therapy that combined some of my pet obsessions – existentialism, meditation, metaphor, the nature and effects of suffering, to name but the most obvious that burst like Exocets into my brain as she explained.
She spoke very briefly on each aspect, just enough to press the button that fired the Exocet. The key point for the work we both had in common was the focus of this therapy on getting people unstuck from disabling patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour that were keeping them paralysed.
I couldn’t wait for the interview to get over and check it out on the net and find a book to buy about it. (She didn’t get the job, by the way, but I owe her a lot and she almost certainly doesn’t know that.)
The book I bought was ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: an experiential approach to behaviour change’ by Hayes, Strohsahl and Wilson. I can’t give the writers a prize for clarity, and they chose to start the book in the thick of a conceptual fog which would have caused anyone less motivated than I was to slip into a coma. However, the ideas I did understand were life-changing and I read the book twice within a week, bored anyone who would listen with its wonders, and bemoaned the fact that it was too late in my career to train in this form of therapy myself.
Why does this book matter now when I have been retired for nearly three years?
Well, for a start it’s a gateway to some very powerful insights that help me understand my own spiritual tradition more deeply, particularly when we are contemplating the daunting task of community-, society- and civilisation-building to which we, as Bahá’ís, are committed in our way along with every other like-minded person on the planet in his or hers. It deals head on with the problems of how to get started and how to keep going in any long-term enactment of values. It’s both wise and practical, draws on both left-brain and right-brain processes, and shows us how we might combine ‘efficiency and love’ in the way our Bahá’í mode of operation requires us to. What it says is rooted in experience and confirms age-old insights from the East that Westerners have found it hard to see as credible. It marries ‘science and soul,’ to adapt Ken Wilber‘s phrasing. Need I go on?
One concept in the book was spot on for the people I worked with. ‘I’ll tackle this stuff when I’m feeling better,’ was a frequent justification for doing nothing. The book makes it very clear that most of the time we won’t feel better until we do something.
How do they arrive at that conclusion and how do they justify the idea that action is in itself transformative and that waiting to transform before you act is not an option?
To answer that we need to look separately at the three components of the name the authors have given to their approach: acceptance, and commitment and the acronym ‘act.’ They decode it as accept, choose and take action (page 81). If I am also going to relate what they say to the processes of community-building I have referred to I will need to save much of this for another post or three.
Hopefully by the time I tackle those posts I will have moved forward even further in my understanding of the most recent message from our central body, from which I quote below in the Commitment section. It is a complex and richly interconnected exposition of what is required of the Bahá’í community at this point. I have, in addition to my own reading and some informal discussion, spent three whole days over two weekends consulting in depth over what it implies about what we should be doing now. I need all the help I can get at unpacking its riches.
What I will do for now is briefly describe the three central aspects, which won’t even begin to address the major questions adequately.
What exactly is it that has to be accepted?
They summarise their view as follows on page 78-79:
Reflecting the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous, ACT aims to teach clients how to accept the things that cannot or need not change, and how to change the things that can be changed. Unlike this prayer, ACT provides specific guidance on how to know the difference. . . . . ACT therapists recognise that in the context of making choices and taking actions, automatic reactions will appear. The client who must avoid these reactions must also avoid change. What dignifies acceptance is that it is done in the service of valued change in the client’s external world, not in the world of private experiences.
There will be more to say about the hows, whys and wherefores of that when we look at the specifics in later posts.
Commitment, their model states, determines the choices we make. It is inseparable from our values (page 210):
In the area of values, . . . we must learn to value even if we don’t feel like it. We must learn to love even when we are angry, to care even when we are exasperated.
Helping people become clearer about their values is a key component of their therapeutic process. Helping people understand that the enacting of what they value is more conducive to their feeling fulfilled than the achievement of any specific goal is another: this emphasis on process is one that is becoming evermore explicit in the Bahá’í approach.
. . . . a significant advance in culture, one which we have followed with particular interest, is marked by the rise in capacity to think in terms of process. That, from the outset, the believers have been asked to be ever conscious of the broad processes that define their work is apparent from a careful reading of even the earliest communications of the Guardian related to the first national plans of the Faith. However, in a world focused increasingly on the promotion of events, or at best projects, with a mindset that derives satisfaction from the sense of expectation and excitement they generate, maintaining the level of dedication required for long-term action demands considerable effort.
(Universal House of Justice: 28 December 2010)
This leads to a willingness to accept, rather than fight or flee from, the challenging, uncomfortable and often protracted experiences that lead to enduring and significant change – an all-important skill in their view.
Even making strong commitments to action does not guarantee action (page 245). The values you have decided to commit to may not be truly yours but ones imposed from outside by society. You may be holding onto and rationalising a block that needs to be worked through. Maybe it’s too big a step at this point and you need to practice the skills you need on something smaller. In the end, though, there has to be a willingness to overcome obstacles (page 247):
Many clients have long-standing and strongly reinforced avoidance repertoires that can be expected to reappear. . . . . . [T]he client’s job is not just to determine a direction but to reaffirm that direction when obstacles appear. . . . . [W]hen we are travelling in a particular direction, the journey can take us across difficult ground. . . . [W]e don’t walk into pain because we like pain. We walk through the pain in the service of taking a valued direction.
Before we leave this lightning overview it’s perhaps worth mentioning how ACT sees spirituality (page 275):
Spirituality as a mode of intervention is highly valued in ACT. Spirituality does not necessarily imply the use of organised religion or even theistic beliefs, but rather a view of the world that recognises a transcendent quality to human experience, acknowledges the universal aspects of the human condition, and respects the client’s values and choices.
The rest will have to wait.