Archive for December 28th, 2014

The sequence of posts reviewing Karen Wilson’s book on the power of meditation seemed to make this a good time to republish some related posts of my own from the past. As the last review post was dealing with the need to change our priorities, I felt that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy had something useful to say about that. Below is the second of four posts, two of which will come out this week and two next. In order to fully understand the power and range of ACT‘s ideas, which are pulled together from a number of traditions, it helps to look at what other thinkers have shared. I feel this seeming digression is needed if some of the fog around their language is to lift. We have met Koestenbaum, the existential philosopher, in the context of reflection, and his ideas also relate to translating values into higher realities in the personal world, an issue close to the heart of ACT. Much of what they borrowed from existentialism can be found in his book, far more clearly expressed. When I lived in London more than twenty years ago, at least once a month, sometimes more often, I  would set out from my house in Hendon and either turn left, heading for the library nearby on foot, or step into my car and drive down the North Circular to Hendon Way, then onto the Finchley Road to the library at Swiss Cottage. Upstairs there they housed a wealth of books on philosophy and psychology.  I borrowed his book, The New Image of the Person from Swiss Cottage library in early September 1982. It is the only book of that period in my life from which I have kept such hugely detailed notes. I finished my encounter with it in October the same year, shortly before I became aware I was a Bahá’í. It had a huge impact on me as a person and as a therapist. Maybe I shall blog about that some day. For now one small quote will do. He writes:

. . . the retreat of consciousness from lower identifications enables it to realise (understand and bring into being) increasingly higher levels of being.

The notes form part of the journal I kept in those days. Jottings about the day’s events are mixed with long quotes from whatever book I was reading at the time. Revisiting the journal entries around these quotes from Koestenbaum’s book gave me at least one mild surprise. Half my notes from his book are in a rust red notebook that ends in September 1982. I started a new notebook on 3rd October stating:

I think I am at the beginning of a very long climb upwards. . . . . Perhaps the best thing I can do is read that book on clinical philosophy for some hints about how to give a banal life some meaning.

It had become clear, in some work I did with a Jungian therapist, that I had a bit of a problem with commitment. We discussed this and concluded that my epitaph would read: ‘He died with his options open.’ The issues were clarified but remained unresolved until,I think, the ideas in Koestenbaum’s book helped me move beyond that problem and also gave me a strong steer towards an acceptance of the Bahá’í Faith when I finally read a book about it in late November that same year. It could go some way to explaining my extreme excitement when I came across the identical ideas nearly 25 years later in the ACT book without at that time having any awareness of the link the journal supplied. I thought I’d read the book much earlier than 1982. This indicates to me how powerfully the application of what I read to the way I live lifts my life sometimes to higher levels. Reading can have the opposite effect, of course, and my early taste for escapist fiction may have seriously arrested my development well into my twenties. In previous posts I have dealt with two issues that relate to what I am about to explore. The first concerns the proven power of the mind, when deliberately focused, to change the brain. The second concerns the power that reflection has for individuals and consultation for groups to unhook us from unhelpful habits of thinking, feeling, behaviour and self-image. Much of that thinking underpins the ideas this post explores but it would be impossible to rehearse them all over again. ACT manualIn an earlier post on motivation I looked at certain basic ideas in the ACT approach that might begin to help us enact our values more effectively and over sufficiently long periods to make a real difference to our world. An unusually clear statement of their position comes on page 238 of their 1999 book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy:

Applying willingness to support action consistent with chosen values is a central goal of act.

They also explain that ‘willingness is not wanting. It is an act of choice.’ They use the example of a marriage to illustrate exactly what they mean. Their explanation repays careful reading and re-reading (pages 218-219).

Marriage is a commitment, yet half of all marriages end in divorce. How could this be? In part it occurs because people do not know how to make commitments. They try to make them on the basis of judgements, decisions, and reasons, not choices. In so doing they put their commitments greatly at risk. Suppose, for example, that a man marries a woman “because she is beautiful.” If his spouse then has a horribly disfiguring accident, that implies that the reason for marriage has left. . . . . This kind of thing happens all the time when people marry and later find that they no longer have the same feelings of love towards their spouses. Marrying because of love is considered quite reasonable in our culture, and love is dominantly thought to be a feeling, not a kind of choice. But feelings of love are extremely unpredictable. . . . . [W]e say that we fall into and fall out of this emotional state . . . It should not then be a surprise when we fall into and fall out of marriages in much the same way. If the client can learn to make choices in these areas, things work differently. Consider how much easier it is to keep a marriage vow if marriage is based on a choice to marry and if love is considered to be a choice to value the other and hold the other special.

The photograph is of their very useful manual of practical suggestions about how to implement their therapy. This idea of commitment may go some way towards helping us understand more fully what the Universal  House of Justice is requiring of us when they ask (Turning Point page 164) for a ‘[c]ommitment to [the] revolutionising principle’ of accepting ‘responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’ These concepts and practices, so close to those of Koestenbaum, gel with similar ideas in many other thinkers I have been exposed to, both at the time and later. It is worth quoting from some other writers to demonstrate how important this group of ideas is and how prevalent they are. They help clarify the core point.

Psychosynthesis Star Diagram, formulated by Ro...

Aspects of Consciousness in Psychosynthesis

Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, is one person who shares a similar perspective. His view is that we are being raised by a higher force ‘into order, harmony and beauty,’ and this force is ‘uniting all beings . . . . with each other through links of love’ (Psychosynthesis: page 31). He explores what we might do to assist that process, and what he says resonates with Schwartz’s idea that persistent willed action changes brain structure. He writes (The Act of Will: page 57):

Repetition of actions intensifies the urge to further reiteration and renders their execution easier and better, until they come to be performed unconsciously.

And he is not just talking about the kind of physical skills we met with in Bounce. He goes on to say (page 80):

Thus we can, to a large extent, act, behave, and really be in practice as we would be if we possessed the qualities and enjoyed the positive mental states which we would like to have. More important, the use of this technique will actually change our emotional state.

This is what, in the realm of psychology, underpins the power of determination that the Universal House of Justice refers to in paragraph 5 of their 28 December 2010 message:

Calm determination will be vital as [people] strive to demonstrate how stumbling blocks can be made stepping stones for progress.

And this determination will need to be collectively sustained over generations because building a new world is

. . . an enterprise of infinite complexity and scale, one that will demand centuries of exertion by humanity to bring to fruition. There are no shortcuts, no formulas. Only as effort is made to draw on insights from His Revelation, to tap into the accumulating knowledge of the human race, to apply His teachings intelligently to the life of humanity, and to consult on the questions that arise will the necessary learning occur and capacity be developed.

(Universal House of Justice: 21 April 2010 – para 25)

As an intriguing note to end this post on, it is interesting to see that even from well beyond the edge of widely accepted thought, where you might expect to find a laissez faire laid-back do-your-own-thing approach extolled, this kind of discipline is sometimes recommended. Jim Leonardand Phil Laut wrote in their book on Rebirthing (page 224):

Discipline means staying with your plan and integrating the cross-current desire. Discipline is the virtue that is cultivated with repetition and is one of the greatest privileges of being a free human being. Indeed it is impossible to be free without it. Some people think that freedom means freedom to satisfy their desires, but that is just slavery to desires. Real freedom means being able to choose where you are going with your life and then going there. Discipline means knowing what your goal is and then doing what it takes to action it.

Of course, there is a catch to that last point.  What goals you set, and whether they will be ultimately self-serving or altruistic, depend upon the values you have. And that brings us back to ACT once more and the way it is helping me understand many of the implications of the complex and demanding message of the Universal House of Justice. Because each point the authors make is so rich in possibilities we will only be able to focus on one or two key issues in their approach in this sequence of posts. If I ever get round to doing a review of Koestenbaum’s book there will be an opportunity to unravel more.

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