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. Last week I republished two of four posts: this is the last in the sequence.
It has proved impossible in a few short posts to feel I have done justice to all that ACT has to offer. I have barely mentioned mindfulness at all, yet it is a key part of their approach. Perhaps this is not so important given how much literature there is around dealing with that reflective skill.
Less forgivable is the fact that I have only hinted at one of ACT’s most powerful antidotes to stuckness. They are very aware of the ways that language can be a trap (page 71), and very aware that most of us don’t see it like that:
Language is an extremely important element of human existence, but it is not everything. Perhaps more than any other behavioural domain, language products have been cultural sanctified to the point that seeing language itself as a problem is quite unlikely.
Hayes et al feel language deals very well with practical realities, but it has major limitations:
The fact is that language has a very limited capacity to apprehend and decipher personal experience, but we are taught from the moment of first consciousness that language is the tool for developing self-understanding
(Acceptance & Commitment Therapy: page 151):
In discussing their clinical work they write (page 183):
Most clients are initially so thoroughly trapped by this conceptual prison that they do not know and do not believe that they are imprisoned. The conceptual world in which they live is taken to be a given.
This is something very important of their own that they bring to the mix of other ingredients that are not unique to them. The way they have combined what is often found elsewhere is powerful and appealing in its own right: this lifts their recipe for change to another level altogether.
From a Bahá’í perspective this view of language makes a great deal of sense. Paul Lample, in his excellent overview of the current work of the Faith Revelation & Social Reality, writes (page 18):
It can be argued that social reality emerges through the vehicle of language and, at the same time, language is a component of social reality. In essence, social reality is made up of words and meanings that human beings have agreed upon.
What words do not give is a complete and accurate description of reality (page 173):
. . . .reality does exist, but human beings are limited in their capacity for understanding and, therefore, must struggle over time to derive more useful descriptions and insights about reality that can guide more effective and productive action in the world.
One of the ways that ACT uses to help people free themselves from language traps is the liberating power of metaphor. It is using a richly evocative non-literal form of words to loosen the chains prosaic words have shackled us with. The Man in a Hole is a good example (pages 101-102)
The Man in a Hole Metaphor is a core ACT intervention in the early phase of therapy.
The situation you are in seems a bit like this. Imagine you’re placed in a field, wearing a blindfold , and you’re given a little tool bag to carry. You’re told that your job is to run around this field, blindfolded. . . . . Now, unbeknownst to you, in this field there are a number of widely spaced, fairly deep holes. You don’t know that at first – you’re naive. So you start running around and sooner or later you fall into a large hole. You feel around, and sure enough, you can’t climb out and there are no escape routes you can find. Probably what you would do in such a predicament is to take the tool bag you were given and see what is in there . . . . Now suppose that the only tool in the bag is a shovel. . . . [Y]ou try digging faster and faster. . . . Oddly enough the hole [just gets] bigger and bigger. . . . [D]igging is not a way out of the hole . . .
This metaphor is extremely flexible. It can be used to deal with many beginning issues.
And they go on to discuss how the need to understand the past can be a form of digging. They imagine an exchange with a client (pages 103-103):
“I’m not saying your past is unimportant, and I’m not saying we won’t work on issues that have to do with the past. . . . . [but] it is only the past as it shows up here and now that we need to work on – not the dead past. . . . [D]ealing with the past isn’t a way out of the hole.”
They also explain that the scariest step is stopping what doesn’t work before you know what might (page 103):
“Suppose someone put a metal ladder in there. If you don’t first let go of digging as the agenda, you’ll just try to dig with it. And ladders are lousy shovels – if you want a shovel you’ve got a perfectly good one already.”
What’s needed here, they say, is a leap of faith (pages 103-104):
‘[Because you are blindfolded] notice you can’t know whether you have any options until you let go of the shovel, so this is a leap of faith. It is letting go of something, not knowing whether there is anything else. . . . [Y]our biggest ally here is your own pain. . . because it is only because this isn’t working that you’d ever even think of doing something as wacky as letting go of the only tool you have.”
This, as they put it, is the ‘opportunity presented by suffering.’ It needs to be added here that ACT distinguishes between pain and suffering. The latter is what we add to the pain life inevitably brings, and in general in their view (page 79) ‘suffering is the intrusion of language into areas where it is not functional:’ in other words we add to our pain with the suffering thinking, usually in words, can bring in its train.
So, where does all this leave us?
In previous posts on this issue we have seen how powerful a force for change acting courageously on our values can be. We have seen how important it can be to persist in the face of discouraging and uncomfortable experiences. We learnt the importance of distinguishing between the values we hold and the steps we take towards goals we believe express them: these may or may not be the same thing. Only a dispassionate look at the results will tell us whether we are moving in the direction the compass of what we truly value points us towards. All of this, I feel, is useful in deepening our understanding of the implications of what the Universal House of Justice is seeking to communicate to us.
In this post we have looked at how language can betray us into traps from which metaphor can help release us and we have touched on the importance of being mindfully aware of what we are experiencing. We have already seen, in many other posts, how mindfulness of that kind can allow us to step back from inhibiting ideas of who we think we are and release energy to go in new directions.
This too is helpful. It seems to me that the Universal House of Justice, in its 2010 message, is re-emphasising once more how important reflection/mindfulness is (paragraph 10) when they describe how those working towards a vision of community building should operate:
. . . it is only through continued action, reflection and consultation on their part that they will learn to read their own reality, see their own possibilities, make use of their own resources, and respond to the exigencies of large-scale expansion and consolidation to come.
Consultation, as we have seen in a much earlier post, is a group process of reflection complementary to our work of reflection as individuals. Mindful awareness and detachment is at the heart of both ways of experiencing our inner, outer and social worlds.
In its exhortation to us to grasp the total vision, not just fragments of it, the House is also pointing up the traps of language we could fall into by turning guidance which is rich in implications into one-dimensional slogans. They are, in a sense, reminding us that we could end up in a hole as bad as that from which we wish to climb and as a result fall far short of the whole to which they are urging us to aspire (paragraph 37, already quoted in full in an earlier post):
. . . . achievements tend to be more enduring in those regions where the friends strive to understand the totality of the vision conveyed in the messages, while difficulties often arise when phrases and sentences are taken out of context and viewed as isolated fragments.
Seeing things as a whole is a right-brain gift that our left-brain culture in the West has taught us not to value. It seems to me that a book like the one about ACT can help us redress that imbalance if we are prepared to make the effort, and enable us to reach behind the wall of words and touch something closer to reality. If we do not make such an effort the complex coherence of texts such as those the Universal House of Justice creates will forever be beyond our understanding in practice, and, if so, we will be handicapped in our most important work and this will seriously delay us in helping to heal a broken world.
This is work that will not wait. I am hoping that writing my way towards understanding, on top of trying to put it into practice, will speed up my learning process. I also hope that by sharing it in this way I am at the very least not slowing you down in this work as you read.