The last post explored the futility of seeking lasting satisfaction through work, love, and other worldly pursuits. Recognizing this dilemma, we might ask: If satisfaction is evanescent, why do anything at all? Why not just refuse to participate? But even stasis leaves an imprint, so we need to be sure of ourselves before rejecting society and its activities. We cannot avoid marking the world; our freedom lies in selecting how. We are destined to work and to love, but our decisions direct our efforts and affection. Some strive toward selfish ends and love narrowly. Others behave generously and adore the entire biosphere. All of which raises another question: How do we optimize our choices?
Until recently, I seldom felt satisfied. Even during those rare periods when life was going smoothly, without uproar or mood disorder, it always seemed lacking. No career, relationship, home, hobby, or vacation escaped this critique. I knew mine was not a healthy attitude and harbored no doubt that my personality was flawed. But I could not fix the problem. Although I don't call myself a Buddhist, there is little doubt that the Buddha saw our human situation clearly. One of his "Four Noble Truths" states that life is inherently unsatisfying. This comforts me, because it situates the root problem in the world rather than my character. Not that I don't need to change, but the issue isn't one of learning to feel fulfilled in the common sense of the word. Adjusting my personality won't alter the fact that life disappoints. According to Buddhist nosology, afflictions of the human spirit derive from three delusions about reality. We habitually seek permanence, satisfaction, and individuality, but impermanence is the rule, dissatisfaction is unavoidable, and individuality is an illusion. A recent series of posts on my primary site, WillSpirit.com, attempted to tackle the last of these three, which I believe to be the most challenging. Today's essay deals mainly with the second and a little with the first, both of which are easier to accept.
Both here and on my primary site, I've covered Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) several times. The ACT method has helped me find peace of mind that exceeds what I was able to achieve using other therapies. It seems like a worthy topic for that reason, but I should emphasize that my perspective is that of an informed layperson, not a psychotherapist. Consider this a disclaimer: these blog posts cannot be used as guides to adopting ACT behavioral techniques. My goal is merely to advertise the power of the therapy. Interested readers should consult authoritative books and professionals. With that out of the way, I'd like to return to my last post, which attempted to illustrate some ACT concepts through the vehicle of my own hangups following my mother's death. As I look back at that essay, I see it covers a lot of ground. Single sentences gloss over topics that take up entire chapters in ACT texts. For the sake of clarity, it's worth dissecting the key points a bit further.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has been very helpful to me in grieving important losses, including those that still haunt me from childhood. In this context, ACT's working hypothesis is that the questions and recriminations with which we torment ourselves after the death of a loved one are products of language and can be addressed by adjusting our relationship with verbal thought. ACT emphasizes how thinking can interact with feelings to obstruct our pursuit of values. Let's take my mother's death as an example and see how this works. As mentioned last time, my mother died in a psychiatric hospital after battling depression for years. That much is factual. But my mind has never been satisfied with the documented information.
To be alive is to be vulnerable, but to be human is to be sensitive in ways undreamt of by other creatures. All life forms are prey to death, loss, illness, and injury. But people also fear disappointment, ill-repute, and injustice. As was touched on last time, our values make us susceptible to considerable pain. The most obvious and universal value is love, and it inevitably brings grief. No one we love will be with us forever, and except for those rare cases of simultaneous death, one lover always passes from this life before the other. The result is grief. No one who lives beyond youth escapes it, and many children suffer it too. When I was five years old my grandfather died, and a beloved dog was stolen, never to return. I learned two flavors of bereavement that year. In the first case, I felt remorse. My father's father seemed to me a frightening and humorless man. He often yelled at me and my cousin and never played with us. We made fun of him behind his back. When he died after a bad car crash, I couldn't forgive myself for my disrespect. If only I could have gone back and behaved better, learned to love him more and tried to understand him.
We all hope to pursue certain directions in life. We may not always admit how much our values affect us, but they greatly influence our thoughts, emotions, and actions. The person who makes a mistake and loses a cherished job feels shame. The mental obsessions that surround the shame may center on what went wrong, on the boss who couldn't tolerate errors, or on the spouse who will be disappointed. Despite these different thoughts, the shamed response is driven by the conviction that doing a good job is important. Mistakes matter because the work matters (consider a surgeon who made a dreadful error---he or she is concerned about the patient's outcome, not just personal consequences). Performance matters because work well done brings social approval, which is painfully lost when the boss fires a failing worker. Employment matters because material support keeps family fed, clothed, and sheltered. But most of all, work matters because it is a central value in the lives of most people. If the job is lost because of addiction, then the addict feels shame about his or her dependence on substance use. But the shame remains driven by the underlying value: useful work.
On my personal blog, WillSpirit, I wrote a few posts about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Writing about ACT seemed like a valuable blogging direction, because the method has helped me live more effectively than ever before. As I’ve worked on my emotions and moods over nearly forty years, I’ve tried many therapies, spiritualities, and activities, but only with ACT have I seen robust improvement. Part of ACT’s effectiveness in my case may be due to the groundwork laid by earlier practices, but there’s much more to it than that. I therefore feel called to help popularize the approach. I began the discussion with the last post on this site, entitled How Much Can We Endure?, That piece made the point that hardship can become enriching when we find meaning within it, which is a central theme of ACT. But I also emphasized that some people have trouble bearing up under life’s burdens, by which I specifically meant they die due to poorly chosen coping strategies. Suicide, and death caused by substance abuse, seem like clear signs of failure to manage life effectively. But does addiction, by itself, mean a person is living poorly? Does chronic depression? Workaholism? High anxiety? Extreme sensitivity? Low self-esteem? In evaluating these questions, we come to ACT’s emphasis on values as one of the six dimensions of psychological flexibility, and hence wellness.
God never gives us more than we can handle. IMHO, this famous saying speaks nonsense! Consider that between preschool and first grade I watched my mother slowly wither away and then die from depression after a painful divorce. Consider that my sister recently succumbed to alcoholic liver disease after drinking against her pain for decades. Consider that I've watched friends destroy themselves in various direct and indirect ways, or that countless patients of mine suffered from self-inflicted wounds and diseases that finally killed them. If you weigh all that evidence (plus any of your own you'd care to add to the mix), you'll recognize that life overwhelms many people; they cannot endure the hardship and pass from this world in misery. Where is the evidence to suggest that the universe serves up only ordeals we can handle? On the other hand, there is no trauma or loss so severe it cannot be transmuted into something valuable. The fact that many people never effect such alchemy does not negate the truth that many others do. Transcendence of suffering is always within our reach, though we often don't know how to grasp it. Once I viewed a YouTube clip that showed psychiatrist Viktor Frankl talking with a young man afflicted with quadriplegia. This youth described in convincing terms how he gained meaning and insight through his devastating injury. Perhaps only a few paralyzed patients embrace their fate with this level of acceptance, but at least one did, so it must be possible.
Too many of us grew up in families wracked with pain. Emotional wounds accumulate in settings of neglect, abuse, bereavement, molestation, violence, and misery. As adults, these ancient injuries undermine our happiness. We often choose poorly in relationships, careers, and pastimes. Even if we don't make gross mistakes, we lack the confidence to endorse our own choices. We feel uneasy in good times and overwhelmed in bad. This is the legacy of childhood trauma. At times we shut down emotionally, closing ourselves off from the affection we crave. Other times we act out and hurt the ones we love or destroy our own reputations. Still, healing can happen after even the worst of upbringings. It takes time, and backslides are unavoidable, but eventually we stabilize in greater maturity and emotional openness than we ever imagined. In the last post we highlighted the body's gentle wisdom and how often we ignore it. As I move further along the path to peace of mind, the importance of befriending physical nature becomes ever more obvious. The injuries of the past are stored in our biology, where they affect every aspect of our lives.
Imagine someone asks you this question: "What are you?" We seldom get queried in this way, since the more typical questions are: "Who are you?" or "What do you do?" So take a moment to answer the question of what you consider yourself to be, first and foremost. Some of us will answer with our careers: "I'm a physician." or "I'm a writer." Others will state an important social connection: "I'm a mother." or "I'm an American." A few will refer to religion: "I'm a Muslim (or Atheist, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, etc)." But few of us will reply, without forethought: "I am a warm-blooded animal that walks upright on its hind limbs and possesses an enlarged brain." And yet, that is probably the most central and accurate description we could provide.