Don’t abandon your life’s journey

In those moments when, like Oblomov, you feel like you’re getting nowhere, try to find the will to continue. Don’t let life’s swamps keep you from following your path.

Don't abandon you life's journey
photo credit: amphalon via photopin cc

‘Twas as though some one had stolen from him, and besmirched, the store of gifts with which life and the world had dowered him; so that always he would be prevented from entering life’s field and sailing across it with the aid of intellect and of will. Yes, at the very start a secret enemy had laid a heavy hand upon him and diverted him from the road of human destiny. And now he seemed to be powerless to leave the swamps and wilds in favour of that road. All around him was a forest, and ever the recesses of his soul were growing dimmer and darker, and the path more and more tangled, while the consciousness of his condition kept awaking within him less and less frequently – to arouse only for a fleeting moment his slumbering faculties. Brain and volition alike had become paralysed, and, to all appearances, irrevocably – the events of his life had become whittled down to microscopical proportions. Yet even with them he was powerless to cope – he was powerless to pass from one of them to another. Consequently they bandied him to and fro like the waves of the ocean. Never was he able to oppose to any event elasticity of will; never was he able to conceive, as the result of any event, a reasoned-out impulse. Yet to confess this, even to himself, always cost him a bitter pang: his fruitless regrets for lost opportunities, coupled with burning reproaches of conscience, always pricked him like needles, and led him to strive to put away such reproaches and to discover a scapegoat….

Once again Oblomov sank asleep; and as he slept he dreamed of a different period, of different people, of a different place from the present. Let us follow him thither.

Ivan Goncharov. Oblomov

If a person is wholly committed to not experiencing any unpleasant or difficult thoughts, feelings, sensations, or images, then that person will be unable to commit to and maintain a course of action because every course will eventually evoke something that is unpleasant. With valuing love comes the experience of loss, with valuing community conies the possibility of rejection, with valuing creativity comes a negative evaluation of one’s abilities. Metaphorically, it, as if you were on a journey called “living well” and you ran into a swamp that stretched as far as the eye could see. Swamps are no fun. They, smelly, they, icky, they, scary, and yet swamps are part of the journey. Life asks, “Will you wade into the swamp or will you abandon your journey,” In order to choose to act on our values, willingness to experience difficult events is necessary. This action of willingness has the quality of a leap of faith. The job of the therapist is to create situations in which clients engage in a leap of faith into a future that is unknown and—to the best they can tell—in the direction of their values. A leap of faith implies the willingness to have whatever happens when one makes that leap, to touch down wherever one lands. We are looking for this quality in client commitments.

Jason Luoma PhD, Steven C. Hayes PhD and Robyn D Walser PhD. Learning ACT: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Skills-Training Manual for Therapists.

How to achieve your true goal

Setting goals can guide us through the maze of modern life, but the process of working towards those goals can be more important than achieving them.

How to achieve your true goal
photo credit: t i g via photopin cc

It is only those who know neither an inner call nor an outer doctrine whose plight truly is desperate; that is to say, most of us today, in this labyrinth without and within the heart. Alas, where is the guide, that fond virgin, Ariadne, to supply the simple clue that will give us the courage to face the Minotaur, and the means to find our way to freedom when the monster has been met and slain?”

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Suppose you are out skiing, and when you got off the lift, you mention to the person who rode up the lift with you that you plan to ski down to the lodge where you’re going to meet up with some friends for lunch. “No problem” this person replies, and suddenly he waves to a helicopter above, that upon his signal, swoops you up and speedily deposits you at the ski lodge. You protest vigorously, but the pilot is incredulous. He says, “What’s your beef, my friend? It was you who said the objective was to get from the summit down to the lodge!”
The helicopter pilot would have a point if getting to the lodge were the only issue. If it is, flying down the slope achieves exactly what skiing down achieves. Both have you start at the top and end up at the lodge. The helicopter even has notable advantages: you don’t get cold, or tired, or wet, for example.

There is only one problem with this. The goal of getting to the lodge was meant to structure the process of skiing. That process was the true “goal.”

You have to value “down” over “up” or you can’t do downhill skiing. Aiming at a specific goal (the lodge) allows you to “orienteer” one way to go down the hill. But the true goal is just to ski, not reaching the goal (the lodge).

In precisely the same way, the true goal of goals is to orient you toward your values so you can live a valued life, moment by moment. A successful ACT patient put it this way toward the end of therapy: “I just want to do this because that’s what I want my life to be about. It’s not really about any outcome. I want to be alive until I’m dead.” Goals can help you do exactly that. But be careful! Your mind will often claim that the true goal is the goal itself (after all, evaluating outcomes is what this organ evolved to do), and it will suggest that you should cut corners (like violate your integrity, or ignore other valued aspects of your life) to get there. That defeats the whole purpose, and if you succumb to cutting corners, accomplishing your goals will only mock you.

Steven C. Hayes & Spencer Smith. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

It’s not what you feel, it’s how you feel it.

Instead of trying to change or avoid uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, try to change how you feel about your experiences.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
The Yellow Birds

‘I had less and less control over my own history each day. I suppose I could have made some kind of effort. It should have been easy to trace: this happened, I was here, that happened next, all of which led inevitably to the present moment. I could have picked up a handful of dirt from the street outside, some wax from a candle on the altarpiece, ash from the incense as it swung past. I could have wrung it out, hoping I might find an essential thing that would give meaning to this place or that time. I did not. Certainty had surrendered all its territory in my mind. I’d have just been left with a mess in my hands anyway, no more. I realized, as I stood there in the church, that there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true.’

Kevin Powers. The Yellow Birds.

‘Finding a way to transcend the content of thoughts and other internal events may be the most useful strategy for being able to start living life after surviving a traumatic experience. Because of the power of language, we know that initially you may start avoiding one or two things that remind you of your trauma, but, over time, a wider circle of events will start having the same impact on you. Chances are, you’ve already noticed this impact of an ever-widening circle of things that cannot happen, places that you can’t go, people you feel you shouldn’t see, or things you cannot talk about. Eventually, you may simply be wracked with tension and no longer able to trace it all the way back to the original trauma. That’s the impact of language: Events, including mental events such as thoughts and feelings, start having the same impact on you as the trauma itself.

‘Your life can become about something other than trying to get away from a big part of yourself: your memories, your feelings, your thoughts, your own bodily sensations—basically, the passengers on your bus. In ACT, instead of changing what you experience (thoughts, feelings, memories), we focus on changing how you experience them. If you can experience all aspects of yourself with awareness and without all the pitfalls associated with language, you can begin to move forward in ways that are consistent with values and goals in your life.’

Victoria M. Follette and Jacqueline Pistorello. Finding Life Beyond Trauma: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Heal from Post-Traumatic Stress and Trauma-Related Problems.

Let go of guilt

A reminder, after the sad news of Sue Townsend’s death, that Adrian Mole was therapeutic to so many of us.

The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole by Sue TownsendMy mother is now in the hospital 60 miles away, where they are treating her pneumonia. I refuse to feel guilty. Guilt is a destructive emotion and doesn’t fit in with my Life Plan.’

Sue Townsend. The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole, 1999-2001

‘The client should understand that life runs in real time; it works by addition, not subtraction. Guilt regarding past failures has no necessary relationship to present commitments. The surest way to undo a commitment is to functionally link it with something that is dead, gone, and can’t be changed. Guilt is always connected to “I’m bad” and thus weakens the client’s ability to move ahead.’

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl and Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change

Making mistakes is human

Ever said that dumb thought out loud and regretted it? Don’t worry, making mistakes is human, and it’s important to allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes.

This is my first day,” Mae noted.

The Circle by Dave EggersAnd then Mae, who intended to say “I shit you not,” instead decided to innovate, but something got garbled during her verbal innovation, and she uttered the words “I fuck you not,” knowing almost instantly that she would remember these words and hate herself for them, for decades to come.

“You fuck me not?” he asked, deadpan. “That sounds very conclusive. You’ve made a decision with very little information. You fuck me not. Wow.”

Mae tried to explain what she meant to say, how she thought, or some department of her brain thought, that she would turn the phrase around a bit … But it didn’t matter. He was laughing now, and he knew she had a sense of humor, and she knew he did, too, and somehow he made her feels safe, made her trust that he would never bring it up again, that this terrible thing she said would remain between them, that they both understood mistakes are made by all and that they should, if everyone is acknowledging our common humanity, our common frailty and propensity for sounding and looking ridiculous a thousand times a day, that these mistakes should be allowed to be forgotten.’

Dave Eggers. The Circle.

‘We try to do our best, but even then we will sometimes get it wrong. (Besides that, is there really a person on this planet who always does their best in everything?) Making mistakes is part of being human and an essential part of any learning process. The only way to avoid it is to do nothing, which is probably the biggest mistake of all. Commitment means we take effective action, allow ourselves the freedom to make mistakes, accept ourselves compassionately when we screw up, and carry on moving in a valued direction.’

Russ Harris. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT.

Where to find happiness

The search for happiness, says the Dalai Lama, is our purpose in life. A good place to look, according to The Verve, is in the mind.

Lucky Man by The VerveHappiness, more or less
It’s just a change in me
Something in my liberty
Oh, my, my

Happiness, coming and going
I watch you look at me
Watch my fever growing
I know just where I am

But how many corners do I have to turn?
How many times do I have to learn
All the love I have is in my mind?

Well, I’m a lucky man
With fire in my hands

Happiness, something in my own place
I’m stood here naked
Smiling, I feel no disgrace
With who I am

Happiness, coming and going
I watch you look at me
Watch my fever growing
I know just who I am

The Verve. Lucky Man, written by Richard Ashcroft from Urban Hymns


“I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear, whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness.”

Dalai Lama. The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living

Let go of your grudge

Compassion neutralises toxic feelings, which is why this child doesn’t hold a grudge against his mother.

The Expats by Chris Pavone

‘Mommy, I have a new best friend,’ Ben said, apropos of nothing, his voice light-filled and carefree. He didn’t care he’d just been yelled at, fifteen seconds earlier. He didn’t hold a grudge against his mother.

‘That’s great! What’s his name?’

‘I don’t know.’

Of course not: little children know it doesn’t matter what you call a rose.

Chris Pavone. The Expats: A Novel

‘Does holding a grudge promote your health and wellbeing? For many people it does not, and you may begin to understand that at the very least it is more skillful to work on neutralizing these strong feelings that can be so toxic to your being. You can begin by sending compassion to yourself and then wisely reflecting upon reconciliation and considering that reconciliation is really for your benefit and not the other person’s. You may even begin to see more clearly that the causes of people’s hurting one another are fear and unawareness and that perhaps neither you nor the difficult person is “bad,” merely unaware and scared.’

Bob Stahl and Wendy Millstine. Calming the Rush of Panic: A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Guide to Freeing Yourself from Panic Attacks and Living a Vital