Lose the labels

We all use labels to describe who we are – a mother; baker; blonde; lazy – but such narrow definitions limit who we really are and who we can be.

‘The preliminary meditations of the aspirant detach his mind and sentiments from the accidents of life and drive him to the core. “I am not that, not that,” he meditates: “not my mother or son who has just died; my body, which is ill or aging; my arm, my eye, my head; not the summation of all these things. I am not my feeling; not my mind; not my power of intuition.” By such meditations he is driven to his own profundity and breaks through, at last, to unfathomable realizations. No man can return from such exercises and take very seriously himself as Mr. So-an-so of Such-and-such a township, U.S.A. — Society and duties drop away.’
Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Lose the labels
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While we do our best to find ways to describe, interpret, and otherwise work with the experience of being human, we aren’t even close. Whatever labels and deictic frames we have come up with are at best representations of aspects of being human. While it may seem that we are learning more and more about ourselves when we learn to apply such terms as “girl,” “daughter of Mary,” “sister of Tom,” “brunette,” “tall,” and so on, we actually make ourselves (whatever that is) smaller. Each description draws an ever- narrowing boundary around the mysterious combination of energy and matter we have learned to experience and identify as the “I.” In recognizing this process, particularly by detaching from the conceptualized self, we can come closer to freeing ourselves from these verbally created constraints. In recognizing that our self-identity is a luck-of-the-draw construction (we could have been taught that we are worthless, or we could have been taught that we are magnificent), we are free to decide who we want to be in this moment and the next.’

Darrah Westrup. Advanced Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Experienced Practitioner’s Guide to Optimizing Delivery.

* 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.

The problem with self-judgement

Your mind will always judge you. It’s what a normal mind does. It’s more important to look at your actions, learn from them and let those judgemental thoughts just drift by.


The problem with self-judgement
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‘When he was a small boy Nilssen had stolen a precious button from his cousin’s treasure chest. It was a cuff button from a military jacket, brass in colour, and engraved with the lithe body of a fox, running forward with its jaws parted and its ears cocked back. The button was domed, and greyer on one side than on the other, as if the wearer had tended to caress its edge with his finger, and over time had worn the shine away. Cousin Magnus had rickets and a bandy-legged gait: he would die soon, so he did not have to share his toys. But Nilssen’s longing for the button became so great that one night when Magnus was sleeping he crept in, unlatched the chest, and stole it; he walked about the darkened nursery for a while, fingering the thing, testing its weight, running his finger over the body of the fox, feeling the brass take on the warmth of his hand—until something overcame him, not remorse exactly, but a dawning fatigue, an emptiness, and he returned the button to the place where he had found it. Cousin Magnus never knew. Nobody knew. But for months and years and even decades afterwards, long after Cousin Magnus was dead, that theft was as a splinter in his heart. He saw the moonlit nursery every time he spoke his cousin’s name; he blushed at nothing; he sometimes pinched himself, or uttered an oath, at the memory. For although a man is judged by his actions, by what he has said and done, a man judges himself by what he is willing to do, by what he might have said, or might have done—a judgment that is necessarily hampered, not only by the scope and limits of his imagination, but by the ever-changing measure of his doubt and self-esteem.’


Eleanor Catton. The Luminaries.


When we make a mistake, or things go wrong, it’s important to assess our actions; to reflect on what we did and what the results were. This is step 3 of the Confidence Cycle: ‘assess the results’. We want to take a good, honest look at what we did, and assess it in terms of ‘workability’. Workability refers to this question: Is what you are doing working to give you a rich and fulfilling life?) But this is very different to judging ourselves. Assessing our actions is workable. Judging ourselves is not. Here’s an example to draw out the difference.


Assessing my actions:
‘When I got caught up in worrying about the shot, and lost my focus on the ball, I threw poorly and missed the basket.’

Judging myself:
‘I am such a lousy basketball player.’


So self-acceptance does not mean that we pay no attention to the way we behave and the impact of our actions; it simply means we let go of blanket self-judgements. Why would we do this? Because judging ourselves does not help us in any way; it does not work to make our life richer and fuller.’


Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap.

Robert Burns and the ability to observe yourself

In the late 1700s, Scottish poet, Robert Burns, believed an ability to see ourselves as others see us would free us from ‘blunders’ and ‘foolish notions’. Observing your ‘self’ can certainly offer some freedom from the harmful stories you can tell yourself.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notions;
What airs in dress an’ gait and wad lea’e us,
And ev’n devotion.

Robert Burns. To a Louse, on seeing one in a lady’s bonnet, at church.

Robert Burns and the ability to observe yourself
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‘Self-as- context refers to a sense of self that transcends the content of one’s experiences. In other words, there is a “you” that is observing and experiencing your inner and outer world and is also distinct from your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and roles. From this perspective, you are not your thoughts and feelings; rather, you are the context or arena in which they unfold. When we’re stuck viewing ourselves from a self-as-content perspective, on the other hand, we tend to be driven by the scripts we have about ourselves, our lives, and our histories.’

Jill A. Stoddard and Niloofar Afari. The Big Book of ACT Metaphors. A Practitioner’s Guide to Experiential Exercises & Metaphors in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy

Going back home

Some heroes are reluctant to go back to their old world after a dramatic life experience, while such a return can benefit both them and their society.

going back home
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‘The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss”? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes. The easy thing is to commit the whole community to the devil and retire again into the heavenly rock-dwelling, close the door, and make it fast. But if some spiritual obstetrician has meanwhile drawn the shimenawa across the retreat, then the work of representing eternity in time, and perceiving in time eternity, cannot be avoided.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

People who have survived dangerous environments have sometimes reported that they are hyperaware of everything around them. This acute sensitivity to the environment may have served a useful function at some time. For example, combat veterans may have been very sensitive to small sounds in order to stay alert for danger. But now they might use this sort of vigilance in everyday, noncombat situations … This can be an interesting sort of paradox in that many combat veterans we have talked with report that they never felt more alive than they did while in country. We want you to look at how that hyperawareness functions now in your life.

This acute awareness of everything is not what we mean by being mindful. In fact this is a kind of hyperarousal that happens in extreme stress and can be very hard on you, both psychologically and physically … For instance, if you interpret every small creak your house makes at night as a sign of danger, you’re not likely to get much sleep … Physically, we know that staying in a state of extreme stress and arousal can cause all types of health problems over time, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and other stress-related illness.

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.

* 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.

Leave the battle behind

As we struggle to overcome the realities of life, myths can show us that it is often better to leave the battlefield rather than continue to fight.

Leave the battle behind
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The battlefield is symbolic of the field of life, where every creature lives on the death of another. A realization of the inevitable guilt of life may so sicken the heart that, like Hamlet or like Arjuna, one may refuse to go on with it. On the other hand, like most of the rest of us, one may invent a false, finally unjustified, image of oneself as an exceptional phenomenon in the world, not guilty as others are, but justified in one’s inevitable sinning because one represents the good. Such self-righteousness leads to a misunderstanding, not only of oneself but of the nature of both man and the cosmos. The goal of the myth is to dispel the need for such life ignorance by effecting a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will. And this is effected through a realization of the true relationship of the passing phenomena of time to the imperishable life that lives and dies in all.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

‘Metaphorically, the distinction between the function of a psychological disorder and the form it takes in one’s life can be likened to someone standing in a battlefield fighting a war. The war is not going well. The person fights harder and harder. Losing is a devastating option; but unless the war is won, the person fighting it thinks that living a worthwhile life will be impossible. So the war goes on.

Unknown to that person, however, is the fact that, at any time, he or she can quit the battlefield and begin to live life now. The war may still go on, and the battlefield may still be visible. The terrain may look very much as it did while the fighting was happening. But the outcome of the war is no longer very important and the seemingly logical sequence of having to win the war before beginning to really live has been abandoned.’

Steven C. Hayes and 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.

Personal growth through art

We can use art, literature and mythology as tools for personal growth as we share the emotions and tribulations of our fictional heroes.

Personal growth through art
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The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

‘We thrill in watching a superb performance, whether athletic or artistic, because it allows us to participate in the magic of true mastery, to be uplifted, if only briefly, and perhaps to share in the intention that each of us, in our own way, might touch such moments of grace and harmony in the living of our own lives.’

Jon Kabat-Zinn. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.

* 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.

Learn not to refuse your call

We can make excuses for not doing the things we really want and end up missing out on life’s adventures. Don’t resist and yes more often.

learn not to refuse your call
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The myths and folk tales of the whole world make clear that the refusal is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest. The future is regarded not in terms of an unremitting scries of deaths and births, but as though one’s present system of ideals, virtues, goals, and advantages were to be fixed and made secure. King Minos retained the divine bull, when the sacrifice would have signified submission to the will of the god of his society; for he preferred what he conceived to be his economic advantage. Thus he failed to advance into the liferole that he had assumed—and we have seen with what calamitous effect. The divinity itself became his terror; for, obviously, if one is oneself one’s god, then God himself, the will of God, the power that would destroy one’s egocentric system, becomes a monster.

One is harassed, both day and night, by the divine being that is the image of the living self within the locked labyrinth of one’s own disoriented psyche. The ways to the gates have all been lost: there is no exit. One can only cling, like Satan, furiously, to oneself and be in hell; or else break, and be annihilate at last, in God.

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The Buddhist tradition describes three poisons of the mind—greed, aversion, and ignorance. We developed this task for Zen students who seem particularly afflicted by aversion, those who habitually resist anything asked of them and what comes forward in life. Their initial and unconscious response to anything asked of them is “no,” expressed either in body language or out loud. Sometimes the no is expressed as “yes, but . . . ,” and sometimes it is cloaked in reasonable language, but it is still a consistent and persistent pattern of opposition.

People who are stuck in aversion often make major life decisions based not upon moving toward a positive goal but rather upon moving away from something they perceive to be negative. They are reactive rather than proactive. “My parents didn’t pay their bills on time and our electricity got turned off. I’m going to become an accountant,” instead of “I want to become an accountant because I love numbers.”

When monks enter training at Japanese Soto Zen monasteries, they are told that the only acceptable response to anything they are asked to do in the first year of training is, “Hai! (Yes!).” This is powerful training. It cuts through layers of apparent maturity, down to the defiant two-year-old and/or teenager within.

Not expressing opposition helps us to let go of self-centered views and see that our personal opinion is actually not so important after all. It’s surprising how often our disagreement with another person is actually unimportant and only serves to increase our distress and the suffering of those around us. Saying yes can be energizing, since habitual resistance is a persistent drain on our life energy.

Final words: Cultivate an internal attitude of “yes” to life and all it brings you. It will save you lots of energy.

Jan Chozen Bays. How to Train a Wild Elephant

Be the chessboard, not the pieces

Our thoughts can be like a chess game, a constant battle between two sides. We could also choose not to always play those pieces and be the chessboard instead.

Be the chessboard, not the pieces
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I set out the chess board. I filled a pipe, paraded the chessmen and inspected them for French shaves and loose buttons, and played a championship tournament game between Gortchakoff and Meninkin, seventy-two moves to a draw, a prize specimen of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, a battle without armor, a war without blood, and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency.”

Raymond Chandler. The Long Goodbye: A Novel (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)

The Chessboard Metaphor, a central ACT intervention, connects the client to the distinction between content and the observing self:

Imagine a chessboard that goes out infinitely in all directions. It’s covered with black pieces and white pieces. They work together in teams, as in chess—the white pieces fight against the black pieces. You can think of your thoughts and feelings and beliefs as these pieces; they sort of hang out together in teams too. For example, “bad” feelings (like anxiety, depression, resentment) hang out with “bad” thoughts and “bad” memories. Same thing with the “good” ones. So it seems that the way the game is played is that we select the side we want to win. We put the “good” pieces (like thoughts that are self-confident, feelings of being in control, etc.) on one side, and the “bad” pieces on the other. Then we get up on the back of the black horse and ride to battle, fighting to win the war against anxiety, depression, thoughts about using drugs, whatever. It’s a war game. But there’s a logical problem here, and that is that from this posture huge portions of yourself are your own enemy. In other words, if you need to be in this war, there is something wrong with you. And because it appears that you’re on the same level as these pieces, they can be as big or even bigger than you are—even though these pieces are in you. So somehow, even though it is not logical, the more you fight the bigger they get. If it is true that “if you are not willing to have it, you’ve got it,” then as you fight these pieces they become more central to your life, more habitual, more dominating, and more linked to every area of living. The logical idea is that you will knock enough of them off the board that you eventually dominate them—except that your experience tells you that the exact opposite happens. Apparently, the white pieces can’t be deliberately knocked off the board. So the battle goes on. You feel hopeless, you have a sense that you can’t win, and yet you can’t stop fighting. If you’re on the back of that black horse, fighting is the only choice you have, because the white pieces seem life threatening. Yet living in a war zone is no way to live.

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

Witness your own thoughts

Take a moment to listen and be aware of your thoughts, then ask if those thoughts are really you, or are you just the witness to those thoughts.

Witness your own thoughts
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The fundamental text of the Hindu tradition is, of course, the Bhagavad Gītā; and the four basic yogas are described. The word yoga itself, from a Sanskrit verbal root yuj, meaning ‘to yoke, to link one thing to another,’ refers to the act of linking the mind to the source of mind, consciousness to the source of consciousness; the import of which definition is perhaps best illustrated in the discipline known as knowledge yoga, the yoga, that is to say, of discrimination between the knower and the known, between the subject and the object in every act of knowing, and the identification of oneself, then, with the subject. I know my body. My body is the object. I am the witness, the knower of the object. I, therefore, am not my body.’ Next: ‘I know my thoughts: I am not my thoughts.’ And so on: ‘I know my feelings, I am not my feelings.’ You can back yourself out of the room that way. And the Buddha then comes along and adds: ‘You are not the witness either. There is no witness.’ So where are you now? Where are you between two thoughts? That is the way known as jñāna yoga, the way of sheer knowledge.”

Joseph Campbell. Myths to Live By (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)

‘Recall something that happened last summer. Anything that comes to mind is fine. Remember what was happening then. Remember where you were and what was happening. See if you can see, hear, and smell, just as you did last summer. Don’t remember the scene as if you were someone else looking at the scene from the outside. Do it from inside the body of the person called “you” who was there, looking out from behind your eyes. Close your eyes and take a few moments to imagine this scene.

Now notice as you remember the scene that you were there. There was a person behind those eyes, just as there is now. And although many things have happened since last summer, notice too that there is an essential continuity between the part of you that is aware of what you are aware of now, and the part of you that was aware of what you were aware of back then. We call that person the “observer-self.”

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.