Words lose meaning with repetition

Your mind doesn’t always mean what it says. If it tells you you’re stupid or a loser, try repeating those words and soon they will lose their meaning.

Words lose meaning with repetition
Ed Ruscha, Mysteries, 1987, oil on canvas, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the estate of Isabel B. Wilson. © Ed Ruscha

A classic ACT defusion technique is the “milk, milk, milk” exercise, first used by Titchener (1916). It consists of an exploration of all of the properties of a single word. For example “milk” is white, creamy, and so on. This word is then said out loud by the therapist and client rapidly for about a minute. In the context of rapid repetition, it quickly loses all meaning and becomes just a sound. Often the exercise is repeated with a single word variant of a core clinical concern or troublesome thought the specific client may have (e.g., mean, stupid, weak, etc.). The experiential point is that thoughts do not mean what they say they mean, and while it may not be possible or healthy to experience their referents, it is always possible to experience them as an ongoing process if the context in which they are occurring is changed.’

Steven C. Hayes. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Relational Frame Theory, and the Third Wave of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies in Behavior Therapy (2004).

Tune out of your bad thoughts

Unpleasant thoughts can fill your head like a radio station that only broadcasts bad news. Let those thoughts disappear into the background like you’ve turned the radio down low.

Tune out of your bad thoughts.
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‘He … switches on the radio to shut off their conversation. The four-thirty news: earthquake in Hawaii, kidnapping of two American businessmen in El Salvador, Soviet tanks patrolling the streets of Kabul in the wake of last Sunday’s mysterious change of leadership in Afghanistan. In Mexico, a natural-gas pact with the United States signals possible long-term relief for the energy crisis. In California, ten days of brush fire have destroyed more acres than any such fire since 1970. In Philadelphia, publishing magnate Walter Annenberg has donated fifty thousand dollars to the Catholic Archdiocese to help defray costs of the controversial platform from which Pope John Paul the Second is scheduled to celebrate Mass on October the third.’

John Updike. Rabbit is Rich.

Our mind is a bit like a radio, constantly playing in the background. Most of the time it’s the Radio Doom and Gloom Show, broadcasting negative stories twenty-four hours every day. It reminds us of bad things from the past (You really screwed up there!), it warns us of bad things to come in the future (You’re going to fail again!), and it gives us regular updates on everything that’s wrong with us (Your life’s a mess!). Once in a while it broadcasts something useful or cheerful, but not too often. So if we’re constantly tuned in to this radio, listening to it intently and, worse, believing everything we hear, then we have a sure-fire recipe for stress and misery.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to switch off this radio. Even Zen masters are unable to achieve such a feat. Sometimes the radio will stop of its own accord for a few seconds (or even—very rarely—for a few minutes). But we just don’t have the power to make it stop (unless we short-circuit it with drugs, alcohol, or brain surgery). In fact, generally speaking, the more we try to make this radio stop, the louder it plays.

But there is an alternative approach. Have you ever had a radio playing in the background, but you were so intent on what you were doing that you didn’t really listen to it? You could hear the radio playing, but you weren’t paying attention to it. In practicing defusion skills, we are ultimately aiming to do precisely that with our thoughts. Once we know that thoughts are just bits of language, we can treat them like background noise—we can let them come and go without focusing on them and without being bothered by them.’

Russ Harris. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Introductory Workshop Handout.

Interpreting symbolism

Myths are full of symbols to help convey the story’s message. They shouldn’t be interpreted literally as that often only clouds our understanding.

Interpreting symbolism
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Symbols are only the vehicles of communication; they must not be mistaken for the final term, the tenor, of their reference. No matter how attractive or impressive they may seem, they remain but convenient means, accommodated to the understanding. Hence the personality or personalities of God—whether represented in trinitarian, dualistic, or Unitarian terms, in polytheistic, monotheistic, or henotheistic terms, pictorially or verbally, as documented fact or as apocalyptic vision—no one should attempt to read or interpret as the final thing. The problem of the theologian is to keep his symbol translucent, so that it may not block out the very light it is supposed to convey. “For then alone do we know God truly,” writes Saint Thomas Aquinas, “when we believe that He is far above all that man can possibly think of God.” And in the Kena Upanishad, in the same spirit: “To know is not to know; not to know is to know.” Mistaking a vehicle for its tenor may lead to the spilling not only of valueless ink, but of valuable blood.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

‘Some spiritual and religious traditions are among the best-documented sources of physical and psychological health, particularly the more experiential, accepting, and mystical practices such as meditation and prayer. This is not surprising, because these cultural traditions were among the first to emerge after human language really began to evolve into the elaborate symbolic system we have today. Yet psychotherapists often attack spiritual and religious traditions as if they were inherently toxic to an individual’s autonomy and psychological health.

The reasons for this skepticism are understandable. It is known that rigid and punitive religious systems are toxic to human health. There are dramatic examples of harmful social control and dogma in religion (e.g., cult suicide, ethnic cleansing). Often, clients who seek out psychotherapy are likely to be among those who have been harmed. But we need to be less arrogant and more open to aspects of human culture that are helpful.

In this larger context, ACT is one small effort to solve the psychological problems language has created. That is “the work” we have before us, and it is perhaps the most important psychological task we face as a species. If we as psychotherapists take on this burden, we need to look again at the many honorable traditions (religious, spiritual, mystical, therapeutic) that have attempted to address human suffering and try to filter out what works from what does not.’

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

* 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.

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.

The roles we play: mindfulness and the wisdom of Joseph Campbell

We all adopt different masks depending on where we are and who we’re with. Behind them all is an individual who can observe each of the different roles we play.

The roles we play: mindfulness and the wisdom of Joseph Campbell
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To become—in Jung’s terms—individuated, to live as a released individual, one has to know how and when to put on and put off the masks of one’s various life roles. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do,’ and when at home, do not keep on the mask of the role you play in the Senate. But this, finally, is not easy, since some of the masks cut deep. They include judgement and moral values. They include one’s pride, ambition, and achievement. They include one’s infatuations. It is a common thing to be overly impressed by and attached to masks either some mask of one’s own or the mana-masks of others. The work of individuation, however, demands that one should not be compulsively affected in this way. The aim of individuation requires that one should find and then learn to live out of one’s own center, in control of one’s own for an against. And this cannot be achieved by enacting and responding to any general masquerade of fixed roles.”

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

‘The practice of personal development usually focuses on changing your thinking. You’re told to think positively, optimistically, bigger and differently; to let go of negative thoughts and think yourself happy. The belief is that if you change your thoughts you change yourself, implying that you are your thoughts. Mindfulness offers a different perspective. Note that the word ‘personal’ comes from the Latin persona, meaning ‘mask’ (referring to the masks actors used in theatre to represent different characters) and ‘development’ comes from the old French word desveloper, meaning ‘to unveil’. So, interestingly, personal development is about unveiling your mask to reveal your true self. You wear different masks every day: mother or father, husband or wife, teacher or writer, footballer or driver. But underneath all that is another dimension that’s easily missed – the fact that you’re able to observe all these different roles implies that you’re separate from them. We call this the observer self.’

Shamash Alidina and Joelle Jane Marshall. Mindfulness Workbook For Dummies

* 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.

Don’t let excuses stop you

Everyone makes excuses. It’s a part of what we do, just try to recognise them as excuses and don’t let them get in the way of your dreams.

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson
The Great Lover: A Novel

Lots of the people I meet on courses say that they’re waiting till their kids grow up, they’re waiting till they retire till they have time, and that’s when they’ll start their novel. My advice has been consistent for the twenty-odd years I’ve been teaching creative writing: don’t wait, there’s never a perfect time. Do it now.

Jill Dawson. Five top tips on writing from Jill Dawson. Retrieved March 11, 2014, from The Guardian.

‘As soon as you have to face any sort of challenge, your mind will come up with a whole list of reasons not to do it: ‘I’m too tired’, ‘It’s too hard’, ‘I’ll only fail’, ‘It’s too expensive’, ‘It’ll take too long’, ‘I’m too depressed’ etc. And that’s okay, as long as we see these reasons for what they are: excuses.’

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

Postmortem playback

There is little to gain from carrying out a post-mortem on a situation, wondering if you should have done this or that, but try telling that to George Costanza.

George Costanza. From Seinfeld, season 8, episode 13 The Comeback.

‘Postmortem is when your mind rehashes or ruminates about what you think happened (or should have happened) in a social situation. Your “postmortem” review of a situation can last from seconds to hours, often “rearing its ugly head” from time to time long after you have left a situation. The following is an example of a “postmortem” review:

‘Oh no, I really screwed up that presentation. I should have prepared more. I can’t believe I made that stupid comment about finances. And I forgot to mention the plan I’ve been preparing. What an idiot! The boss sure had a disappointed look on her face. I bet she regrets promoting me. I’m going to get fired, and I’ll never get another job!’

Nancy L. Kocovski and Jan E. Fleming. The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Social Anxiety and Shyness: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Free Yourself from Fear and Reclaim Your Life (New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook)