When the mind is stuck on replay

The mind often replays old arguments, bringing the same feelings of anger and resentment back. Instead, we should try to recall the feelings from before these disagreements.

There was, I believed, no original thought left to have about my various confrontations, but still they turned over and over in my mind, certain phrases bubbling back up, certain moments replaying in a loop. I formulated snappy and witty rebuttals, unanswerable comebacks; I scripted and rehearsed future encounters. And this ceaseless, futile mental activity disgusted me even as I felt myself unable to stop indulging in it.

Will Wiles. The Way Inn. 2014. Fourth estate. London.

When the mind is stuck on replay
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Naturally when something reminds you of pain from your past, painful thoughts and feelings are likely to show up. You can’t stop that from happening. That’s the way your brain is hardwired. But if you clutch those thoughts and feelings and refuse to let go, you turn them into a mass of seething resentment. This does not allow healing; instead it opens your wounds and pours in salt. The word “resentment” comes from the French resentir, which means “to feel again.”

When you hold on to resentment, you will relive the pain, again and again and again. In Buddhism, there’s a saying: resentment is like holding a red hot coal in order to throw it at someone else. When you hold on to hurts from the past, you cultivate feelings of anger, resentment, and revenge. These feelings hurt you, not the person who wronged you. It’s like cutting yourself with a knife and hoping that the other person bleeds.

Russ Harris. Act With Love.

Let go of the past

Many of our emotional responses are a result of events in the past. Letting go of the past provides an opportunity to react differently and overcome recurring difficulties.

Let go of the past
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‘The mythological hero is the champion not of things become but of things becoming; the dragon to be slain by him is precisely the monster of the status quo: Holdfast, the keeper of the past. From obscurity the hero emerges, but the enemy is great and conspicuous in the seat of power; he is enemy, dragon, tyrant, because he turns to his own advantage the authority of his position. He is Holdfast not because he keeps the past but because he keeps.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Human emotional responses are just our own history being brought into the present by the current context. If our reactions are our history, and our reactions are our enemies, then our own history has become our enemy.

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.

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.

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.

Peace through acceptance

We can get caught up in hateful ideas promoted by others while life offers much more freedom if we all accept our differences.

Peace through acceptance
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Totem, tribal, racial, and aggressively missionizing cults represent only partial solutions of the psychological problem of subduing hate by love; they only partially initiate. Ego is not annihilated in them; rather, it is enlarged; instead of thinking only of himself, the individual becomes dedicated to the whole of his society. The rest of the world meanwhile (that is to say, by far the greater portion of mankind) is left outside the sphere of his sympathy and protection because outside the sphere of the protection of his god. And there takes place, then, that dramatic divorce of the two principles of love and hate which the pages of history so bountifully illustrate. Instead of clearing his own heart the zealot tries to clear the world. The laws of the City of God are applied only to his in-group (tribe, church, nation, class, or what not) while the fire of a perpetual holy war is hurled (with good conscience, and indeed a sense of pious service) against whatever uncircumcised, barbarian, heathen, “native,” or alien people happens to occupy the position of neighbor.

The world is full of the resultant mutually contending bands: totem-, flag-, and party-worshipers. Even the so-called Christian nations—which are supposed to be following a “World” Redeemer-are better known to history for their colonial barbarity and internecine strife than for any practical display of that unconditioned love, synonymous with the effective conquest of ego, ego’s world, and ego’s tribal god, which was taught by their professed supreme Lord: “I say unto you, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

‘Imagine you live in a small country that shares a border with a hostile neighbour. There is long-standing tension between the two countries. The neighbouring country has a different religion and a different political system, and your country sees it as a major threat. There are three possible scenarios for how your country can relate to its neighbour.

The worst-case scenario is war. Your country attacks, and the other one retaliates (or vice-versa). As both countries get pulled into a major war, the people of both nations suffer. (Think of any major war, and the huge costs involved, in terms of life, money and wellbeing.)

Another scenario, better than the first but still far from satisfactory, is a temporary truce. Both countries agree to a cease-fire, but there is no reconciliation. Resentment seethes beneath the surface, and there is the constant underlying threat that war will break out again. (Think of India and Pakistan, with the constant background threat of nuclear war, and the intense hostility between Hindus and Muslims.)

The third possibility is genuine peace. You acknowledge your differences, and allow them just to be. This doesn’t get rid of the other country, nor does it mean that you necessarily like it or even want it there. Nor does it mean that you approve of its politics or religion. But because you’re no longer at war, you can now use your money and resources to build up the infrastructure of your own country, instead of squandering them on the battlefield.

The first scenario, war, is like the struggle to get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings. It’s a battle that can never be won, and it consumes a huge amount of time and energy.

The second scenario, a truce, is definitely better, but it’s still a long way from true acceptance. It’s more like a grudging tolerance; there’s no sense of moving forward to a new future. Although there is no active warfare, the hostility remains, and you are resigned to the ongoing tension. A grudging tolerance of thoughts and feelings is better than an outright struggle, but it leaves you feeling stuck and somewhat helpless. It’s a sense more of resignation than of acceptance, of entrapment rather than freedom, of being stuck rather than moving forward.

The third scenario, peace, represents true acceptance. Notice that in this scenario your country doesn’t have to like the other country, approve of its being there, convert to its religion, or learn to speak its language. You simply make peace with them. You acknowledge your differences, you give up trying to change their politics or religion, and you focus your efforts on making your own country a better place to live. It’s the same when you truly accept your uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. You don’t have to like them, want them, or approve of them. You simply make peace with them and let them be. This leaves you free to focus your energy on taking action—action that moves your life forward in a direction you value.’

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

* 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.

Forgiveness isn’t earned

Forgiveness is free. It’s a gift. And it’s one you can give yourself. Even after you’ve written a really crap first draft.

The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman
The Magician’s Land

One of the first tasks of the writer, I have found, and not the easiest, is forgiveness: You must forgive yourself for writing crap first drafts. Perform whatever ritual of absolution you have to, pray to whatever cruel god or gods you have to, but do that for yourself. Only once you’ve forgiven yourself can you begin the serious work of writing, which isn’t writing at all. It’s revising.

Lev Grossman. Writing Advice From George R.R. Martin, Karen Lord, and Other Sci-Fi/Fantasy Authors, Flavorwire.

‘Most clients have a hard time with forgiveness, because it sounds like a change in judgment or evaluation. It sounds like ‘I used to think you were wrong, but now I’ve changed my mind.’ Worse, it may appear to be equivalent to emotional avoidance: excusing, denying, or forgetting old angers and hurts. But the word forgive itself suggests a more positive way to approach this difficult topic: We can take it to mean ‘give that which came before’—literally, fore-giving. It means repairing what was lost. Gift comes from the Latin gratis, or free. In that sense, fore-giving is not earned: it is free. However, the gift of forgiveness is not a gift to someone else. Giving what went before is most particularly not a gift to the wrongdoer. It is a gift to oneself.’

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

Give yourself the gift of forgiveness

You can learn to live well, says Maya Angelou (born this day 1928) by enjoying life’s little gifts. And forgiveness is the one gift you can give and get every day.

Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now by Maya AngelouLiving well is an art that can be developed: a love of life and ability to take great pleasure from small offerings and assurance that the world owes you nothing and that every gift is exactly that, a gift.‘

Maya Angelou. Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

‘Your mind may have a lot to say about forgiveness. It may say that you aren’t strong enough to forgive, that you shouldn’t forgive, or that everything will be better once you forgive. In our experience, strong emotions come up when people think about forgiveness. You may feel anxious, sad, tense, relieved, or content. The key to dealing with these reactions is practicing loving-kindness toward your experiences. They are not your enemy—nor is forgiveness. See if you can imagine giving yourself the gift of forgiveness. You may have to give yourself this gift many, many times. Sharing a cup of coffee with a friend is a gift to yourself; drinking, using, or bingeing and purging is not. Saying no and refusing to be taken advantage of is a gift to yourself. Smiling at the cashier and sharing a joke with a coworker is a gift to yourself; spending hours ruminating on the unfairness of it all isn’t. Reading this book and allowing yourself to soak it in is a gift to yourself. Life will ask you every day, sometimes many times during that day, whether you choose to let yourself off the hook or not. Isn’t that wonderful? Who knew you could be empowered to give yourself a precious gift every day?’

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