Make a perfect mess

Striving for perfection won’t help you achieve your goals. Taking committed action and doing what you believe in will help you to live the life you want to lead.

‘Your day’s work might turn out to have been a mess. So what? Vonnegut said, “When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” So go ahead and make big scrawls and mistakes. Use up lots of paper. Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here.’

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird.

Make a perfect mess
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In ACT, we don’t spout perfectionist slogans like ‘never quit’, ‘never give up’, ‘always do your best’. They sound good in theory, but in reality, no human can possibly live up to these ideals. The philosopher Haridas Chaudhuri said it succinctly: ‘The greater the emphasis on perfection, the further it recedes.’

In ACT, we encourage acceptance of the reality that we’re all imperfect – and yes, there will be times that we quit, give up, or get lost. And at the same time we also encourage commitment: to get better at staying on track for longer periods, better at catching ourselves when we go off course, and better at starting again from where we are.

Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap.

The mystery of mankind

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.

‘Science has dispelled many traditional myths so that we no longer believe them. There are, however, still many mysteries to be solved, especially those that are within us all
Man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the forces of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be crucified and resurrected, and in whose image society is to be reformed. Man, understood however not as “I” but as “Thou”: for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, continent, social class, or century, can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces
The mystery of mankind
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As a child, you saw things afresh, but as you grew up, things became familiar and no longer exciting. A rainbow doesn’t get you jumping for joy, washing the dishes isn’t a fun task and you ignore a plane flying past. Mindfulness encourages you to reinvigorate the miracle of being alive and see things with a beginner’s mind. The fact that you’re alive is a huge mystery itself. By being mindful, you can begin to live in this exciting way, as if everything is miraculous.’

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.

You’re not the story you tell

The story you tell about your life isn’t always accurate. And neither are all your self-judgements. The stories you tell others, and yourself, don’t reflect the real you.

‘You don’t have to look much further than Ira and me to see why we go through life with a generalized sense that everybody is wrong except us. And since we don’t just forget things because they don’t matter but also forget things because they matter too much– because each of us remembers and forgets in a pattern whose labyrinthine windings are an identification mark no less distinctive than a fingerprint–it’s no wonder that the shards of reality one person will cherish as a biography can seem to someone else who, say, happened to have eaten some ten thousand dinners at the very same kitchen table, to be a willful excursion into mythomania. But then nobody really bothers to send in their fifty bucks for a forty-fifth high school reunion so as to turn up and stage a protest against the other guy’s sense of the-way-it-was; the truly important thing, the supreme delight of the afternoon, is simply finding that you haven’t yet made it onto the “In Memoriam” page.’

Philip Roth. American Pastoral.

You're not your own story
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Is a biography of Nelson Mandela the same thing as Nelson Mandela himself? Clearly not; it is nothing more than a construction of words and pictures. And regardless of how true or false those words are, and regardless of the quality of the photographs, they cannot come close to the richness and fullness of the living human being himself. (If you doubt this, then ask yourself: which would mean most to you – meeting your personal hero, or reading their biography?)

The same principle holds true for all your own self-judgements and self-descriptions; the biography of you is not you. Whether your mind describes you with glowing praise or sums you up with scathing criticism, the words it uses are nothing more than words. And you may recall, in ACT we’re not too interested in whether those words are true or false; what we want to know is: are they helpful? If we allow these thoughts to guide our actions, will that work to make our lives richer and fuller?’

Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap.

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.

Follow your values

It’s difficult to live the life you want to live when your thoughts tell you to go in another direction. Be brave and let your values guide you. You don’t have to follow your mind.

It’s easy to risk her life, and even easier to get herself killed. What takes real courage is choosing to live, choosing to save herself at all costs. Which means looking into her darkness and pain, and figuring out how she got there, and how she can get out.

Kira Salak. The White Mary: a novel.

© Jim Dempsey 2015
© Jim Dempsey 2015

If we remember that the point of the therapy is to help clients get unstuck (in other words, to have psychological flexibility), then it follows that a client who learns she can make value-based behavioral choices despite the presence or potential appearance of aversive private events—who, in short, can choose to live life in the way she wants to be living—has received what ACT has to offer. Such a person may not fully grasp why she is not her thoughts so much as that her thoughts (and feelings and bodily sensations) are not in charge. She may have come to learn that she can hold uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without needing to avoid or control them. These discoveries in turn free her up to make choices based on something besides the thoughts or feelings of the moment (or the past or perceived future). All good.

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

We’re all searching for something

Each of us is searching for something different, something to make our lives better, more complete. What we forget is that we’re all the same, we’re all searching.

‘In his life-form the individual is necessarily only a fraction and distortion of the total image of man. He is limited either as male or as female; at any given period of his life he is again limited as child, youth, mature adult, or ancient; furthermore, in his liferole he is necessarily specialized as craftsman, tradesman, servant, or thief, priest, leader, wife, nun, or harlot; he cannot be all. Hence, the totality—the fullness of man—is not in the separate member, but in the body of the society as a whole; the individual can be only an organ. From his group he has derived his techniques of life, the language in which he thinks, the ideas on which he thrives; through the past of that society descended the genes that built his body. If he presumes to cut himself off, either in deed or in thought and feeling, he only breaks connection with the sources of his existence.’
Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces
We are all searching for something
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The individual is always a seeker. A separate person is always looking for something. We might seek wealth, success, power, fame, or we might seek for ‘spiritual’ things instead – but really it’s all the same seeking.

It seems as though everyone is looking for different things, but actually what we are looking for, deep down, is the same. Basically, everyone is in pursuit of the same wholeness (or oneness, or completeness, or whatever you want to call it) – a wholeness that is already here, but is ignored in our pursuit of a future completion.’

Jeff Foster. What Is Non-Duality? An interview with Jeff Foster by Nic Higham of Nonduality Network


* 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.

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

Cultivate your curiosity

Writers use curiosity to hook you into their story, to make you ask questions and wonder. You can use that same curiosity in life, to learn and to become more aware of the world around you.

‘Curiosity is the intellectual need to answer questions and close open patterns. Story plays to this universal desire by doing the opposite, posing questions and opening situations. Each Turning Point hooks curiosity. As the protagonist is put at increasingly greater risk, the audience wonders, “What’s going to happen next? And after that?” And above all, “How will it turn out?” The answer to this will not arrive until the last act Climax, and so the audience, held by curiosity, stays put. Think of all the bad films you’ve sat through for no other reason than to get the answer to that nagging question.’

Robert McKee. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting

Writers use curiosity to hook you into their story, to make you ask questions and wonder. You can use that same curiosity in life, to learn and to become more aware of the world around you.
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Curiosity is at the heart of any learning process. If you’re curious about something, you want to find out more about it. When you feel curious, you ask lots of questions, listen intently and get excited by new information and new concepts.

You can bring an attitude of this curiosity to your mindfulness practice. Ask yourself questions like ‘Where do thoughts come from?’ and ‘What happens if I move towards my frustration and try to breathe into it?’

If you bring curiosity to your daily life, you find that mindfulness spontaneously arises. You’re paying attention, noticing what’s happening and find it easier to be in the present moment.’

Shamash Alidina and Joelle Jane Marshall. Mindfulness Workbook for Dummies.

How to tolerate extremes

Whether you’re experiencing a winter freeze or a summer burn, there’s little point in complaining. Try to experience any extreme with open curiosity, and you might find you can tolerate a lot more than you thought.

‘Suddenly it’s cauld; very fuckin cauld. The candle’s nearly melted doon. The only real heat’s comin fae the telly. Something black and white’s on but the telly’s a black and white set so it was bound tae be something black and white . . . wi a calour telly, it wid be different . . perhaps. It’s freezing, but movement only makes ye caulder; by making ye more aware that there’s fuck all you can do, fuck all you can really do, tae get warm. At least if ah stey still ah can pretend to masel ah have the power tae make masel warm, by just moving aroond or switching the fire oan. The trick is tae be as still as possible. It’s easier than dragging yourself across the flair tae switch that fuckin fire oan.’

Irvine Welsh. Trainspotting.

How to tolerate extremes
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A woman came to me during a retreat saying that despite extra layers of clothing and a hot-water bottle, she felt cold all the time. She also realized that she was frightened about feeling cold. She knew the fear was irrational, and she had been looking for its source. Then she remembered an incident twenty years earlier when she’d had some heart trouble and was very cold.

I asked her to scan her body carefully and tell me what percentage of the body did not feel cold. After a few minutes she reported with surprise that over 90 percent of her body felt warm, or even hot. She realized that the 10 percent of her body that was cool was producing 100 percent of the fear. Later she said that a weight had been lifted from her mind, a fear that had lasted decades, and she was now able easily to tolerate different temperatures.

I once watched a passenger get into my car and reach over to turn on the air conditioner, before the car had even started. It’s like salting our food before we taste it. We live on automatic, trying to insulate ourselves against any discomfort before it even arrives. Then we lose the joy of potential discovery and the freedom of finding that we can investigate, and even be happy, within a greater range of experiences than we thought.

Jan Chozen Bays. How to Train a Wild Elephant and Other Adventures in Mindfulness.