When I Fell In Love with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy teaches the skills of openness, presence, and engagement to create the life you want. I fell in love with ACT via Robyn Walser and an experience of common humanity. [illustrative Taoist story] Next week, human suffering.
What is ACT?
As I mentioned in my discussion of my work priorities for the year, this season I’m focusing on increasing my expertise in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based intervention to address common human struggles such as anxiety, overwhelm, and needless suffering. ACT (pronounced “act”, the thing you do to make your life better) aims to teach and strengthen the skills of openness, presence, and engagement. The founders of ACT argue that these skills help us:
navigate the inevitable pain and joy of this journey
create a life that reflects our deepest values
and fill our minutes with the way we want to show up in the world.
Maybe you can see why I fell in love with it.
I came to ACT heart-broken and shaken. My mother-in-law was newly buried, my baby was two years old, and the hard slap of mortality found me lost and unsure how to remake a life I could again fall in love with. Robyn Walser was an ACT expert with an office down the hall. Her talks were warm and funny, she could tear up and laugh heartedly in the same breath. She ended presentations with a dedication to her mother who died too soon and this quotation by Hunter S. Thompson, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!” I didn’t understand this woman and her courage. I was living from a place of ‘don’t look stupid’ and I yearned for her brave heart-filled storming into the world.*
But tragedy’s bonfire can clear out dead undergrowth and in the wreckage of ashes, there was a small seed. I now knew we would all die, whether we looked stupid or super smart, and a part of me whispered “so why not try to learn something new?”
I asked Robyn if I could join her small ACT training class. I trundled into the conference room where we met every Monday, exhausted and twenty pounds overweight, surrounded by trainees almost a decade younger, shiny and whip smart. And then we went to work.
And the work of ACT reminded me of the common humanity of my experience, again and again showing the reality that we were all lost and hopeful and striving, we all feel this same menu of emotions. The illusions I held that these other people were better and smarter or more worthy crumbled. Nothing could save us from pain, uncertainty, heartache. Not an overflowing trust fund or a list of Ivy League schools or even years of flirting with enlightenment in India.
It reminds me of the Taoist story from the Book of Lieh Tzǔ, retold by J.D. Salinger:
Duke Mu of Chin said to Po Lo: "You are now advanced in years. Is there any member of your family whom I could employ to look for horses in your stead?" Po Lo replied: "A good horse can be picked out by its general build and appearance. But the superlative horse — one that raises no dust and leaves no tracks — is something evanescent and fleeting, elusive as thin air. The talents of my sons lie on a lower plane altogether; they can tell a good horse when they see one, but they cannot tell a superlative horse. I have a friend, however, one Chiu-fang Kao, a hawker of fuel and vegetables, who in things appertaining to horses is nowise my inferior. Pray see him." Duke Mu did so, and subsequently dispatched him on the quest for a steed. Three months later, he returned with the news that he had found one. "It is now in Shach'iu" he added. "What kind of a horse is it?" asked the Duke. "Oh, it is a dun-colored mare," was the reply. However, someone being sent to fetch it, the animal turned out to be a coal-black stallion! Much displeased, the Duke sent for Po Lo. "That friend of yours," he said, "whom I commissioned to look for a horse, has made a fine mess of it. Why, he cannot even distinguish a beast's color or sex! What on earth can he know about horses?" Po Lo heaved a sigh of satisfaction. "Has he really got as far as that?" he cried. "Ah, then he is worth ten thousand of me put together. There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at. So clever a judge of horses is Kao, that he has it in him to judge something better than horses." When the horse arrived, it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal.”
Robyn was a Chiu-fang Kao, teaching ACT and reminding us to see and cultivate what was alive and growing, in ourselves and our clients. She saw the gems in each of us and found none of us lacking. She, and the ACT method of viewing, embodied a perspective that our internal experiences are not problems to be solved. These experiences are the core of our humanity and can offer valuable wisdom (more of this aspect in future weeks).
As I learned the foundations of ACT, I watched it melt into my life. I felt my world view shifting, my curiosity growing. And in less than a year, my husband and I lit a controlled burn to create a clearing and remake our lives in the image of our dreams.
Today I reviewed how I came to ACT, raw from my own touch with death. Next time I’ll walk you through a key stepping stone to ACT, that human suffering, sadness and fear are realities of human life. Further, that we add to our own suffering by struggling against this reality instead of accepting it.
Wishing you all warmth and comfort from the storm,
*When I did come to know Robyn as a mere human, with her own fears and insecurities, I was dumb struck then judgmental and finally compassionate. As the esteemed trauma expert John Briere reminds us with love and a twinkle in his eye, “We’re all bozos on the same bus.”