Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): A Specialised Mindfulness Approach

In this blog I have been discussing different approaches to mindfulness and mindfulness meditation that are self-initiated and self-directed in the main.  Some of the approaches to mindfulness discussed entailed the involvement of a teacher or mentor to guide the participant through various forms of meditation.

One such approach is provided by the Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training conducted online by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.  Even in this course, led by teachers and mentors, there is ample scope for participants to pick and choose what types of meditations and mindfulness practices they will focus on – the choices are not individually focused or directed.

What is different about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT as the name suggests is an approach that provides therapists with a structured approach to mindfulness development for their clients.  This approach is therapist-led with a defined sequence of exercises designed to enable clients to move from the entrapment of destructive thinking to taking effective action guided by their values (committed action).  Colleagues vouch for the fact that ACT often achieves the desired results in therapeutic situations.

ACT aims to enable clients to experience a full, rich and meaningful life that is built on internal and external awareness.  The approach actively discourages ineffective avoidance strategies and encourages acceptance of pain as a natural part of a life that is lived fully.    Just as mindfulness trainers are exhorted to deepen their mindfulness practice, so too ACT therapists are encouraged to practise the ACT approach and exercises to be able to act more consciously and effectively in therapy sessions.

The ACT approach to mindfulness

Mindfulness in the context of ACT is defined by Russ Harris, author of ACT Made Simple, in terms of the quality of paying attention:

Mindfulness means paying attention with flexibility, openness and curiosity.

In this definition, mindfulness is explained in terms of three key elements – awareness through paying attention, an open attitude and flexible attention enabling a narrow or wider focus or a focus on the internal or the external.

ACT incorporates six core processes as part of its therapeutic approach:

  1. Being here now – consciously focusing on the here-and-now, including our inner and outer worlds.  Fundamentally, it is about being present in the moment, rather than lost in thought.
  2. Watch what you are thinking – this involves standing back from your thoughts and observing them in a detached way. It means not entertaining them and being caught up in them as if they are reality.  Mindfulness expert, Kabat-Zinn suggests that we view our thoughts as bubbles in boiling water floating to the surface and bursting.  He provides the liberating idea that “we are not our thoughts” nor should we be captured by the “narratives” in our head.   In ACT, the process of observing our thinking is called “cognitive diffusion”.
  3. Accepting and being open to painfulness – Russ Harris describes this process as “making room for painful feelings, sensations, urges, and emotions”.  ACT provides exercises to develop this acceptance.  In our mindfulness discussions, we have offered mindfulness practices such as forgiveness meditation to address this pain and suffering.
  4. Observing yourself – ACT encourages awareness through getting in touch with the “observing self” rather than the “thinking self”.   Russ Harris describes the former as “the aspect of us that is aware of whatever we’re thinking, feeling, sensing or doing in any moment”.  Mindfulness practitioners encourage meditation practices like somatic meditation to develop this awareness.
  5. Knowing what matters – getting in touch with the way we want to be in the world (our values).  Values guide behaviour, give meaning to our lives and facilitate decision making.  Consciousness about our values can enable us to lead our lives with energy and vitality and provide mindful leadership for others.
  6. Doing what it takes – this involves doing what it takes, despite pain and discomfort, to live out our values in daily life (described as “committed action” in ACT).  It requires congruence between our words and actions and a readiness to commit to “valued living”.

ACT is a therapeutic approach that aims to help clients grow in mindfulness in order to lead a life that is richer and more meaningful, while reducing the impact of harmful thoughts and narratives and pain-avoidance.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

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Lifelong Learning Through Mindfulness

In their book, Organizational Change by Choice, Dexter Dunphy and Bob Dick quote an anonymous author who provides a very simple, behavioural description of the way we learn:

To look is one thing

To see what you look at is another

To understand what you see is a third

To learn from what you understand is something else

But to act on what you learn is all that really matters. (p.120)

The wisdom of this way of looking at learning was brought home to me during one of Bob Dick’s MBA classes that I attended many years ago (32 years ago to be exact). Bob was introducing us to the art of facilitating groups and understanding group dynamics.  He formed us into groups and each person in a group was assigned an observation task to undertake while the group simultaneously discussed a controversial topic – in my group’s case, “Should people who drink and drive be jailed?”

We each had to look for and observe some aspect of the group’s behaviour, e.g. amount of eye contact, level of dissent in the group, non-verbal behaviour, the level of participation and how people built on other’s ideas.  As the discussion progressed, it became quite heated and one of our group was showing signs non-verbally that he was becoming distressed by the discussion.  However, the person who was supposed to look for non-verbal behaviour in the group was totally oblivious of this distress and kept on pushing his point that drink drivers should not be jailed.  The distressed person finally got up and left the group.  The person who was supposed to observe non-verbal behaviour, immediately asked the group, “What did he do that for?”  It turned out that a friend of the distressed person had been killed by a drunken driver.

This experience really brought home to me very starkly that you can look and not see if you stop paying attention and lose focus on what you intend to observe.  If you then do not see what is happening, you will be unable to understand another person’s behaviour.  If you don’t understand the interaction, you will not learn how to adjust your own behaviour.  In the final analysis, you will not act in a way that puts the desired learning into practice – in the case of my example, you will not be able to effectively facilitate group processes.

To look in a meaningful way requires focus, purposeful noticing and full attention.  It is only then that we see in a way that enables learning.  So while we may be looking at the same scene or object we will see different things.

Understanding what we see requires an uncluttered mind and the capacity to maintain focus.  It is only through sustained seeing that we come to understand what we are actually looking at – to realise the impact of something for our lives and that of other people.  Focused attention builds our understanding because we are better able to access our subconscious and realise the connections between things that we perceive now or have perceived in the past.

Learning from what you understand is another level of challenge in the quest for lifelong learning.  Having understood something impacting our lives, we have to be able to think through the behavioural implications – its meaning for how we should act towards our self and/or others.

In the final analysis, what really matters is taking action in line with our understanding and learning – translating our learning into practice.  As I discussed in a previous post, it is one thing to look for and read about mindfulness, it’s another to understand the benefits of mindfulness, but it is something else to learn from your understanding of mindfulness how you should behave and, all that matters, is engaging in mindful practice – taking action by being mindful in our everyday lives.

So, being mindful can help us to engage in lifelong learning – to look, see, understand, learn and act on our learning in our everyday lives.  As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to focus, pay attention, gain insight and be conscious of what we are learning and what it means in our life.  Ultimately, we are better able to achieve congruence – to line up our actions with our thoughts and words.

Image source: Courtesy of Mojpe on Pixabay