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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

The Power of Awareness: Mindful Breathing

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, in their online Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training, stress the importance of mindful breathing as a universal practice that is foundational to developing mindfulness.  Jack not only leads participants in a mindful breathing practice, but also explains the rich rewards of this practice.

Why practice mindful breathing?

Mindful breathing is, perhaps, the simplest and most accessible mindfulness practice.  It can be done anywhere, anytime because we are always breathing, whether we are conscious of it or not.  Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that it is lucky that our breathing is not dependant on conscious thought, otherwise we would stop breathing because we are so often unaware of what is going on within and around us.

In a talk to Google staff, he explained to the managers and programmers present that they could easily take a few moments and do mindful breathing at their desk during the day.  Mindful breathing is so powerful because it gives us access to both self-awareness and self-management.

Developing self-awareness through mindful breathing

Jack talks about breathing mindfully as opening a window to ourselves.  If we are having trouble starting the practice – by locating a place in our body where we sense our breath (e.g. in our chest, throat, nose or stomach) – then this tells us something about our lack of awareness.

As a window, mindful breathing allows us to look in on ourselves – to notice the thoughts and their content that pass through our minds, to sense the tightness in various parts of our body and to understand the link between our emotions and our bodily reactions, e.g. fear creating tightness in our chest, nervousness causing us to shake.  We become acutely aware of our emotions and the connection between our mind and emotions and our emotions and our body.

The secret to mindful breathing is to not entertain our thoughts but to let them float by, while noticing what they are telling us about ourselves.  What do we think about most – is our mind always in the past or the future?  Do our thoughts depress us or create anxiety?  Are we always planning, not stopping to experience the moment?

Developing self-management through mindful breathing

Even the way we are breathing is rich with information about ourselves – is our breathing getting faster (anxiety coming on) or slower (learning to relax).  Are we becoming conscious of the space between our in-breath and our out-breath?  With our growth in self-awareness comes the opportunity to develop self-management.

Conscious breathing is used worldwide for self-management in a range of contexts – midwives encourage birthing mothers to breathe slowly and deeply; remedial massage therapists encourage you to breathe through the pain; and people who teach singing, like Chris James, begin with explaining to people how to breathe properly to release the tension in our bodies and vocal cords.

We know intuitively that if we slow down our breathing, we can become more relaxed and less anxious.   Some self-management practices, such as the SBNRR process previously explained in relation to managing negative triggers, begin with stopping and breathing consciously but slowly.

Mindful breathing practice itself does not require us to control our breath, but to notice it by focusing on where we can sense it in our bodies.  Increasingly, we become aware of the stillness and spaciousness in mindful breathing.  However, it does take practice to realise the full benefits of mindful breathing.

Jack suggests that, as a starting point, we practice breathing mindfully twice a day for five minutes each time.  He suggests that if we do this at a regular place and time, the habit will be sustained.  The secret to success in developing awareness is to start small, but start now.

Breathing mindfully helps us to slow the pace of our life, to access our creativity and to develop calm and clarity.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing, we open the window to self-awareness and enhance our capacity for self-management.

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

Image source: courtesy of alfcermed on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.