Get out of your head and into your life -- Part I
A blank page. Discomfort. Isn't that the point?
I've written a series of posts about discomfort. Recently (like February) I realized (with some shock) the degree to which my personal narrative was inconsistent with the facts of my life and wrote two posts (Whatever it takes, Doing the hard stuff) about my epiphany. Short form: I imagined that I was committed to self-improvement; I realized I was committed to giving the appearance of that commitment. But not to doing the work.
Then I came across a book called "Get out of your head and into your life" by Steven C. Hayes. It's YASHB: Yet Another Self-Help Book. (Or should that be YAS-HB) But this one got me right in the feels. And that's never happened before.
I found the book through Twitter. I follow David Sloan Wilson, a biologist who contributes to Evonomics a blog that publishes essays on applying evolutionary theory to economics. He's also president of the Evolution Institute, that applies science, and particularly evolutionary theory, to practical problems. He tweeted a link to this article that introduces the work of Steven C. Hayes, a guy I'd never heard of. And, DSW tells us, neither have lots of other people. But they should, he says.
Simultaneously, he developed a version of mindfulness-based therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced as one word) that is now being used around the world. His self-help book “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life14” has sold over a quarter million copies and was featured in a five-page article in TIME magazine in 2006. Over 200 randomized control trials demonstrate the efficacy of ACT for a diverse array of problems covering not just a nearly comprehensive list of the usual mental health and substance use areas (depression, anxiety, smoking, opiate use), but also a dozen or more behavioral health problems (e.g., diet, exercise, facing a cancer diagnosis, managing diabetes), and areas you might not ever expect such as academic success, prejudice, organizational functioning, or sport. He is one of the most widely cited psychologists in the world, authoring over 43 books and 600 academic articles. He also helped to found a society called the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS), numbering over 7,800 members worldwide, including both applied scientists operating in university settings and practitioners working with individuals and groups in real-world settings.
The article convinced me to do a little research on ACT and that convinced me to buy his book.
Here's the money quote from the book:
The rules and conditions our minds lay down for us are simple but powerful: act on the basis of belief and disbelief. They say that you must react to your mind either by agreeing with it or arguing.
Unfortunately, both reactions are based on taking your thoughts literally. Rather than seeing your thoughts merely as an ongoing process of relating, they are reacted to based on what they relate to. They are “factually” correct or incorrect.
When you take your thoughts literally, you are “riding the mind-train.” That is, you are responding to the thoughts your mind presents to you purely in terms of the facts they are about. Agreeing and disagreeing are both within the rules, so neither response gets you off the train. However, if you break the rules, you will find yourself off the mind-train—and isn’t this one train you’d like to get off of now and then?
The solution? Get off the fucking train. Or out of the fucking car, depending on where you're stuck.
My experience reading the book was extraordinary.
I nodded agreement through the introduction. Hayes lays out his theory. People suffer. Suffering is normal. Some of the things we do to alleviate our suffering actually make it worse. Makes sense. He asks three things of the reader: persistent, active engagement with the text; unrelenting honesty; intending to have the book make a difference. Sure, Steve. No big deal.
We all have pain. All human beings, if they live long enough, have felt or will feel the devastation of losing someone they love. Every single person has felt or will feel physical pain. Everybody has felt sadness, shame, anxiety, fear, and loss. We all have memories that are embarrassing, humiliating, or shameful. We all carry painful hidden secrets. We tend to put on shiny, happy faces, pretending that everything is okay, and that life is “all good.” But it isn’t and it can’t be. To be human is to feel pain in ways that are orders of magnitude more pervasive than what the other creatures on planet Earth feel.
And part of the reason that we suffer more is language. We connect words to experiences. If the experience is painful, then certain words, phrases, sentences, will evoke the pain.
Then he dropped the bomb:
Alright, it's words. Just words on the page. But he did ask for active engagement. And he did ask for total honesty. So without thinking through the terms of the contract, my brain responded. I'm not sure which of the shameful things that I have done is the most shameful. I'm not even sure that a single shameful act came to mind. All I know is that I read it and burst into tears. In the Starbucks where I was reading it.
Fortunately, it was early and no one was around me. And I quickly got myself under control. But the experience shook me. I'd read scenes in novels that had brought me to tears but this was different. This was about me.
I started writing a blog post about the book. I wasn't ready to endorse it, but now I am--conditionally. It's medicine. But it's strong medicine. Don't take it if you don't need it. And don't take it if your not willing to deal with some side-effects before the healing starts.
The first condition is that you're seriously looking for change or self-improvement. If not, then you're wasting your time reading this book. I don't recommend wasting time.
The second condition is this: you're prepared for the ride. Maybe it won't affect you as strongly as it affected me. Maybe you'll have an even stronger reaction. YMMV. But be prepared. You might get terribly depressed as you read it.
The book mixes Buddhist philosophy and practices with a modern understanding of the human nervous system, and some innovative practices based on both. I've read books on Buddhist philosophy and practice before. Blah blah blah suffering. Blah blah blah mindfulness. I'm not saying they have not been helpful. They have been. Absolutely. But this is different.
Suffering, in those books, is a concept. It's a useful concept for explaining the human condition. It's a concept that creates a context for the practices that follow. Suffering, in this book, is a shot to the heart. Words on a screen stripped away the practices I'd adopted unconsciously to hide my suffering from myself. Words made me face the fact that even though I enjoyed my life, even though I had spent countless hours of reading, thinking, introspecting, writing, half-assed meditating, doing fractional-assed mindfulness exercises, Scientology auditing and training, talking to friends and coaches and therapists--the core, fundamental, basic, deeply-felt unsatisfactoriness of my life was burning within. Stripped of some--or many--of my defenses, I faced the searing pain of numberless failures, countless losses, stupidities, and shameful wrongdoings.
It was not fun.
But in the end, it was liberating. I faced some of that shit without some of those defenses and survived. I didn't kill myself. I thought about it and kept reading.
So that's something.
The book is full of exercises, most of which I haven't done completely--if at all. Some of them push you into confronting the pain and suffering that's there, and how it affects your life. I didn't do all of them because it became too painful. I needed to know there was a way out. I needed a map of the escape routes so I started reading the relieving exercises. I didn't do them all, or thoroughly because needed to build the map, find the ones that I could use RIGHT NOW to deal with what was paining me RIGHT NOW.
I needed to get out of my fucking head.
Now I'm ready to go back to the book, do a deeper dive, work my way through, and really confront the discomforts that I keep avoiding.
Yay, discomfort. Yay, confronting. Yay getting out of the fucking train, car, head, whatever.
There will be other posts as I work my way through the book.
I did something unusual before writing this post. I read other, related stuff I'd written.
Here are some of my other blog posts on discomfort. I'll be adding to them.
Working hurts less than procrastinating, we fear the twinge of starting
Family of Mind (Internal Family Systems)
Learning to learn: Gain without pain
Out of my comfort zone75 years old minus 9 days, WTF? On sleeping and sufferingWhatever it takes
Doing the hard stuff