An Approach to Suffering: ACT
Suffering is a part of the natural furniture of the world. Living here involves encountering tragedy. Seneca once remarked, "What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears."
One of the best ways to understand a life philosophy is to look at how it responds to suffering.
Let's take that approach with acceptance commitment therapy. Although strictly a therapy, the ideas touch fundamental questions about the causes and value of suffering.
The core tenet of ACT is that trying to get rid of pain only amplifies it.
Our minds naturally cause a vast amount of suffering. Human animals just are the kind of thing that produce negative thoughts and experiences for their consumption. Our heads are always thinking and relating things. The content they produce is often unpleasant. And then we insist on fanning the flames. What begins as thoughts about todos transforms into existential angst over one's career, which morphs into judgments about how easily distracted one is and on and on.
The natural response to negative experiences and thoughts is to seek to end them. But often, this feeds the negative cycle. Instead of removing the thoughts, fighting often gives our heads more material to interact with. If fighting doesn't work, the other natural response is flight. This is not a successful strategy:
When we try to run away from a painful thought, feeling, or bodily sensation, it becomes more important and tends to occur more intensely or frequently. Because running away also means that we are taking our fearful thoughts literally, they become more believable and entangling.
Escaping from negative thoughts communicates that the thought is something worth running away from. Fighting communicates the same message.
Instead of firefighting pain and anxiety, we can willingly accept it and get on with living our life.
This requires reframing our beliefs about the badness of pain and anxiety. Negative experiences are only bad when they prevent us from living in accord with our values. Sometimes they distort our vision so much that it becomes impossible to navigate through relationships and work. If we avoid going where we want to go or doing what we've always wanted to do out of fear or rejection - that is the stuff of suffering. Yet, negative experiences not intrinsically bad. They are not undesirable in and of themselves.
Willing acceptance is a skill. Steven Hayes, the founder of ACT, suggests many ways of practicing it, such as through meditation: noticing thoughts and sensations without judgment. One of my favorite exercises involves meditating on every sensation and imagining willing each into existence. Imagine that you're choosing and bringing into being each sensation - whatever it is. In a sense, you are. For you could be doing something else. To up the ante, Hayes suggests holding one's breath for long periods. Notice how the sensation that one needs to breathe loses some of its force when one remembers that one chose to do the exercise.
The other half of ACT, commitment, has much in common with the Stoic idea of virtue. Commitment entails making decisions that align with our values. It does not mean that we must achieve every goal. It's more about freely choosing what is important to us and living according to that than selecting goals and accomplishing them. At this point, ACT is a therapy and not a philosophy - it is not entirely quiet on the matter of what our values should be, but it's not exceptionally opinionated. ACT is a therapy made by therapists for therapists, not for philosophers or priests.
ACT doesn't amount to a full-fledged response to the problem of suffering. But it's a useful tool. These days, I worry that commercial and cultural solutions to suffering involve going further into the head – when life is more about getting out of it.
Acceptance, for managing the turmoil of the external and internal world, commitment, for following through and making the best of it.