Sheltering in place, social distancing, and isolation during the recent pandemic forced many of us to live more like monks. As Leo Babauta put it, we’re all monastics now.
I don’t say this with any romantic notions about monastic life. In fact, I’ve never wanted to be a monk. I like being married. I like sex. I like happy hours and parties.
I do, however, resonate with Shinzen Young’s definition of a monastery as any place that forces you to change or become miserable.
This form of monasticism descended upon many of us, whether we like it or not.
Thomas Merton said that he did not become a monk in order to suffer more than other people, but in order to suffer more effectively.
Taking a cue from him, I asked: How can we experience a pandemic effectively?
As monks for the moment, can we possibly emerge from such experiences a little more wise, more loving, more free?
Perhaps distancing and isolation can help us take our spiritual practices and self-care habits to a deeper level. Perhaps we can even move closer to enlightenment, liberation, or some form serenity that does not depend on circumstance.
Meditation and yoga are core practices for me. I also take refuge in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an approach that has strong support both in clinical practice and peer-reviewed research.
I’m excited about ACT because it blends the best of East and West — mindfulness practices with values-driven behavior change. When combined, these create powerful practices for any difficult circumstance, including a pandemic.
Distinguish “dirty” discomfort from “clean” discomfort
The first thing to do is free ourselves from the burden of relentless positivity. If you’re feeling unhappy during the conditions such as the pandemic, you’re not wrong: You’re just normal.
According to ACT, there’s nothing wrong with waves of sadness, anger, or fear. And the true test of any practice is not whether it immediately makes those feelings go away.
Contrast this with the premise of many New Age-y self-help books — that you’re supposed to feel good most of the time. And if you don’t, then there’s something wrong with you: You’ve failed to remove the blocks to your inner radiance and let your inherent bliss shine through.
ACT rejects this. According to ACT therapists, unpleasant emotion is not abnormal or evidence that we’re “sick.” Our nature is not bliss but constant emotional change. And unpleasant emotions are part of the cycle.
This means that some level of discomfort in our lives is simply a given. According to ACT, however, we can transform discomfort by changing our response to it.
We experience dirty discomfort when we try to deny, avoid, or “fix” unpleasant emotions. Those emotions are challenging enough, but then we add a whole layer of struggle and resistance on top of them.
In contrast, clean discomfort occurs when we drop the struggle and release the resistance. Instead, we simply allow emotions — whether pleasant or unpleasant — to arise and pass away in their own time. We treat emotions simply as internal events rather than problems to solve.
Tony de Mello, a Jesuit priest from India, had a perfect description of clean discomfort:
Before enlightenment, I used to be depressed: after enlightenment, I continue to be depressed. But there’s a difference: I don’t identify with it any more.
Yes, we will experience discomfort, especially when our routines and relationships are disrupted. But emotional discomfort does not define us, and we do not need to make it a problem.
This is where we get to the ACT definition of happiness — full engagement with life in the midst of any circumstance.
Happiness is not a feeling state.
Happiness is not a life that’s free of discomfort.
Happiness is doing what matters to you and caring for the people you love, even when life is hard and you’re weathering emotional storms.
For example, we can feel sad about the loss of in-person contact with coworkers — and still meet with them online.
We can feel sluggish — and still go outside for walks while greeting neighbors from a safe distance.
We can miss the happy hour scene at our favorite restaurants — and still support them by ordering take-out once in a while.
In short, we don’t have to put off living until we feel good and the circumstances of our lives are “right.” We can live the meaning of our lives now, no matter what’s happening inside our outside of us.
What makes all this possible? According to ACT, the primary practices are mindfulness and values-based action.
In his book The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living, ACT therapist Russ Harris defines mindfulness as:
Consciously bringing awareness to your here-and-now experience with openness, interest and receptiveness.” There are many facets to mindfulness, including living in the present moment; engaging fully in what you are doing rather than ‘getting lost’ in your thoughts; and allowing your feelings to be as they are, letting them come and go rather than trying to control them.
Moreover, mindfulness is not one practice but rather a cluster of related skills:
- Contact with the present moment
- The observing self
I once saw a bumper sticker that said Don’t believe everything you think. That’s the essence of defusion — the ability to have thoughts without being had by them.
Defusion means stepping back from our thoughts and viewing them impartially. We learn to see thinking as a stream of internal events — words and mental images — rather than literal truth, binding commands, or statements about who we ultimately are.
Defusion is a sanity saver when we’re dealing with thoughts that do nothing except create dirty discomfort. Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, referred to these thoughts as irrational beliefs and concluded that they are all variations on three basic statements:
- I must do well and win the approval of others or else I am no good.
- Other people must do “the right thing” or else they are no good and deserve to be punished.
- Life must be easy, without discomfort or inconvenience.
When we fuse with thoughts that are this unrealistic and absolute, we are bound to suffer. Learning to defuse from them can immediately lighten our load.
ACT therapists use metaphors to describe defusion. Visualize thoughts as cars driving past your house, Harris says, or leaves floating down a river. This makes it easier to “hold them lightly instead of clutching them tightly.”
Other ACT techniques for defusing from a thought include:
- Repeating it out loud over and over again until it sounds utterly meaningless
- Singing it to the tune of Happy Birthday
- Imagining it written inside a thought bubble in a comic strip
- Saying it in the voice of Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Mickey Mouse, or another cartoon character
- Saying Thanks, mind, for that interesting thought
- Speaking the thought out loud and prefacing it with I’m having the thought that….
Defusion becomes easier when you allow thoughts and feelings to come and go without clinging to them or resisting them. That’s the essence of acceptance.
Accepting thoughts is not the same as agreeing with them. Rather, acceptance is simply allowing thoughts to be present for the moment — holding a temporary space for them as they float by. Doing this eventually reduces their impact.
The opposite of acceptance is experiential avoidance. This term refers to struggling with our internal experience — especially unpleasant physical sensations and distressing thoughts. We try to push away anything that’s painful, and we cling to anything that’s pleasant.
When practicing experiential avoidance, we treat unpleasant emotions as problems. And we start looking for solutions — *anything* that makes those emotions go away.
Problem solving helps us deal effectively with many situations in the external world. If you have a bacterial infection, for instance, you can take an antibiotic to get rid of it. If your car dies, you can get a new one.
Things start to break down quickly, however, when we apply problem-solving strategies to our internal world — thoughts, feelings, and urges. When we treat them as problems and try to get rid of them, our efforts eventually backfire. We get a rebound effect: The unpleasant experiences remain or get even stronger. We end up suffering even more.
Again, acceptance means dropping all that struggle and releasing any resistance to our internal experiences. The one thing that we can count on is that any feeling — no matter how strong or unpleasant — will eventually fade.
Contact with the present moment
During the years that I worked outside of my home, I drove the same route to work every day. One day I found myself sitting in my parked car outside my office and wondering how the heck I got there. I’d been so lost in thought during the commute that I had no conscious memory of making the trip.
How many routine tasks do you perform mindlessly, on autopilot? During those tasks, you lose contact with the present moment.
Contacting the present moment means showing up psychologically as well as physically. Instead of merely going through the motions, we pay full attention to the sights, sounds, and other sensations occurring right now. This is another way defuse from thoughts.
ACT therapists have a term for lack of contact with the present moment — dominance of the conceptualized past and future. This is a fancy way of saying that we get “stuck inside our head.”
It happens in many ways. For example, we:
- Spend hours reliving painful events from the past.
- Create elaborate and unrealistic fantasies about the future.
- Worry about things that are unlikely to ever happen and imagine the worst possible outcomes.
- Ruminate — replay the same trains of thought over and over again.
All this mental activity removes us from raw sensory experience — what we’re seeing, hearing, or feeling right now, in the present moment.
And yet it’s easy to get out of our mind and get back into our body. Start by looking around the room and simply noticing three things that you see, three things that you hear, or something that you can smell or taste. From this humble beginning can come a mature mindfulness practice.
The observing self
Your mind has two aspects. One is the part that thinks. The other is the part that simply observes that thinking.
In ACT, the thinking part is called the conceptualized self, or self as content. In his groundbreaking book Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life, ACT co-founder Steven C. Hayes describes it as:
… the verbal ‘I am’ self, as in: I am old; I am anxious; I am kind; I am mean; I am unlovable; I am sweet; I am beautiful; and so forth. The conceptualized self is brimming with content: this content is the story about you and your life that you’ve been selling to yourself. It contains all the thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, memories, and behavioral dispositions that you’ve bought into and integrated into a stable verbal picture of yourself.
We use the conceptualized self to explain the world to ourselves — to create a personal narrative that makes sense of ourselves, other people, and events.
This “stable verbal picture” often comes with a price, however. It can turn into a rigid script that blunts our capacity to change and locks us into a cycle of self-created suffering.
“Have you ever noticed that if someone thinks he is unimportant, most events in his life appear to confirm that view?” Hayes adds. “Or have you ever observed that if someone sees herself as a victim, somehow she keeps ending up (in her mind or in actuality) being victimized?”
Fortunately, we can practice contacting the other part of our mind — the observing self or self as context. (Spiritual teachers have many terms for this, including the witness and pure awareness.
The wondrous thing about the observing self is its continuity. It’s present for your entire lifetime. The “you” that watched the events of your past is the same “you” that watches what’s happening in the present. That “you” will also be there as the events of your future unfold — right up to your last breath.
The observing self is a wonderful place to hang out because it’s impervious to harm. In the midst of constant change, the observing self remains unchanged. Defusion, acceptance, and contacting the present moment will help you spend more time there.
Align your behavior with your values
ACT culminates in taking action based on what’s most important to you. This is the practice of committed action, which involves:
- Defining your values
- Setting goals based on your values
- Planning actions to achieve your goals
To begin this practice, remember the difference between values and goals.
Goals are outcomes that you can achieve and then cross off your list as done.
Values are never done, however. They are desired qualities that inspire all your goals — past, present, and future.
For example, getting married and raising children are goals that can be achieved by someone who values being a loving spouse and parent.
Fusion, experiential avoidance, loss of contact with the present moment, and the conceptualized self can drive us to lose touch with our values — what truly matters to us and how we ultimately want to show up in the world.
This can happen in many ways. Fear of social gatherings can lead to avoiding people, for instance — even if we value close relationships. Sadness can lead to inactivity and fast food consumption — even if we value exercise and good nutrition.
ACT therapists recommend two ways to this cycle.
First, put your values in writing. You might start out with a list of abstract qualities, such as love, creativity, and health.
Make those qualities more specific by turning them into domains of activity. For example:
- Spending time with my children
- Writing in my journal
- Exercising daily
Second, check for alignment between your written values and your behavior. Take the stand of an objective observer whose job is to infer your values only by watching what you do everyday. What would this person see?
Take it from someone who knows: This takes guts. Be prepared to discover facts that contradict your stories — behaviors that not only fail to align with your values but actively undermine them.
For example, I can say that I value physical activity but still spend most of the day on my butt in a chair.
I can say that I value writing in my journal but discover that my last entry is dated six months ago.
This is where we get to practice self-compassion. The key is to mindfully notice any discrepancy between your values and behaviors. From that non-judgmental place, you can plan to rewrite your values, [change your habits](https://douglastoft.com/bj-fogg-on-the-myths-of-habit-change-and-a-method-that-actually-works/), or both.
For more details on defining values from an ACT perspective, see this cool worksheet.
The bottom line — psychological flexibility
“The goal of ACT is to create a rich and meaningful life, while accepting the pain that inevitably goes with it,” Harris notes. In ACT, the technical term for this is psychological flexibility.
A shorter version: “be present, open up, and do what matters.”
We can live with vitality and connect with our values even during moments of discomfort, such as grieving, enduring illness, or sheltering in place.
“There is as much living in a moment of pain as in a moment of joy”, says Kirk Strosahl, cofounder of ACT.
And there is the knowledge that no circumstance — not even a pandemic — can prevent you from living the life of your choosing.
Learn more about ACT
Russ Harris’s list of free online resources is a good place to start.
Harris also offers an inspiring video about practicing ACT in the midst of the pandemic. Look for a link to the accompanying PDF.
Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, co-authored by Steven C. Hayes is a popular introduction to ACT.
Also recommended is Hayes’s most recent book — A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters.
In addition, Hayes offers a free introduction to ACT. He includes practical exercises that will give you a genuine feel for this approach.