“It is not external events themselves that cause us distress, but they way in which we think about them, our interpretation of their significance. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble. We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” – Epictetus
It is natural to avoid; to want painful things to simply go away, whether they’re physical or emotional. But no matter how hard or how far away you push, the experience wants to be known. When we try to avoid things that are unpleasant, unwanted, or frightening, we are choosing to reject the reality of the present moment. The more we fight against that, the more we suffer.
Not only do we tend to avoid situations, memories and sensations that are painful or traumatic, but we also have a tendency to avoid parts of ourselves that are unpleasant or unlikeable. When we are living in constant avoidance of shadowy things we are not living a true and authentic life and we are using up energy to keep these painful things at bay. The consequences of living mindlessly and trying to control our pain is that we leave little room for vitality, growth & change. When we are able to accept where we are we can then begin moving forward.
Acceptance is a word that can often be confused with approval. However, acceptance in mindfulness-based therapies refers to the notion of opening oneself up to all aspects of the internal and external experience without trying to control or change it. By coming in close contact with the present moment, we become intimate with painful, joyous and neutral experiences. This acceptance is cultivated through a mindfulness practice consisting of various meditations and exercises.
From the perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a mindfulness-based behavioral therapy, the mind is neither a “friend” nor an “enemy.” The mind is simply doing what minds do, producing thoughts. It is a common misconception that mindfulness and meditation is a practice to rid your mind of thoughts.However, if you recall that it is this pushing away or non-acceptance that causes us suffering, pain and leads to maladaptive behavior patterns. Rather than distancing you from thoughts, feelings & sensations, mindfulness practice gives you the tools to make contact with them in the present moment.
It is important to distinguish between unwanted thoughts and feelings and our reaction to those experiences. For example:
- The presence of a thought or feeling: I feel anxious
- What I tell myself about that feeling: I hate feeling anxious, people will notice, I won’t be able to talk to this person, I’m crazy for feeling this way, etc.
- What I do to avoid this feeling: Smoking pot will make me feel better.
It is our struggle with unwanted thoughts and feelings that causes us more distress and maintains unhealthy behaviors and coping mechanisms. But the more we practice tolerating the presence of unpleasant thoughts, sensations and emotions, the less we engage in experiential avoidance, or suppression of unwanted internal experiences.
When we are able to experience the present moment for what it is, free from entanglement with our thoughts and feelings, we are able to live a freer and more authentic life.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.