There are three main principles that I want to share with you about ACT that seem to be applicable to life and yet seem very challenging for us to do.
The first is a call to be Present. Be here, be now! Right now, this moment, is the only thing that we truly have and it is the only time that we have any ability to do anything about. You can’t go back into the past to change anything (until they build time machines) and nobody knows what the future will bring (at least no one I have spoken with yet). The only time that can be effectively impacted, where you have choice and control is the time being lived in right this moment. This can be a scary idea, can leave one to feel a little impotent, but I don’t want you to get hooked into that line of thinking. I want you to focus more on being aware and open to the idea that this can also be exciting. It means even in the midst of the most terrible things life has to offer in this moment, we can choose to be present and have control to make choices over our actions. This choice may be simply to choose to be present, to be aware that the most terrible thing occurring will also pass, just like the changing of weather. You can choose to explore the place you are present in open up to where you are. You can choose to notice simple things like your breath, the coffee you are drinking, the air that you are smelling, the sounds that you are hearing or the snack you are tasting. You can choose to engage in something meaningful to you, or choose to be open to the pain of the experience for the sake of learning and growing from it. Obviously you can choose a million other things right now, but the point is, you can choose to be present in any moment, no matter what is going on around you.
An example of being Present:
In the past seven months, my dad got a diagnosis of cancer. This diagnosis is not going the way we have hoped for thus far in the journey. Each step of the process and intervention; from the initial PSA test that was “probably no big deal”, to the follow-up bone scan and MRI “that was only routine, because it is probably no big deal”, to the surgery to remove the prostate which was “very likely to be successful in taking care of the cancer” that has now led to the current state of him preparing for the radiation and hormone treatments because the prostate removal did not get rid of the cancer and this “will most likely cure it this time” (you see where I am going with this), has been devastating, disappointing, saddening, maddening, shocking, disheartening and full of anxiety and fear and grief. There have been times that my mind will worry about the outcomes, run through a tirade of what will happen if…, or ask me stupid questions like will he be here in a year, five years, and will he be able to see my kids grow up and give them the grandfatherly love I so wanted when I was young? There are times when my heart breaks and aches by this continual lack of progress in treating this disease and is filled with disappointment as each doctor shares more bad news after being inflated with hope. I could stay locked in this despair, allowing it to be front and center each moment of each day if I so choose. The cost of not maintaining the present and remaining in the future worries of what if scenarios, or hanging on to woulda, coulda, and shoulda’s of the past, would be the lack of connection to all the other aspects of my life. My home-life would suffer, my children would miss me not being present with them, and my partner would feel abandoned and neglected. If I chose to stay absent of the realities of the pain of the present, my work-life would be non-existent and I would be a completely ineffective therapist to my clients, unable to be with them in their pains and unable to be compassionate in their own growth process. I would miss out on the joys of the holiday season, or any of the seasons for that matter, if I were to choose to stay in the past or focused on the future. Sure I would relieve myself from some of the pain in this distractive exercise, but it would be just an act of kicking that pain down the road to a larger pain in the future, plus the cost of the pain brought on by avoiding these other responsibilities and neglecting these other tasks.
Not to say that it wouldn’t be nice to avoid all these thoughts and feelings. Quite frankly, I could do without the whole current set of experiences when it comes to his health, well-being and cancer. In fact, there are times that I choose to avoid them in the service of being a dad, husband, employee or friend. There is nothing wrong with the choice, at times, to shift into doing other more present tasks. There are also times when I am able to be free to make room for the thoughts and feelings, to be open and curious about them, allowing them all the space they need to make sense of and be with this journey of our battle with his cancer. I’ll give you an example of this presence with thoughts and feelings.
A Practice in Presence:
When driving back home in the car by myself after this year’s family holiday celebration, I was listening to the radio. Suddenly a song came on from one of my favorite artists and this particular song is about losing a loved one. Now my brain instantly reflected on my dad, and really wanted me to change the station, reminding me “you have had a wonderful time with the family, a long drive home ahead of you alone and you really do not want to do this right now”. But I continued listening because I love this song and appreciate the raw nature of the singer’s voice and his lyrical genius. While driving and being fully aware of the road, I also allowed myself to be present with my sadness while being present with the meanings behind the lyrics. As the singer was melodically sharing about an endless love lost too quickly, I reflected on all the amazing things I have learned from my dad, experienced with him thus far and all the love we continue to experience together daily and the potential for me to lose that one day in the nearer future than I had anticipated. I shut off the radio when the song ended, even though my mind protested that a happier song would come on next and that would be so much better than the space I was in currently. I took charge of my mind, bringing it to the present and reminded it that I needed to make more room for some of the feelings to be felt, recognized, acknowledged and named. I did not want to let go of this love I have for him or run from some of the challenging pieces that loving someone brings, especially given the cancer he faces. I relished in remembering and began making room for appreciating the things I was feeling, even though it was also painful. It was a perfect time for being present, reflecting and allowing. My kids, my wife and all other distractions were miles behind me at her family’s house and I could just sit with my feelings about this journey with my dad, and the newest addition of this journey, his cancer, without distractions. I could make room to understand all of the feelings I was having at that moment. I cried and got angry and hurt and scared and continued to make room for all of these feelings, respectfully letting them open up in me, pass through me in their own time, without trying to avoid them, contain them or push them on. That is being present and doing so led me to also experience the second value of ACT.
Have Purpose. Do what is meaningful and valued by you. Ask yourself, if you were to die tomorrow, what would you want to be known to stand for and what was the meaning of it all for you? I, after letting the feelings be present, realized that I wanted to be known as being caring, compassionate, loving with my dad and as a human being. In the service of this loving, it will inherently invite pain and loss. There is no escaping that. Anyone that knows me knows I value my relationships the most in my life. They are the wealth in my heart that I strive to keep and grow. A piece of that richness is that I value love, time spent in the presence with someone I care about, being open with them, learning and experiencing new things in the midst of someone else. Caring about others deeply are the currencies I value. When all is said and done for me in this life, I want those around me to know that I cared about them, loved them deeply, laughed with them loudly and that somehow I did my best to let them know they mattered to me. With the hope being in doing these things, they were somehow positively impacted by having me in their lives. As I sat with all of this I had the thought that I wanted to immediately connect with my dad. It was not the sort of “just thinking of you” kind of call. This one had purpose. I needed to let my dad know how much he means to me, how grateful I am for having him in my life, to share with him the wisdom, grace, beauty, courage and humility he has taught me and continues to teach me, even in the face of his battle with cancer. I needed to share how wonderful of a mentor he has been, how his sticking with me all these years has brought so much joy and value to my life, helped to bring about my own family, wife and children. I needed to share with him that he has allowed me to love deeply and he has made such an impact on me and all those I come into contact with because it is some of his lessons taught to me that I share with the hurting clients in my office. I needed to remind him that he has the right to lean on me, and all of the other folks he has taught, been with, cared for, and taken care of over the years. I needed to just simply let him know, although the cancer is impacting his body only, he is not alone in this battle, nor will he ever be. I needed to be with him, even if only over the phone, so that he could share some of the burden and pain of the losses of vitality this journey is bringing to him. In fact, it is this loss of strength and vitality that are some of the most devastating things for him to experience during this cancer journey. I began the conversation with sharing that I had had these feelings wash over me and allowed them to be and it reminded me that he needs to know how important he is to me and how much I am willing to share and support him too, through this difficulty, as with anything else, he will go through. I wanted him, whether today, tomorrow or thirty years from now, to always know that I love him very much, I appreciate him in my life and I care deeply about his well-being and am thankful for his being in my life. We had a lovely, tear-filled and open conversation, even though my brain was telling me to not make him miserable or share my feelings. I unhooked from it and continued to listen and share openly, with genuine curiosity and love and grew to understand him and share with him on a deeper way in that moment. It was, if you can imagine, a thrilling conversation that extended through 100 miles of highway and allowed us to grow light years closer to being with each other and sharing and feeling together. That call served a purpose, for both of us, I can imagine.
Having Purpose and Presence naturally leads us to the last bit of idea I want to share about ACT. This is the idea of Privilege. This idea of privilege means choosing to move through life “as if living is a privilege”. Enjoying the journey and readily knowing that any journey, growth or experience that has value, has a cost of pain that comes with it. Every vacation can be fully appreciated because of all the hard work done on a daily basis to get to that time off. Or as my dad has said often to me in my life “You learn by your pain and grief and not by your joy, Christopher”. It is so true. When things are humming along, happy as can be, no one is looking around and saying, what can I learn from this moment? Typically, thanks to our evolutionary design and our desire to avoid pain, we are focused mainly on the joyful moments and trying to figure out a way for it to last just a bit longer. It is all of the painful, tearful, grieving that has taught me all the things that I truly know in life, like what it means to love, care, give, accept, etc. Knowing my dad for these past twenty-four years has been a culmination of many of these privileges. It is through our pain and grief, whether it was the pain of my parent’s divorce when we initially met, or his from his own experiences being a teenager that allowed him to see my pain and reach out to me initially when he met me, or the pains, hurts, grieving, sadness or fear that he and I have shared over time. This cancer is only one step on a journey of being together and loving each other. I could not have the closeness, the connectedness that I have with him, without the pain. It may not be cancer that takes him, or I, but one day one of us won’t be here and the other will be left to feel pain at the loss. One of us will also be left to laugh at the funny moments, feel sentimental about those moments we hold dear in our hearts, to wish that more could be done, or said. But as anyone who has been to funeral of someone who was deeply cared about and respected, the loss that death creates never outweighs the feelings of joy for having known the person. If I went into the relationship with my dad at age seventeen with my brilliant don’t get hurt or feel pain mind running the show, I would have never experienced all the joys, compassion, support, love, caring and I would never have known the joy of giving, sharing, being open, that I have experienced with him over these years. I would have lost out on the privilege of the journey just to avoid the cost and that would have been a much more painful loss than the outcome of his cancer, win or lose.
I am not saying any of this to put a happy-go-lucky spin on his illness, on where we stand and on the battle to be had yet ahead. It is just that with being present, purposeful and understanding the privilege of it all, allows me the fuel to get through each day of this journey with him and keeps us both focused on making room for the feelings, unhooking from the doom and gloom of the mind and treating each moment together as if it is the last, which allows us to continue to go so much deeper than if we were stuck on the wouldas, couldas and shouldas of life.
ACT is ultimately about taking effective and meaningful action in the service of values. It’s about taking steps to move you towards living out the person you want to be, rather than being stuck with feeling stuck.