Chafing at what life “ought” to be is a waste of energy. Martha Beck tries out a new therapy aimed at acceptance as the route to happiness.
I am sitting in an empty hotel room, but I am not alone. From my left ear marches a steady string of tiny people, even smaller than lilliputians, each one carrying a placard on which a few words are written. I watch them march forward, turn, reach the edge of my peripheral vision, and vanish. I feel strangely cheerful.
No, I'm not having acid flashbacks. I'm trying an exercise designed by psychologists to help me gain my sanity by gently losing my mind. The lilliputian head parade (which I'll explain in a minute) is helping me step back from the stream of thought I usually see as my "real life" and find a source of comfort and sustenance at a level deeper than thought.
This process is utterly different from typical attempts to pursue happiness, most of which depend on controlling events and feelings. Think of a problem that has plagued you for a long time—your weight, a loved one's bad habits, fear of terrorism, whatever. No doubt you've tried valiantly to control this issue, but are your efforts working? The answer has to be no; otherwise you would have solved the problem long ago. What if your real trouble isn't the issue you brood about so compulsively but the brooding itself?
For example, take my body—please. Like most people, I want desperately to control the way my body looks, feels, and behaves. Society offers plenty of products to help: diets, exercises, medications, cosmetics, plastic surgery. I've tried several of these approaches, and some of them actually worked...a little bit, for a little while. But in the long run, my body always returns to doing pretty much what it damn well pleases. It still weighs more than I'd like. It continues to age, looking less like Britney Spears and more like Ernest Borgnine every day. It still gets sick. And it's still going to die.
I've suffered greatly because of my body's insolent refusal to submit to my control, but most of the suffering has been mental not physical. My occasional fatigue, though unpleasant, isn't nearly as bad as my frustration about being so low-energy. The cellulite I have sported from infancy never caused me any physical discomfort whatsoever, but I have suffered untold anguish obsessing about how much I despise it, what other people must think of it, why I can't get rid of it, how it is basically—when you get right down to brass tacks—ruining my life.
Psychologists who subscribe to acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) call this kind of suffering "dirty" pain. "Clean" pain is what we feel when something hurtful happens to us. Dirty pain is the result of our thoughts about how wrong this is, how it proves we—and life—are bad. The two kinds of suffering occupy different sections of the brain: One part simply registers events, while another creates a continuous stream of thoughts about those events. The vast majority of our unhappiness comes from this secondary response—not from painful reality but from painful thoughts about reality. Western psychology is just accepting something saints and mystics have taught for centuries: that this suffering ends only when we learn to detach from the thinking mind.
Learning to detach starts with simply noticing our own judgmental thoughts. When we find ourselves using words like should or ought, we're courting dirty pain. Obsessing about what should be rather than accepting what is, we may try to control other people in useless, dysfunctional ways. We may impotently rage against nature itself, even—perhaps especially—when that nature is our own.
This amounts to mental suicide. Resisting what we can't control removes us from reality, rendering our emotions, circumstances, and loved ones inaccessible. The result is a terrible emptiness, which we usually blame on our failure to get what we want. Actually, it comes from refusing to accept what we have.
Victory By Surrender
Most of us see yielding as the ultimate failure, but that's absurd when the war is between us and reality. Surrendering our delusions allows the truth to set us free. And how do we surrender? Two words: Observe compassionately.
That's why tiny, placard-bearing folks are marching out of my ear—ACT therapists suggest this as a way of detaching from my controlling thoughts. As instructed, I imagine that my thoughts are written on the placards. "I have jet lag" says one, carried by a weary-looking woman. The next marcher is an angry child whose sign says "I hate jet lag." The next marcher looks very tense; hers says "I won't be able to sleep tonight." And the troubling story continues: "I'll be exhausted tomorrow." "I'll look awful." "I'll blither like an idiot..."
Oh yes, I'm manufacturing plenty of dirty pain. That's just what my brain does. I can't completely control it, any more than I can control my body. That's okay. Right now I'm...not trying to control anything. I'm just watching myself think, and that simple act is teaching me something astonishing: My thoughts aren't the truth, and what's more, they aren't me. I offer each marcher a loving thought ("I understand, honey. I hear you") but nothing more. The effect is downright weird: I can see my worries, but they aren't worrying me. Having stepped back from my mind's story, I've found a self that is deeper and stronger, a self that can care for the marchers in the procession without becoming their slave.
For centuries seekers have taught techniques for achieving this detachment (meditation and prayer are two golden oldies). It loosens the bonds of suffering in subtle but profound ways. Gently, gradually, an unshakable contentment arises from a wellspring at our very center, so that in time, even experiences we once feared and hated may become opportunities to awaken our capacity for joy.
I recently watched television interviews with two actresses, both in their late fifties. Each was asked if she'd found anything good about aging. Both snapped, "No. Nothing. It's horrible." A few days later, I saw Maya Angelou on TV. She said that aging was "great fun" and gleefully described watching her breasts in their "incredible race to see which one will touch my waist first." She was experiencing the same reality as the actresses but choosing to tell herself a different story. "Sure, the body is going," she said. "But so what?" Ms. Angelou has said many wise things, but I thought "So what?" was one of her wisest. It expressed the sweet detachment of someone who has learned how to rest in her real being and knows that it is made not of flesh or thought, but of love.
The Fruits Of Acceptance
There is enormous relief in detaching from our mental stories, but in my experience the results go well beyond mere feeling. Surrendering leads directly to our right lives, our hearts' desires. Whenever I've managed to release my scary stories and accept the truth of my life, I've stumbled into more happiness than I ever dreamed possible.
For instance, before my second child was born, an amniocentesis showed that he had Down's syndrome. I was stunned, partly by the diagnosis and partly by the realization that, for me, having a late-term abortion seemed even more horrible than bearing a mentally retarded child. My mind—and my doctors—said the rational choice was to erase this genetic accident. But I suddenly understood the Asian proverb that says, The mind makes a wonderful servant but a terrible master. I made my decision by heart, and for me (though not for everyone) that meant keeping my baby.
I suffered terrible pain the following months, all of it dirty. My mind told endless horror stories about the hideous future my child and I would endure—stories that, in retrospect, are hilarious. If I'd known how Adam would really change my life, I'd have been overwhelmed with gratitude not grief. His life has brought me not only enormous love, but concrete rewards: adventures, relationships, money, career success. I'm not saying that having a disabled child is a guaranteed funfest, but that living by heart (something Adam taught me to do) yields miraculous bounty.
Ironically, separating from our mind's storytelling often creates the very results we tried—and failed—to take by force. When I simply experience my Adam, he is clearly the son I always wanted. When I stop judging my body as a flawed troll, I see only an innocent, naked ape that has been pressed into the service of my soul. I treat it more kindly, and it becomes healthier, more energetic, less attracted to the junk food it eats for comfort when I make war on it. When I stop trying to control my mind—that verbose, paranoiac old storyteller—my thoughts become clearer and more intelligent.
It's a delicious paradox: By not trying to control the uncontrollable, we get what we thought we'd get if we were in control. This thought pleases me greatly. I watch it go by, written on a placard carried by a tiny imaginary child. She waves, gives me a smile, and then she, too, disappears.