Acceptance and Commitment

“Life is pain, Highness!”  So said Wesley, masquerading as the Dread Pirate Roberts in the movie Princess Bride.   Wesley was echoing what had been said centuries before by a man named Siddhartha Gautauma (now known to most simply as the Buddha), when he taught “Life is suffering.” Sounds a bit grim doesn’t it?  The Buddha was simply teaching that pain is an unavoidable part of life.  If you are familiar with actual Buddhist teachings, you know this is not mere fatalistic resignation; rather, it is considered the gateway to freedom and peace, as he was also teaching that the way to reduce suffering is to accept it as part of life and to live with gratitude anyway.

Prophets of God throughout the ages have taught likewise, though they have been able to offer much more meaning and context, more about a loving Father in Heaven and his Plan of Happiness.  Among other principles, they have taught:  that as part of our earthly growing experience, we will have tests and trials of all kinds; and that we will have the most peace and happiness by accepting these while trusting Jesus, cultivating gratitude, and living by revealed eternal truths and values.

In recent years, the Mindfulness Movement in the behavioral sciences has rediscovered these timeless principles (which principles they almost uniformly believe to be uniquely Buddhist in origin), and has incorporated them into variously packaged therapeutic approaches.   My favorite is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT).  This is not a uniquely LDS or Christian approach, but I love the name anyhow:  To me, “Acceptance and Commitment” describes the Gospel in action!

So just how does this type of approach reduce suffering?  “Get Out of Your Mind, and Into Your Life” by Dr. Stephen C. Hayes, explains it well for me, and the following explanation borrows terms and ideas from Dr. Hayes:   Think of some painful event you have experienced recently, which was not directly under your control.   It could be a hard day at work, a stressful interaction with your children, a relationship conflict, a medical issue.  It could be the residual effects of some childhood trauma, abuse or neglect.  It could be ongoing anxiety or depression, anger issues, even a self-defeating behavior or addiction.  These kinds of things are experienced by all of us, to one degree or another.

When you or I are in the midst of one of these trials, big or small, it is our human tendency to have thoughts like, “It should not be this way.”  This immediately creates fear and resistance.  Our impulse is to do whatever it takes to resolve the pain or discomfort.  We then take at least one of two courses (or some of both):  (1) We try to fix the pain (fight), or (2) We try to escape the pain (flight).

The problem with this type of reaction is that it is a trap.  It is emotional quicksand.  By fixating on our pain, we magnify it.  Think of some trial not directly under your control.  For example, anxiety:  when you or I focus on ridding ourselves of anxiety by trying to “fix” it, we will find ourselves over-analyzing and otherwise “stuck in our heads” thinking about our anxiety.  The result is that the anxiety fills more and more of our view.   Whatever we focus on, tends to expand; and so our anxiety actually increases.  When our effort is to escape the anxiety, perhaps by avoiding anxiety-producing tasks or situations, we reinforce the anxiety by our avoidance.   If we try to medicate it through any activity or substance, we create dependence and start developing addictions.   Either way, we have effectively, directly, and greatly increased the pain in our lives.  ACT has a name for this directly-experienced pain:   pain of presence.

Unfortunately, it does not end here.  What happens to all we hold dear, while we are focused on struggling with this pain?  What about our relationships, our health, our personal growth, our creativity?  Tragically, in our battle with the unavoidable pain of life, we miss out on all the things which could have given life meaning, things which could have made life worth living despite our trials!  This is often an enormous and heart-breaking loss.  It is the additional pain of absence.

What if we could experience pain without being consumed by it?  The Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to trust in a loving God’s care, even amidst trials; and to focus, not on life circumstances per se, but on the state of our hearts, on how we live and who we are becoming, on all what we truly value deep down — amidst our circumstances.  When we do this, we accept life on its own terms.  We let go of our resistance, we trust God instead, and we experience peace.  We recognize life’s pain, and we do what we can to alleviate it, but with the absence of pain no longer our primary focus, we come to accept its presence and to live a full life anyway.  We make peace with our pain, and with others.   We make room for love.

Doing this is not easy.  But it also is not complicated, and so merely requires determination and practice.  When we trust God and let go of our fears in this way, a remarkable, healing transformation occurs:  ironically, our pain – whatever it might be – gradually diminishes.  In its place is a growing sense of joy and peace.

Warmest Regards!

–  Dave


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