Recovery from depression, anxiety, addiction or the thousand other forms of human suffering often involves a lot of should's and musts's and have-to's. We look back and see all the things we "should" and "shouldn't" have done. We look forward to all the things we "have to" do. And then we look where we are. Looking where we are often involves withering comparison and evaluation. How am I doing compared to others? How am I doing compared to where I "should" be right now? Is meaningful progress even possible? Will I ever be like others? Normal? And on.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, this self-talk falls under the general category of fusion. Fusion is sort of a fancy word used to describe the human tendency to create stories and rules that end up imprisoning us. These word prisons are often easy to see in others, but often hard to see in ourselves.
Flexibility and the ability to view life events from multiple perspectives is just not part of fusion. Should, must, have to, can't, never, always, impossible: these are all words that tell us that we are in the middle of life choking fusion. These are the building blocks of our word prisons. From inside these prisons, life feels like a brute force activity. And, like all brute force activities, eventually, we get tired and collapse. Within these prisons there is a violence we make against ourselves. Our accomplishments are never quite enough or completely invisible. We pretend that there is such a thing as enough and then try force ourselves to live up to that invented standard. Small acts of heroism lie completely obscured.
Today, I would like to talk a bit about my least capable days and take a moment to appreciate, not my triumphs, but instead these small, sad, hard days when the best I can do is to sit on my hands. I am having one today, in fact, and so perhaps this is just exactly the right day for me to pause and reflect on this matter.
Even smaller than baby steps, the best I can do some days is to sit on my hands. If I am sitting on my hands, it is very hard to make much mess to clean up later.
I started down this road twenty-five or so years ago. There was a a time, in the winter of 1985, when I would be up in the night, lying on the bathroom floor, heartsick, the house quiet all around me, alone. Lying on that floor, between bouts of retching, I could feel the cool of the linoleum on my cheek and it was good. There in the bathroom, in the middle of the night, tortured, I found a moment's rest, my cheek pressed to the cool floor. My whole world was reduced to six square inches of cool linoleum. I could not leave that room without the terrors welling up around me. Even trying to rise from the floor filled me with awareness of all that I had done and regretted, and not done and regretted more.
It was a starting point. People taught me about acceptance. By inches, I made my way up off the floor and out of that bathroom.
When I look where acceptance has taken me over the intervening years, I find myself both astonished and grateful. I have fallen in love with people all over the world. I have become intimate with people and places and ideas that I could not have imagined. I have found souls all along the way who saw possibilities in me that I could not see in myself. And, I have, in turn, had the privilege of seeing in others strength and beauty and possibility that they could not see.
And, and, I can count a lot of days, a lot, between that barren winter of '85 and this day, this morning, this moment, a lot of days, when the best I could do was to sit on my hands. And, today, I count those days sitting on my hands as good days. All in a row they brought me right here together with you. Welcome. Welcome.
For me, acceptance was the birthplace of possibility. It was a place where the stories that imprisoned me could ease enough for me to see a way forward or to see a hand outstretched towards me, ready to guide me along the path. An odd fact about word prisons is that the harder we struggle to be free of them, the tighter the confinement they impose.
There is as much living in a moment of pain as in a moment of joy. So rest a while with me here and now. Let us take this time. Perhaps we can sit together on our hands today. And tomorrow, there won't be much mess to clean up. And, we will rise together and sweep up and go about our day as best we are able.
So if today is a day of hand sitting, perhaps you could let this be practice. For the day will surely come when someone in need calls out. We are not likely to be able to reach out and reverse time in their world -- bring parents back from the dead, retrieve a lost opportunity, a lost love -- any more than we can turn back the clock in our own world. But perhaps if we have practiced, we can sit with them, on our hands if it is that kind of day, but together. And, perhaps we will find a way in this world, just as it is, to fall in love, and see beauty and strength and possibility together. Perhaps we can appreciate the riches of our smallest days and smallest acts of heroism. After all, they brought us here together. And this moment seems fine and good and I am happy to spend it with you. Welcome. Welcome to my garden of small days.
Namaste Y'all from Oxford, Mississippi,
Co-author of Things Might Go Terribly Horribly Wrong, 2010, Mindfulness for Two, 2009, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change, 1999. Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Mississippi and Founder of Onelife Education and Training, LLC. Visit me on Facebook.
Teaching Photo by my brilliant friend Mauro Leoni