Steven Hayes: Self-Acceptance and Perspective-Taking
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Steven Hayes. Steven Hayes received his PhD in clinical psychology from West Virginia University and is currently a Nevada Foundation professor and chair of the department of psychology at the University of Nevada. An author of over 35 books and more than 500 scientific articles, his career has focused on an analysis of the nature of human language and cognition, and the application of this to understanding and alleviation of human suffering. A cofounder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, known as ACT, with Sounds True, Steven Hayes is a contributor to a new book called The Self-Acceptance Project: How to Be Kind and Compassionate Towards Yourself in Any Situation.
This episode of Insights at the Edge was originally aired as part of a series of interviews that focused on the challenge of self-acceptance. Steven and I talked about perspective-taking as one of the most important keys to working with inner critic attacks. We also talked about Steven’s experience of having a panic disorder early in his life, and how he learned through the crucible of his own experience how to work with anxiety and dread. We talked about self-judgment as it relates to body image, using the ACT approach and the power of working with “defusion” techniques. Finally, Steven offered his pith answer to how he makes sense of spirituality and the spiritual underpinnings of spiritual acceptance and commitment therapy. Here’s my conversation with Steven Hayes:
Now, to begin with, you’re the cofounder of a psychological method that actually has a lot of scientific research behind it, ACT—Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. What would an ACT approach be to working with a mean inner voice inside? How would somebody who is working with an ACT therapist, let’s say, approach this challenge?
Steven Hayes: Well, there would probably be a few elements that you would bring to it. You’d try to bring a sense of perspective-taking to it, so you would step back just a little bit from the voice and notice the voice as it is, allowing it to say what it says, listening with a sense of curiosity. We might say acceptance, but we don’t mean acceptance in the sense of tolerance or resignation but something more like the etymology of it, which is to receive, [such as] to receive a gift.
When we’ve extracted what we can from it—there are things inside these voices that can be useful—we would try to work on our intentional flexibility, so that it cannot dictate to us and command our life’s seconds without our will. We would use what we call “defusion” methods—ACT is about 30 years old, and our original name for that was “deliteralization,” but I could never say it smoothly, so we made up another word, which is defusion. Not diffusion—it’s a neologism, defusion, which means to take that poured-together quality that symbolic events have and to sort of notice that mental process and flight.
So there’s a little gap and a little bit of flexibility—a gap between the sense of consciousness of “I here, now am aware of those thoughts,” and the content of those thoughts themselves. Then given all of that, we’d shift towards what we most deeply care about, taking what’s useful and leaving the rest behind, and getting our feet focused on what we care about rather on what we’re worrying about or fearing or judging or self-loathing about or whatever the voice is leading us to do.
TS: OK, so I think it would be helpful for me, and I’m going to presume our listeners as well, if we could take this through an actual example.
TS: So let’s take an example of someone who’s working with a body image challenge. You know, they’re not necessarily that overweight, but they feel terribly overweight. Let’s just, for random sake, choose someone kind of at mid-life who’s suffering from a challenge like this. Can you take me through those steps using that example?
SH: Sure. So I might try to find out—back up a little bit and just watch the voice, and there may be things in there that are useful to us. They may be warning us [that] there are problem-solving issues—which is what language like that is for—around issues of weight and health. I may have noticed that I’ve put on too many pounds and I’d better exercise more, and it’s a good idea to focus on my health.
Then there’s another piece, which is that you’re ugly, unlovable, unacceptable, there’s something deeply wrong with you, your body’s disgusting. Those things go way beyond anything that could be useful. What we would do is sort of back up and try to embrace that with a sense of compassion. We might find out how long that’s been going on—you can find the seeds of this all the way back in childhood, adolescence, and maybe even before. I might imagine myself as a child saying those exact words, and what would you do? You probably wouldn’t slap a child, criticize them, tell them there’s something wrong with him or her, or snap out of it. Instead, you’d probably try to embrace the kid, then help that child carry this.
We might use some other defusion methods—there’s hundreds of them, the community is inventing them all the time. I’d be careful, though, about what I’m about to say, because it can seem like self-ridicule and it’s nothing like that, though well-timed. We may go back and start with distilling this self-judgment down to a single word, then say8ing it out loud, over and over again, rapidly, for perhaps 30 seconds.
TS: Now, let’s just take that for an example, because this idea of “defusion” isn’t something I fully understand yet. So, what would be the purpose—you take a word like, “Fat, fat fat fat fat.” What would be the purpose in doing that?
SH: I’d get it even closer to the judgment, because it isn’t just “fat”—it would probably be “ugly,” “unlovable,” or something like that—the “fat” is more descriptive.
SH: so take it to the part that’s kind of arbitrary, that judgmental part that we’ve added to it is just a descriptive part. Like, “ugly,” or “unlovable,” and say it repeatedly.
What happens is, the meaning begins to drop away, and there’s this sense of showing up behind your eyes and being aware of the fact that you’re ensnared once again [by] this mental spider, weaving this web of meaning through symbols into something you’ve noticed—you’ve noticed that you have more bounce than perhaps you should. There’s a space that shows up, and we’ve done randomized trials just of that little piece; the distress goes down and the believability of it goes down, so there’s a sense of distance.
So there’s a sense of distance. It’s something close to—and this is another defusion method—“I’m having the thought that I’m ugly; I’m having the thought that I’m unlovable.” And then can we bring a compassionate, kind, gentle loving stance even to that thought, just like you might with a child who would say out loud, “I’m unlovable.” You’re not going to criticize the child for that. And so that perspective taking and self-compassion place opens up very naturally when you begin to see language in flight and not just interact with a world that’s structured by judgmental language, and defusion methods do that very quickly. Thirty seconds of word repetition—try it yourself and see what happens.
Titchener came up with it in 1907—the father of American psychology. We’re the first, I think, to apply it to these kinds of clinical methods, and with very good results. But it’s just one of hundreds of such things. We might sing the song of, “I’m ugly,” or, “I’m unlovable.” Put it to an opera form, put it to a song that we particularly like—do it to the tune of happy birthday. And just see how it feels. We might say it in a cartoon voice. We might put it on our chest—put it on a t-shirt and wear it around, walk around for a few days with “I’m ugly and unlovable” on your shirt. See what happens.
TS: So part of it is introducing a certain type of humor, you might say, into this thing that we’re taking so seriously?
SH: Well-timed humor is beautiful. That’s why I say you have to be careful about ridicule, because this is not ridiculous. There’s a certain amount of kind of bittersweet quality to it—it’s very human. You don’t need to be ridiculed, ashamed or blamed for it. This is just a symbolic mode of mind that evolved initially for cooperation and then for problem-solving—going to where it doesn’t belong, which is self-categorization, self-judgment.
So, we might simply look at that thought the way we might look at an object. We might ask ourselves how big is it? How fast is it? What shape? What color? And as you do that, it sort of takes a form away from you and you can look at it. We can look at a very unattractive thing on the wall there and we’re not going to have the thought that there’s something wrong with us because we see something homely; and looking at a thought that’s homely is like that.
So these are defusion techniques that sort of liberate us and take us from the sort of squeezing down that sort of happens with automatic modes of mind, problem-solving modes of mind, into this space that opens up with a more aware, descriptive, sunset mode of mind. When you look at a sunset you don’t go, “Oh, gee, you know, that pink is a little off and the blue could be better.”
If you could bring that same mode of mind to even your difficult thoughts, you may find that you have more flexibility than you would have when you’re simply arguing yourself out of it, trying to convince yourself it’s wrong—or worse, criticizing yourself for having that thought in the first place, which you probably came to kind of honestly through the media, through your parents, your sibs, and so on.
TS: So, it sounds to me that one of the important steps that needs to be taken is this separating—not identifying with these thoughts. And that’s a pretty big step—I mean, when you’re super identified with a negative voice inside, just making that separation, that’s a big step for somebody to make.
SH: It’s a big step, but one of the things underneath the ACT work is the basic science of cognition, and we think we know what the key of this is, and it’s perspective-taking. Humans are the most cooperative species among the primates by far. Being able to kind of step back and look from a different perspective—if I could give you a two-minute or even a one-minute description of something to do that might help with this, would it be useful?
TS: Yes, are you kidding? You found the cognitive key? This is The Self-Acceptance Project! Give it to me!
SH: This will work even before you know anything about ACT, anything about mindfulness, anything about acceptance, anything about self-compassion. If you simply picture yourself—you can do it eyes-closed—sitting there struggling with the thing you’re struggling with, and then notice that there’s a part of you noticing that.
And then take that part of you and put it outside of you looking back at yourself sitting there suffering, and just watch yourself. Watch your body. Look at yourself. You might even imagine going back to the time when that issue first came, because the natural compassion we bring towards children would be helpful here.
And then, ask yourself, “What do you think of that person? Is this a lovable person? Is it a whole person?” Then put that point of consciousness—just like a movie—across the room, and look at yourself sitting there in your mind’s eye (eyes-closed).
And then, imagine you’re not actually across the room. This is a memory, and you’re remembering ten years from now from a wise future, what it was like to struggle so. And in your mind you can picture yourself sitting right in that chair, struggling that way.
And then, ask yourself if this happened, what would you say to yourself? What little two or three sentences of wisdom would you pass back to yourself from ten years hence? And then bring yourself back into your body.
What you’re going to find you passed yourself is something very wise. You’re going to say, “It’s okay. It’s okay to be you.” You’re going to say, “You can move on, you don’t have to fix yourself.” You’ll find yourself talking a very kind of almost Buddhist kind of perspective within seconds, without any guidance.
And here’s my point to it: human consciousness, which includes this element of perspective-taking, is inherently self-compassionate towards yourself, and compassionate towards others. And the folks who’ve been saying in the spiritual traditions forever that we need to bring a different mode of mind through contemplative practice and things of that kind into the world are exactly right.
And what the sciences need to do is figure out how to do that in ways that are even faster and that can be put into the lives of Joe Sixpack, and not just those who can afford 10-day silent retreats, which in the busy world we’re in will simply never penetrate the way it needs to to help people and find people where they are. So that’s what we’re up to. Perspective taking alone is healing.
TS: That’s very, very helpful. Now, it sounded like when you were talking about this negative voice inside of us that you were calling this the sort of problem-solving part of our mind, but that we’re using the problem-solving part in a way that it wasn’t designed to be by flushing our character down the drain. Could you tell me more about that from a cognitive function standpoint?
SH: From our point of view, it’s called Relational Frame Theory. We have good reasons to believe that the first thing that evolved was simple perspective-taking between speakers and listeners as a form of cooperation. Probably happened about 100,000 years ago, as best we can tell. But it sits on top of 520 million-year-old learning processes—all this operating classical conditioning thing is 520 million years old, or longer—but not language, it’s very recent.
And so, initially you’re able to say to someone, “Is there an apple over there?” “Yes, there’s an apple.” There’s back-and-forth between knowing a name for an object means you can orient toward the object when you hear the name. Twelve-month old babies will do that—it’s a very basic process. But soon after they begin to learn to judge, and the cut-off if you want a way to think about this—if you have kids, you’ve seen it—you know, a nickel is bigger than a dime to a three-year old, and a dime is bigger than a nickel to a six-year old.
And by the time you can arbitrarily compare things, and you can imagine futures that have never been and weigh them and pick among alternatives. That came later among this tribal new social species called human beings, but it gave us tremendous ability to solve problems verbally. It also gave us the ability to reflect back on ourselves and create our life as a problem to be solved. We started chopping ourselves up and saying, “I like this, I don’t like this; I want this; I don’t want this.” And a lot of things we like or want or don’t want are things that are part of our history, and we can’t slice and dice ourselves in that way.
So, taking this problem-solving mode of mind and moving then into a more descriptive and appreciation mode that is closer to where language began—perspective-taking helps—we think it came later in language development; it comes later in the development of language with children—gives us a way of seeing ourselves as whole, watching these processes kind of in flight and allowing them to be there. So you shift naturally from, “I want this; I don’t want that,”—this kind of subtractive, limited, judgmental mode of mind, which is good for problem-solving in the external world, and it’s horrible when applied within.
You can’t do that to yourself. You’re a historical being. Anything that’s happened to you will be with you the rest of your life, at least to a degree. And so what you’re going to need to do instead is to back off and kind of embrace the whole of who you are, and perspective-taking will help you do that. That’s sunset mode of mind, where you with appreciation notice your history, remember what’s happened to you—even the things you don’t like, because inside pain comes wisdom; and the things that hurt us are the things that, flipped over, are the things we care about.
Our caring is not our enemy, and when we make our own pain our own enemy, we make our caring our enemy and the cost is just too high. So, putting language on a leash and learning how to use these different modes of mind, or what are in the spiritual/mindfulness traditions. All we’re trying to do is bring Western science and put it at its joints—not out of sacrilege but to simplify a way of approaching these problems. That’s what we do in ACT, [with] the traditions.
TS: I’m curious, Steve, to know how you’ve worked with ACT in your own life, perhaps with some challenging area that related to self-acceptance for you.
SH: Well, ACT really starts with my own panic disorder—and thank god for panic, because without it I think I would’ve been a treacle-head and very much interested in objectifying and dehumanizing myself in the interest of achievement. And now I can have compassion for the part of me that yearned to do that. I’m very thankful that some part of me said, “No, I’m not going to let you get away with that.” And sort of inside your suffering, you find the capacity to look at pain in a different way.
The original ACT book, which we wrote years and years after we developed ACT—1999—was written by a chronic suicidal depressive panic-disordered person in recovery—that’s me—and a heroin addict in recovery. So it’s not by accident that—you know, when you’ve suffered, you have a chance to interact with your mind in a different way. If you’re unlucky enough to get away with your normal mode of mind, then you have the sad possibility of sort of going through your whole life without ever calling its bluff.
TS: Okay. Can you tell me more about how you actually dealt with your panic disorder and worked with your mind in a different kind of way as part of the origins here?
SH: What panic disorder does is it defines your feeling of anxiety as your enemy and adopts this problem-solving mode of mind and threatens you with dire outcomes if you can’t eliminate the enemy. So you have a subtractive idea that when you can cross out and diminish or even eliminate your own feelings of vulnerability and anxiety, then you’ll be able to move forward. That went all the way up including the inability, basically, to—I’m a professor, and I wanted to teach and my focus of research was on these kinds of problems—it went to the point where I literally could not take a trip, ride in an elevator, sit in a movie theater, go to a restaurant, or certainly give a lecture.
There were—my students saw a lot of films, and this was long ago enough it was actual films, which I would with great difficulty get into the sprockets so that I could show them. And only when it got to the point where it literally was going to take everything—everything that I cared about—that it finally came to me that I need to turn and walk towards that monster, and no longer run from the monster.
And I drew upon things that I knew more from being a child of the 60s, things that came out of living on an Eastern-focused religious commune, or sitting on hippie hill in San Francisco, and frankly consuming chemicals that are probably not safe things to consume—and you know, looking at, as most of the people of that era did, kind of trying to look at yourself in a more growth-oriented, holistic way. That had traction.
The things that I was doing, which were medications, traditional CBT, exposure, etc.—that was like pissing into a hurricane. It gave me no traction on moving forward. So, as that began to happen for me, I started exploring it and applying it to my clients. Sure enough, it had traction for them. Then we developed these early protocols in the 80s, did some testing, and then spent about fifteen years working out the basic process and the basic science before we came forward in the late 90s.
And now there’s thousands and thousands of ACT folks, and a million ACT texts approximately, would be my guess around the world. And ACT’s just one of many—I mean, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, DBT, et cetera et cetera—the entire sort of treatment development wing has awakened to some of the deeper wisdoms that were there in our spiritual and religious traditions, and have tried to learn how to package them and bring them into the healthcare system since we already have many ways of bringing them into people’s lives through the spiritual traditions.
This was really new—evidence-based psychotherapies and other healthcare methods give us another conversation we can have that people will pay for, the healthcare system will pay for—maybe not very much, but schools are interested in it, factory floors will be open to it, organizations can adopt it, and it adds to—it doesn’t subtract from the existing mindfulness and spiritual traditions. Plus, we learn new things. I think we have ways of measuring it, analyzing it and so forth that come out of Western science that wouldn’t be there.
TS: OK. So Steve, I just want to make sure I’m understanding this sort of pivotal link. So, here you are and you’re exposed to spiritual teachings, mediation, et cetera, and that gave you the grounding—you know, this would be my language and wanted to see if it tracks with what you’re saying—in awareness such that you could look at the thoughts that you were having that related to panic, and have some distance from them. Is that what you’re saying here?
SH: Yes, and I can give you two brief kind of moments. One is this sense of sort of going out of your body and having this almost kind of spiritual quality of looking at yourself, which I remember a couple times in my life. And it’s interesting, if you ask somebody, “Have you ever been in a car accident, and did time slow down and did you have a sense that you were sort of almost outside of yourself watching yourself?”
People are sometimes sort of very surprisingly calm when things like that happen. And there’s a peace there—like, when it got so bad that I was losing everything, thought I was losing everything, losing my mind; I was going to have to, you know—one example of two or three moments like this was thinking that I was having a heart attack and that I was dying, and in fact, I was having a panic attack. And in the middle of this—of having this out of body kind of sense of stepping aside—and then words that came to me in the same episode, which I think I actually said out loud, which is, “You can make me hurt, but you cannot make me turn against my own experience.”
And I just turned and said, “I will not run. I am not going to run from me.” That put me on a completely different path—a completely different path. There’s a lot of territory to explore there. It’s not like you snapped a finger—I mean, five years into the ACT work—I was doing workshops on ACT, still having panic attacks—I’d put my feet on the ground and just keeping the words coming out of my mouth.
And I, some of those early workshops are things that drew people to this work who are part of it to this day. So, if I hadn’t been willing to sort of stand in the hurricane and keep moving towards something I deeply care about that I knew at some very gut level was important to me, literally a matter of living or not, not in a physical way perhaps, but in a psychological way.
So there’s two core things that I do think come in part from my spiritual experiences, also from exposure to the Human Potential Movement and Esalen and crazy things that were happening during the 60s of stepping back and watching, and this quality of choice that it’s possible to step forward when everything in your normal mode of mind says to step back.
We’ve now figured out ways of supporting people in doing that, and ways that are very reliable and can be quite quick—some of these protocols are very short. And no, that’s not the same thing as years and years of contemplative practice, but yes, it opens a door to the same space. And when a door is open and people can walk through it, then a journey can begin that otherwise may never have begun.
TS: So I just want to make sure to connect a dot here, which is, so far in the description of ACT, you’ve talked about taking perspective and defusing, but it sounds like there’s also an aspect of ACT that has to do with dealing with the emotional component and turning towards the difficult emotion.
So I’m thinking, for example, of somebody who might feel ashamed about something. Maybe they dropped the ball at work, and a project got all screwed up or something—for whatever reason that occurs to me as something today as something that could’ve happened. How would that person—in addition to taking perspective, how would they just deal with the emotion of just feeling terrible?
SH: Well, emotions are here to be felt—not felt constantly and ruminatively, but you know, what we include in the work is, it takes something like shame—shame includes an emotion that’s actually good for you: guilt. Guilt is a useful emotion. The thought that comes—“I’m bad”—that combines with guilt to produce shame is usually not so useful. So you’d use defusion enough to back up and watch that categorical judgment arise and have a little bit of separation from it, but then what’s left is the feeling of sadness and of loss, and of loss of potential that can inform, vitalize, and lift up people and help them walk a harder path.
Now, you may not know this, but take addiction work—shame will correlate negatively with addiction outcomes; guilt correlates positively. We just published I think the first randomized trial on a treatment for shame and substance abuse using ACT, and initially our outcomes were worse—they were worse than what you’d get on a 12-Step program, on an inpatient program.
But then what happened is it rebounded if you didn’t do healthy things, and in ACT it went down more slowly, but it kept going down. What that tells me is people can try to deal with their emotions in a way that looks healthy but is not—the kind of Stuart Smalley way, with regard to, “I’m good enough, gosh darn it people like me,”—with regard to substance abuse. For example, they’ll not clean up something that requires deep exploration of the pain of it—as if the pain is worth attention.
One of our clients in that trial had been high on heroin while his daughter was being perpetrated on in the back bedroom and he didn’t get up and do anything about it. He’s got a lot of pain to feel, and it’s nothing you’re going to finish on a 28-day intake program in a healthy way. So we walked him into the memories, we walk him into what your body does, we walk him into noticing what your mind does with it and how it tries to judge you and push you to do more of the same because, after all, there’s something wrong with you.
And then find the courage to stand with yourself as a whole human being, taking responsibility for the things that you’ve done and allowing those feelings to actually motivate you to, for example, reach out and be the best parent you can be. So the shift towards that values, and valued living, which is key in an ACT approach, is fostered by the embrace of emotions—including ones that nominally are “negative.” They’re negative only in the sense that they are painful, but there are a lot of emotions that are painful and very useful.
If you look at a child that you love, you can feel a bittersweet quality of the fear you have for how things will go for them and the knowledge you have that eventually they will die, and the potential that’s there for them to be harmed in some way. These are not negative things that need to be erased and eliminated. Any good parent knows that—that sense of vulnerability handled well is part of being a good parent, part of being loving towards your kids.
And if you just walk through that in every area of your life where anxiety, sadness, grief, and so forth has visited you, there’s a part of that which is a necessary link to what you care about. So teaching people to go into it, to feel it on purpose, to feel it as it is—literally like you might reach out and feel the table in front of you—is something that you don’t get very much training in. And when you do it, it empowers being able to shift towards what you deeply care about and then linking your behavior to that.
And that’s part of liberation—that’s part of human empowerment that gets missed in all of this avoidant culture that we’ve got that teaches you that the right car, the right spouse, the right beer, the right house, the right chunk of money is going to somehow create a life worth living. That’s a lie—it’s always been a lie, but we’re unwise enough in this culture to actually chase it.
TS: Now, I feel like I’m getting a sense of the acceptance part and the perspective-taking, but I’m not 100 percent clear on the Commitment part of ACT. Can you illuminate that for me?
SH: The commitment is embracing your capacity to choose your values. By values I don’t mean the things you valuate yourself with. I don’t mean your goals, your judgments. I mean the qualities of life that bring vitality, meaning, and purpose in the moment to you that are never finished—they’re part of your journey. Like, things that you could turn into adverbs, like “lovingly I will,”—along the way there may be goals, like getting a degree or having children, but the quality is what’s of importance there.
And then what commitment is, is the commitment to be true to yourself, to have your moments on this planet be about building larger and larger patterns of actual seconds of action of what you think about and what you do with your feet, what you do with your hands; as building a larger pattern of values-based action so that your habits of mind become your friend instead of your enemy. You’ve practiced, for example, self-compassion, compassion towards others. You’ve practiced creativity—your contribution, your participation, your play, the relationships and caring about the future and caring about others. The things that you choose—it’s up to you, it’s between you and the person in the mirror.
We know that the kind of values that do that, that build commitment, are not the kind that have the word “should” in it; they don’t have “have to” or “must” in it; they don’t have a wagging finger; they don’t get shifted off to someone else—not because mama told you or because they’ll be disappointed if you don’t—they’re things that feel intrinsic and that feel freely chosen.
If you link your behavior to qualities that you choose freely and build larger and larger patterns around that, life will lift you up and you can carry the pain and the places where you’ve disappointed yourself and you’ve made mistakes forward. They will actually help you in that journey because the places where you hurt are the places where you care. And conversely if you’re not willing to hurt, you can’t afford to care. If we have [a] moment, I can give you an example that everyone’s had before.
TS: Yes, please.
SH: OK. If you’ve been betrayed in love—and almost all of us have—your mind is going to tell you to protect yourself against that by never being so vulnerable and open and intimate again. I get that you don’t want to be ignorant when you’ve experienced something like that, and you’re not going to be able to go back to innocence—and that’s a good thing, in a way, because ignorance is not bliss.
But, you notice that your mind tries to protect you by essentially eliminating your caring. So you start detouring relationships. If a new relationship shows up that really could get under your skin, that could touch you deeply—because if someone’s close to you, if they can touch you they can hurt you—and vulnerability, that openness to wounding, comes right with that. As that door opens up, you can feel part of you wanting to run away, wanting to somehow mess up this relationship or, you know, offend the person or not answer the calls or whatever.
And what we have to do is find this place where we can be more open with our pain and step forward as an act of faith—faith in ourselves—that it’s okay for us to be close to others, which includes that it’s okay to hurt. If you form an intimate relationship, even if you never deliberately hurt each other, one or the other of you is going to die first, and you think you’re not going to feel as though you’ve been left behind? That in some sense you’ve been betrayed? Think again.
So, hurt and pain and loss and finitude is part of life itself, and so there’s a natural linkage between the one side of the coin that says “pain” and the other side of the coin that says “caring.” We’ve all lived it in relationships. It’s in every other area that we care about. And so, the acceptance work is not this kind of, “Oh, gee, I guess you have to accept it,” kind of tolerance and resignation message. This more joyful message that when you receive the gift of what’s inside pain, you can move your attention towards what you deeply care about and build your life around that without having to hide from your own finitude, hide from the fact that love includes loss.
TS: Beautiful. Steve, I want to just ask you one final question, which is, I know you’ve written 35 books and over 500 articles—that’s a lot of articles—
SH: Yes. I’d say, “Get a life!” [Laughs.] It’s almost too much. But yes, I’ve written a lot.
TS: But one of your articles is on making sense of spirituality, and I would love to know if you could share with me the pith of how we make sense out of spirituality.
SH: It’s actually where the ACT work and the underlying work on cognition called Relational Frame Theory began. That article now is almost 30 years old. And what I argued was, is that in our cognitive development as a species, we have learned perspective-taking that initially is nonverbal—we know that actually other primates have some degree of perspective-taking—but we build it out with these cognitive relations—we call them “deictic,” meaning they’re by demonstration—of “I/you,” “here/there,” and “now/then.”
“You” comes first, then “here/there,” then “now/then” in the development of a child. And when it all comes together, there’s an I/here/nowness to awareness itself. Metaphorically, we’re behind our eyes; metaphorically, it’s as if there’s a point from which there’s a “from”ness to awareness. That “from”ness doesn’t have edges you can experience, and spirituality is one of those things in the dictionary that is defined negatively—it says, “not material.” Material, if you trace it etymologically, comes from a root Latin word that means “timber, the stuff of which things are made,” and things are events with special/temporal limits, with edges.
Consciousness in this “from”ness doesn’t have edges. Everywhere you go, there you are. Anything that you know about it, you’re there to know about it. And so, there is in our direct psychological experience a model of the things that we put into our spiritual language that is inherently transcendent, in the sense that it’s edgeless, it’s formless, it’s not something that is like a thing. It’s no-thing, or nothing, if you will—or everything; that which is not a thing.
thing that we’ve discovered in the basic science work is children who don’t have that sense of self—autistic spectrum-disordered children and so forth—aren’t able to take the perspective of others, either. And that when we train them in these cognitive relations of “I/you,” “here/there,” “now/then,” and we have methods for doing that—very geeky, creative methods—the child begins to show up. And at that moment, empathy becomes possible, and other people show up.
So there’s this deep thing—wisdom that our spiritual traditions [have] that the bench scientists agree with now, which is: I can only be a conscious human being—and I become so at the very moment in which you for me are a conscious human being and become so in that moment. There’s another way to say it, which is we become aware. Awareness is not this kind of alone over in the corner “me, me, me, I, I, I,” thing. It’s we. And the transcendent sense of self goes across time, place and person.
You can imagine yourself behind the eyes of another, you can care about your great grandchildren and what the planet will be like that we leave for them. You can think about the people in a country thousands of miles away who are suffering. And the suffering of anyone anywhere at any time brings us all down, because in that moment we hurt—when we see or when we become aware of the hurt of others, at other times and at other places.
So consciousness is inherently compassionate, and I think if you look at what people are talking about with spiritual experiences, this sense of transcendence that comes from awareness itself, is precisely the mode of mind that we’re trying to bring into making a more compassionate world, and one that does care about people who are at other places and at other times, and the suffering of us all.
So, I think we have a way in—we have a way into what spiritual experience is about, and maybe a way in on how to create it.
TS: You’ve been listening to Steven Hayes, the cofounder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. With Sounds True, Steven is a contributor to a new book called The Self-Acceptance Project: How to Be Kind and Compassionate Towards Yourself in Any Situation. Thanks everyone for listening. SoundsTrue.com: many voices, one journey.