There’s no doubt that mindfulness meditation is
good for you. Dozens of studies show it, centuries of Buddhism show it, and
experience shows it. The puzzle is - we don’t know how to get people to
do it. Saying “it’s good for you” isn’t enough. In
studies where researchers and therapists try to teach meditation, only a small
minority of people ever develop a regular mindfulness practice. It just
doesn’t stick. It’s wonderful that some people sit on a meditation
cushion 30 minutes a day--every day, day in and day out--but the reality is
most people won’t do that. We need a way to bring the benefits of
mindfulness to the rest of us. I think that the ACT hexagon model provides a
piece of the puzzle.
ACT focuses on six processes of living. Four of these,
contact with the present, acceptance,
defusion, and self as context - provide a working definition of
mindfulness. Let’s walk through this. If you’ve ever engaged in
mindfulness meditation, think of that practice as you read the rest of this
paragraph. What do you do when you are sitting mindfully?
You are in contact with the present moment.
You simply sit, aware of the sensations of your breathing or your body, gently
escorting your attention back to the present when your mind carries you into
the past or future.
You attempt to find a stance of acceptance -- nonjudgmentally allowing,
even embracing all experience that enters your awareness. No sensation, no emotion,
no thought, no memory is disallowed.
As you sit, thoughts arise and how are they responded
to? They are responded to with defusion. You simply treat thoughts as thoughts,
perhaps even labeling them…“oh, there’s planning,” or
“there’s thinking.” Thoughts are allowed to pass in and out,
without getting caught up in the content of what they seem to say.
In mindfulness meditation, you adopt an observer stance. You remain in contact
with the part of yourself that is aware, conscious, and distinct from the
content of your experience. You witness whatever shows up and experience a
spacious sense of self – this is self as context.
Together these four processes make up
what we call mindfulness meditation.
What is useful about knowing that mindfulness is made
up of four processes is that then you can target them individually, if needed.
Deficits in particular processes can be targeted more directly, perhaps even
more rapidly or effectively. Let’s say you were very good at contacting the present moment, but not so
good at noticing thoughts as thoughts and not taking them so literally (defusion). For you, it would be good to
focus more heavily on exercises and metaphors that targeted defusion, with less of a need for building
up your skill in being present. Perhaps mindfulness could be built more rapidly
through the greater precision.
Knowing the components that make up mindfulness allows
for a greater variety of types of mindfulness practices. In fact, ACT has
hundreds of exercises, metaphors and stories that target different aspects of
mindfulness. This creates the potential for having a whole variety of ways of
teaching what is essentially the same thing. For people who don’t like to
close their eyes, you might do more active exercises. For those who are more
visual, you might include more imagery. Theory can guide the creation of
exercises that fit client’s particular stories and metaphors. Mindfulness
is encountered and engaged, even without necessarily sitting down.
Finally, ACT puts mindfulness in the context of values
and committed action.
The processes make sense of mindfulness. In ACT, mindfulness is not an end in
itself, but is rather a skillful tool that is put in the service of living
well. The process of defining valued directions is about helping people to
choose the directions they want to head in their life. This is paired with
committed action where we mindfully build small, intentional steps into larger
and larger patterns, essentially building the habits that are part of a rich