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 life.