Taking Refuge in “Big Sky Mind” — Feelings Are Facts, Not Problems

main_ACTMadeSimple_3dbooksRuss Harris, author of ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, notes that “virtually every addiction known to mankind begins as an attempt to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings, such as boredom, loneliness, anxiety, depression and so on.”

When it comes to feelings, ACT therapists take a radical approach: they refuse to label any feeling as a problem. They also have little interest in reducing symptoms.

Instead, ACT is based on mindfulness — moment-to-moment, non-judging awareness. With mindfulness, we fully accept and permit any feeling.

In ACT, Mindfulness is described with analogies, including the following.

Big sky mind

In this analogy, conscious awareness is compared to the sky and thoughts and feelings to soft, wispy clouds that arise and pass away. Even violent storm clouds (distressing feelings) eventually disappear.

Space

Consider the space in a room. It allows people to enter and leave the room. Those people laugh, cry, or scream at each other. No matter what happens in the room, the space remains unaffected. In the same way, awareness remains unstained by any thought or feeling.

Game board

Intense battles unfold on the squares of a chess, checkers, or Monopoly board. Yet all the battles eventually come to an end. The pieces are picked up, and the players disperse. The game board acts as a container for conflict but remains essentially unaffected by it.

“What if you are the board on which this game was being played?” asks Steven Hayes in his book Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life. “What if you aren’t defined by your pain, but rather you are the conscious container for it?”

For more on this topic, see Harris’s wonderful article Embracing Your Demons: an Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (PDF).

Taking Refuge in “Big Sky Mind” — the Observing Self

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There is an aspect of you that is free of suffering — immune to change and untouched by circumstances. And, it is available to you in any moment, in any place, if you only know how to access it. 

In many meditation teachings, this aspect of ourselves is called the witness, the observer, or big sky mind. Practitioners of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) call it the observing self and suggest a variety of ways to discover it.

According to Steven Hayes, psychotherapist and developer of ACT, the observing self transcends our ordinary identity. That identity is created by language — specifically, by the ways that we complete the sentence I am…. For example:

  • I am sad.
  • I am angry.
  • I am happy.
  • I am afraid.

Language is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it creates a coherent sense of self — a definite someone who experiences the events of everyday life and creates a story to make sense of them.

On the other hand, we can hypnotize ourselves into thinking that our sentences tell the whole truth about ourselves.

The problem is that language is static while reality is dynamic. Thoughts and feelings — even the most ecstatic or distressing — come and go. Nothing about our internal experience is fixed or permanent. Sentences such as I am sad and I am angry just don’t do justice to this fact. As result, they lock us into a sense of suffering.

Our refuge is big sky mind — the observing self. The challenge is to discover this aspect of ourselves, since it cannot be fully captured in language.

In their book Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life, Hayes and Spencer Smith offer questions that can lead us to a direct experience of the observing self:

  • Where is “here? This word does not always refer a specific place, such as the address of your home or office. In essence, “here” is a place from which observations are made.
  • When is “now? This word does not always refer to a specific time such as Tuesday or 8 am. In essence, it is the time from which observations are made.
  • Where is “I? You can’t use your finger to point to “I.” Again, this is simply a space from which observations are made.

This sense of a observer is fascinating. We have direct experience of it. Yet it is not a physical thing, and it has no boundaries in time.

Hayes and Smith suggest that we continue with three more questions:

  • Recall a memory from your childhood. Who was it who watched those events unfold?
  • Who is it that ate your breakfast this morning?
  • Who is reading this right now?

“Notice that you are here in this moment reading, and notice too that the person behind these reading eyes was there when you ate breakfast this morning and was there when you were a child,” Hayes writes. “You’ve been you your whole life, though there have been many changes in your thoughts, your feelings, your roles, and your body.”

In my next post, I’ll explore how ACT uses metaphors based on the observing self to reduce suffering.

Define Your Values in a Way That Makes a Difference

I just finished reading Spontaneous Happiness by Andrew Weil. This book is filled with practical insights. And, I still disagree with Weil’s tendency to equate happiness with pleasant feelings. There’s a more practical and powerful definition—acting in alignment with your values, moment by moment.

As the body of literature on Constructive Living reminds us, feelings are inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable. Our constant attempts to influence them—even in the  sophisticated ways that Weil suggests—can frustrate us.

I prefer the perspective of Steven Hayes, creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and his colleagues. They offer a rich and useful conversation about happiness as acting in alignment with values.

It starts from the fact that behaviors, on the whole, are far more controllable than feelings. This means that you can start acting on your values right now, in the midst of your current circumstances—now matter how miserable you feel.

The trick is define values in a way that promotes action. You might begin with a list of lofty ideals, such as compassion, integrity, and wisdom. The problem is that these notions are too abstract to guide your very next action.

You can solve this problem with a short list of your most important domains of activity. Here’s one from Peter Bregman’s wonderful book, 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done:

  • Serve current clients.
  • Attract future clients.
  • Write about my ideas.
  • Be present with family and friends.
  • Have fun and take care of myself.

Notice that each item on Bregman’s list starts with an active verb. That makes it  easier to think of a physical, visible action you can take right now to act in alignment with your values. For example, “take care of myself” can translate to taking a 15-minute walk. “Write about my ideas” can mean starting a 300-word blog post.

For more details on defining values from an ACT perspective, see this cool worksheet from psychotherapist Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living.

And contemplate these words from Steven Hayes, from his book Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life:

We believe that right now at this very moment, you have all the tools you need to make meaningful and inspiring life choices for yourself….the actual ability to live in the service of what you value. That doesn’t mean that circumstances will necessarily allow you to achieve all of your goals; this is not a guarantee about outcome. And it doesn’t mean that you have all the skills you need to accomplish your stated goals. But it does mean that you have what you need to choose a direction.