Last week I was giving a webinar to a few thousand people, which is a lot for anyone I guess, and as I was getting set up a memory flashed through my mind of completely mangling a word in a elementary school class presentation. I almost involuntarily winced with embarrassment before noting with a sense of curiosity and a bit of humor that I’m the only person alive today with that memory.
This event happened 62 years ago. The teachers are long dead; the other 8 year olds who giggled at my error when it was corrected are 70 years old now and it would be incredibly unlikely any of them remember this moment. And yet I winced. In a sense I was embarrassing myself, with myself, by myself.
Things like this are easy to do because our symbolic mind, alone among the animal species, allows us to bring the past into the present based on the slightest cue to do so. Even a 12-15 month old baby who has been taught a name for an object will later spontaneously look around and try to find the object when hearing the name. The baby can already “bring to mind” something when presented with the symbol for it.
In controlled research, that two-way street of symbolic meaning simply does not exist in the same way in non-humans, including language trained chimpanzees and other highly complex species. But that means that anytime, anywhere past hurts can resurface simply by the right mention.
Wall Street Journal columnists Elizabeth Bernstein walked me through an interview on the pain of loss and why it is a teacher. I focused on how a normal problem-solving mode of mind is deeply challenged by pain due to a loss that cannot be changed. My main point was that this is just the nose under the tent that comprises the challenge of the human condition. As with my 62 year old memory of a moment of embarrassment, for humans all moments involve something that cannot be changed. All moments challenge a problem-solving mode of mind because history is what it is, and symbolic relations can always access it.
The problem-solving mode of mind is not everywhere though. If you saw a spectacular sunset tonight you would look with a sense of awe. You would look side to side so as to take it all in, knowing just minutes it may pass away. You might describe it (“look at how red it is!”) but you would not criticize or judge. You’d be very unlikely to think or say, “Too little blue, God. Come on, do this sunset right”). The closest you’d come to an evaluation is a simple act of appreciation of the whole. If you are deeply moved you’d be oddly likely to express that appreciation out loud, even if the sunset is being viewed by you and you alone. You’d say, “Wow!”
Psychological flexibility begins with a kind embrace of the whole moment. In essence that is putting a “sunset mode of mind” into our lives. We all know how to look with a sense of awe at the whole of it; not judging but instead observing, describing, and appreciating. Wow.
This mode of mind is not limited to positive emotions. When you hear a close friend tell about a death, or a huge tragedy, or a major health challenge, often the very first word out of our mouth is “wow.” We observe, describe, and appreciate. “That must have hurt,” we say. Wow. If you met a crying, frightened young child you’d be likely to do the same.
It is not by accident that “awe” and “awful” are based on the same root – which evolve etymologically to connote both a sense of fear and reverential appreciation.
What acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) does is to help foster a general ability to connect with the awe of appreciation, even with our own painful history or with our own courageous embrace of values and commitment to them.
We can call it mindfulness, but because it touches values and committed action and sense of self, it’s a bit broader. Its connecting with the “wow” of life. ACT shows how it is available even inside our very hardest moments.
And that alone is deserving of a final use of the word of the day.