- Recognizing that something is wrong (detecting a strange odor)
- Identifying the cause (figuring out that the odor is gas from the stove and that a knob is not completely shut off)
- Anticipating what could happen if things continue and no action is taken (knowing that there could be an explosion if there is a spark)
- Determining what should be done and executing it (turning the knob and off and opening windows)
- Evaluating whether the plan worked by comparing the actual outcome to the expected outcome (waiting to see if the odor dissipates)
- Determining what was learned and figuring out how to prevent or handle similar problems in the future (calling one’s partner and sharing the experience)
Each step has a role in moving toward resolution of the problem. If, however, you applied these steps to problems such as painful thoughts and emotions, could they be involved in generating suffering?
For instance, identifying a cause could be harmful if it shows up in the form of attributing blame or responsibility (e.g., “It was all my fault” or “You should have known better”).
Looking into the future for potential consequences of situations and choices might look like excessive worrying if this strategy becomes a predominant mode (e.g., “I know I need to do this, but what if happens?”).
Determining what should be done and doing it requires accessing verbal knowledge or a rule (e.g., a spark will cause an explosion if there is a dense concentration of flammable gas). When dealing with problems outside your control, trying to adhere to rules about how things should be and behaving strictly based on those rules (e.g., “I’ll make changes only on my terms” or “What goes around comes around—that’s how I see it”) can maintain the position of being stuck as a person who waits for circumstances or other people to change, and struggles against what is.
Evaluating, comparing, and judging when applied to the self might contribute to a persistent view of chronically falling short of a standard and the use of negative labels about yourself (e.g., “Why can’t I just stop being this way?” or “I’m a loser, and most people probably think that way about me too.”).
Taking lessons about what worked and evaluating future outcomes could result in your incorporating evaluations and labels into a conceptualized view of yourself or the world that is harmful and limiting (e.g., “I should just stop trying,” “Maybe if I stop caring, I won’t get hurt again,” or “That’s how people are, so why should I bother getting close to anyone?”).
Understanding the Car
When we are hurting emotionally, we try to understand why we think or feel a certain way. In the process, we stop pursuing actions that matter to us, hoping that with understanding we will feel better. Consider the following example as a possible description about how this strategy does not work. These days, cars are like large, moving computers, with big and small computer chips that control everything from temperature to the brake system. Except for folks who work with computer chips or cars, very few people understand how computer chips work. Do you know all the intricate details of how computer chips work? You probably travel around town in a car, and that car probably has one or more computer chips in it. Do you stand next to your car until you understand how it works, or do you accept that it works, get in it, and drive home? If your goal is to get home, then how will understanding the car help you get there?
Next, do the same exercise, except rather than avoiding the sensations of your back against the chair, be willing to feel those sensations, simply as sensations, whatever they may be, positive or negative; pain, discomfort, tingling, warmth, coolness, and so on. Whatever those sensations are, say “yes” to them. Again, describe the physical sensations and the thoughts and feelings that came up. Reflect on the difference in your experiences with saying “yes” and “no” as they may relate to willingness to have your experiences versus attempts to control them.
Suddenly your pleasure is interrupted by an unpleasant sensation. You are knocked off your feet. You can no longer touch the sandy bottom and you notice you are headed out to sea. You panic and immediately set the goal, “I must get back to shore,” and you take action to achieve that goal. You do it without thinking. It’s instinctive. You start paddling furiously against the rip. Sometimes you seem to be making a little progress, but you start to tire and notice you are losing the battle. You swim harder, you roll over on your back and kick with your legs, but you are getting nowhere and getting exhausted. You forget why you came to the beach in the first place. You begin to tell yourself, “If only I had stayed between the flags” or “I wish I’d done some more swimming training before I risked it all by coming to the beach,” but none of this wondering how you got here is any help. You are still paddling furiously and getting nowhere. Maybe you call for help, and here I am – a lifeguard come to the rescue. So notice – here I am with a board to rescue you, and I suggest you grab hold of the board. Before you can grab hold of the board you need to stop paddling furiously. Even though every fiber in your body screams in protest, you must stop paddling and try something different – grab the board.
Now I am a very contrary lifeguard, for my job is not to rescue you, but to teach you to rescue yourself. For the thing about life is you can get sucked into a rip at any time. That rip may be depression, or grief, or anxiety or urges to eat, gamble, spend or use drugs.
I want you to learn how to get out of trouble when you get stuck in a rip. I invite you to swim slowly across the rip. I’ll even swim alongside you. As you do this you will feel the tug of the rip. You will get carried out to sea farther than you’d like to be and your mind will flash all sorts of scary scenarios before your eyes. That is what minds do. Mine does it too. I’m not asking you not to be scared, or anxious, or depressed. I’m asking you to swim across the rip while experiencing those thoughts and sensations, and eventually you will come to calm water and be able to get on with enjoying your day at the beach. I’m inviting you to give up paddling furiously and accept the uncomfortable sensations and scary thoughts of being carried out to sea. I’m inviting you to reconnect with what really matters, having fun at the beach for whatever reasons that is enjoyable for you. I’m inviting you to take effective action, and what that is depends on the situation. If you’re safe, it means enjoying the sun and the surf for your own reasons. If you’re stuck in a rip, it means stopping the struggle and taking small strokes in the direction of where you want to be, whatever experiences come up.
You might feel worried about your safety if you follow this advice and stop struggling. Your mind might tell you that struggle is the only option that will keep you in control. Notice that in this scenario there are precautions you can take to improve your safety. You can learn skills like how to do survival stroke, or simply train to be a better swimmer. You can put on sunblock to stop getting burned. You can stay out of the surf on really rough days. You can avoid beaches where there are jellyfish. You can swim between the flags. These can serve to improve your enjoyment of being at the beach. But what happens to your fun if you become obsessed with safety? Instead of floating around or catching waves, you keep your eyes glued on the flags. Or as soon as your toes hit the water you run back to your bag to put on some more sunblock. Or if you give up on going to the beach because it’s too dangerous…
Notice also that despite your best efforts, you can still get stuck in a rip. Winds, current and tide may change and the area that was once safe turns into a rip, or maybe a huge wave comes and knocks you off your feet. It doesn’t matter whose fault it was or how it happened, once you’re in a rip you have an important choice to make. Keep struggling and eventually succumb to exhaustion and drown, or stop struggling and start taking effective action by swimming across the rip towards your values.
Definitions of Cognitive Fusion and Defusion
Fusion is most likely to arise across six domains of thinking:
- Rules. Rule-governed thinking often consists of “should,” “must,” “ought” and “if-then” language. If I’m in therapy, then it must mean I’m crazy. I should be more normal. If people know how messed up I really am, they will never accept me. Fusion with rule-governed thinking equates to inflexibility, resulting in suffering (the sense that your thoughts and feelings are too much, too heavy to bear, and unfair).
- Reasons. Reason-governed thinking typically consists of excuses for why change is impossible, such as “I don’t have the willpower to change,” “I’m not smart enough (strong enough, capable enough, etc.),” “I’m too lazy (ill, unlucky, etc.), or “My craving (anxiety, depression, etc.) is too strong to battle.” Fusion with reason-governed thinking holds us back from making meaningful changes even when those changes are in line with important life values.
- Judgments. Fusion with judgments can pose a problem whether those evaluations are negative (e.g., “I’m so ugly” or “This anxiety is unbearable!”) or positive. For example, you might put friends, colleagues, family members, or your therapist on a pedestal, which could lead to feeling chronically disappointed when they do not live up to your expectations.
- Past and future. Fusion with past or future can involve both unpleasant and pleasant content; fusion with negative memories, wishing to recapture positive experiences from the past, getting hooked by fears about the future, or wishing for brighter days ahead. All of these forms of fusion pull you out of the present moment and away from the things that are important to you. For example, if you get hooked by thoughts like “The last time I interviewed for a job, it was a total disaster; the next time is bound to be the same,” then you are likely to avoid future job interviews, even if career development is a meaningful life pursuit for you.).
- Self. Thoughts about the self are stories we tell that make up our sense of identity. They typically begin with “I am,” and in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, they are referred to as the conceptualized self. This type of fusion leads you to be driven by the stories you have about yourself (e.g., “I am a tough-as-nails third-generation cop”), rather than by your values (e.g., “I want to be a loving, tender father to my daughter.”).
Cognitive defusion is the process by which you change your relationship with your thoughts by stepping back and simply witnessing their presence. When you defuse, you disentangle from your self-talk and observe cognitions as entities separate from yourself, as just words. This allows you to look at your thoughts rather than from them.
Leaves on a Stream
Close your eyes and imagine a beautiful, slow-moving stream. The water flows over rocks and around trees, descends downhill, and travels through a valley. Once in a while, a big leaf drops into the water and floats downstream. Imagine you are sitting beside that stream on a warm, sunny day, watching the leaves float by…
Now become conscious of your thoughts. Each time a thought pops into your head, imagine that it is written on one of those leaves. If you think in words, put them on the leaf as words. If you think in images, put them on the leaf as images. The goal is to stay beside the stream and allow the leaves to keep floating by. Do not try to make the stream go faster or slower. Do not try to change what shows up on the leaves in any way.
If the leaves disappear, if you mentally go elsewhere, or if you find that you are in the stream or on a leaf, just stop and notice that this has happened. File that knowledge away and then once again return to sitting beside the stream.
Watch a thought come into your mind, place it on a leaf, and let the leaf float downstream. Continue for as long as you like, just watching your thoughts float by.
Watching the Mind-Train
Imagine that you’re standing on a bridge over a railway, gazing down at three sets of train tracks. On each set of tracks, a mining train is slowly moving away from you. Each train is composed of a string of little cars carrying ore. Seemingly endless, all three trains chug slowly along underneath the bridge.
As you look down, imagine that the train on the left carries only the ore of things you notice in the present moment. That ore is composed of sensations, perception, and emotions. It carries things like the sounds you hear, the sweaty palms you feel, the skipped heartbeats you sense, the sadness you notice, and so forth. The middle train carries only your thoughts, your evaluations, predictions, self-conceptualizations, and so on. And the train on your right carries your urges to act, the pull to avoid and look away, efforts to change the subject, and so on. Looking down on these three tracks is a metaphor for looking at your mind.
Now think about something you’ve been struggling with lately, then close your eyes and picture the three tracks. Your job is to stay on the bridge, looking at the trains. If you find your mind has gone somewhere else, or if you discover that you’re in one of the cars chugging down the railroad track and struggling with its content, such as a judgment that you’ll never amount to anything or a belief that nothing good can ever happen to you in the future, this can be a very important moment. In fact, it’s a major purpose of the exercise. When this happens, as it will, notice what just hooked you. File that away and then mentally return to the bridge over the tracks and look down once again.
When you’re able to stay on the bridge, your experience will look like a variety of thoughts, feelings, and urges to act moving along underneath you, separate from you. If you disappear into the content, getting fused with thoughts, feelings, and urges, your experience will look like a hopeless mess. See if you can stay on the bridge, watching your thoughts, feelings, and urges chug by on the cars below. If you leave the bridge, just notice what happened and then return to your spot over the tracks. Spend the next few minutes noticing what comes up for you.
As the waves continuously go past you, some big and some small, feel each one. As you do, try to notice any thoughts and feelings that arise as well. As you notice these internal experiences, see if you can just ride the waves, allowing the thoughts and feelings to rise and fall, come and go. Stay on the boat, and if you notice that you’ve been swept overboard into the water, just notice that this has happened, climb back into the boat, and continue to ride the waves.
What would it be like going around all day with your hands covering your eyes in this manner? How much would it limit you? How much would you miss? How would it reduce your ability to respond to the world around you?
This is like cognitive fusion. We become so caught up in our thoughts that we lose contact with many aspects of our here-and-now experience, and our thoughts have such a huge influence over what we do that our ability to act effectively is significantly reduced.
Cover your eyes again with your hands, and this time lower your hands very, very slowly. As your hands slowly descend beneath your eyes, notice how much easier it is to connect with others and the world around you.
This is like cognitive defusion. As you lower your hands, your thoughts do not disappear. Getting some separation, however, allows you to engage more flexibly, freeing you to choose to act in ways that are important to you.
Start by sitting on a chair. Close your eyes, get settled into the chair, and take a few deep breaths. Notice how your body fits into the chair. See if you can notice the sensations in your back and legs in the places that are in contact with the chair. Bring your attention to your feet and the feeling of your feet resting inside your shoes or on the floor if you are barefooted. You can wiggles your toes and feel those sensations.
Next, put your feet firmly on the ground and, keeping your eyes closed, slowly stand, noticing the movements of your body, the sensations in your legs as they pull you to a standing position, and the feelings of pressure in your ankles and feet. When you come to full standing, take a few deep breaths.
Next, open your eyes and lift your right leg to begin the walk. Step forward and let your right foot touch the ground. Notice the sensation of your foot hitting the ground and the feel of the ground beneath your feet. Are you stepping on the ground hard or lightly? Are you stepping on your heel first, the ball of your foot, or your toes? Are you stepping on the inside of your foot or the outside?
Lift your left foot and notice your weight shifting onto your right foot. Notice the process of moving your legs. Which muscles tense or relax as you move? As you step with your left foot, again notice whether you return your foot to the ground heel first, ball of the foot first, or toes first.
Continue to walk in the same manner, noticing the sensations in your body. You may find yourself distracted by what you see as you walk, or your mind may wander. You may find that your thoughts and feelings take you away from the walking. If this happens, then gently bring yourself back to the sensations in your legs and feet as you walk.
If you would like, you can experiment with lifting your legs higher as you walk, noticing the sensation in the muscles of your buttocks, legs, and feet. Notice if your body moves from side to side as you shift your weight from one side to the other.Are you stepping on the ground hard or lightly? Are you stepping on your heel first, the ball of your foot, or your toes? Are you stepping on the inside of your foot or the outside?
You can also try walking very slowly, noticing the deliberateness of your movements and each step. Does your body struggle to balance itself? Notice the motion of each foot. Do you step from heel to to or from toe to heel? After walking slowly for a few steps, walk faster, noticing the pace of your steps and the sensations in your legs and feet as you walk.
Notice your ability to choose how you walk. You can walk slowly or quickly. You can choose the height of each step, and you can choose the direction in which you walk. When you are ready to end the exercise, on the last step come to a stop, resting comfortably where you stand. Take a few deep breaths and bring your awareness back to your surroundings.
Notice how your body fits into the chair or rests on the cushion. Notice how your hands are resting on your lap or on the arms of the chair. Notice any sounds you hear. Gently bring your awareness to the physical sensations throughout your body, checking in on your feet, legs, thighs, buttocks, back, neck, arms, hands, fingers, and head.
Now bring your awareness especially to the changing pattern of sensations that comes with breathing. Focus your attention on the place in your body where you can be in touch with your breathing most strongly, the place where you feel the sensations of breathing most vividly and distinctly. Perhaps that place is in your chest, or maybe it is in your belly. Notice the sensations of movement, just as they are. With openness and curiosity, gently bring your attention to the feeling of breathing and how it moves your body. There is no need to try to control your breath in any way; simply let your body breathe by itself.
Focus your attention on the mild and subtle sensations of each in-breath as the air comes into your body, allowing yourself to go along with the changing physical sensations of each in-breath. As best as you can, stay in touch with each of the sensations associated with air coming into your body, from the beginning of the in-breath until your lungs are filled to capacity, moment by moment. Explore with openness and curiosity how each moment of the in-breath feels. Is there something new you can find in each moment of the whole process of the in-breath by going along with it? Allow the experience of the in-breath to unfold. Each new in-breath is another chance to explore and investigate these sensations, moment by moment.
Gently bring your awareness to the sensations of that turning point between the in-breath and out-breath. Is it a moment? Is it a process? How does it feel? Focus your awareness on the mild sensations of that part of the breathing cycle. With each breath you have a new opportunity to allow your attention to settle and explore the sensations associated with the change from in-breath to out-breath. Simply allow that experience to unfold.
Gently bring your attention to the sensations of the out-breath. Focus your awareness on the out-breath and go along with each of its sensations. As best as you can, stay in touch with each of the sensations associated with the breath leaving your body, from the beginning of the out-breath to the point at which you feel the urge to inhale again, moment by moment. What do you discover by attending to the whole process of the out-breath?
As best as you can, turn your awareness to the turning point between the out-breath and the in-breath and notice the changing patterns of sensations. Connect with that particular moment of each breathing cycle. Be in touch with that moment and let the sensations associated with it simply unfold.
Gently bring your awareness to the whole process of breathing. Follow it moment by moment, going along with the changing patterns of sensations in your body associated with the entire cycle of your breath. As you come to the end of this exercise, take a moment to reflect on the whole of your breathing cycle from the in-breath to the out-breath and back to the in-breath again. See if you can see that the breathing cycle is like anxiety, or depression, or any other process in your life. Like the cycle of breathing, the changing patterns of sensations of other processes can unfold moment by moment. You can bring your attention, with openness and curiosity, to the whole cycle of any process, simply allowing it to unfold.
When you are ready to conclude this exercise, allow your awareness to come back into the room by noticing the sounds that are around you and the temperature in the room. Imagine what the room will look like when you open your eyes. Then go ahead and open your eyes.
Begin by gently closing your eyes and finding a position that is as comfortable as possible. Breathe deeply, focusing on the rhythm of your breathing. As you breathe, identify a place in your body where you are experiencing an uncomfortable sensation or pain. This could be a racing heartbeat, tightness in the chest, tingling in the limbs, pain somewhere in the body, a headache, tension in the head or muscles, stomach pain, or nausea. Wherever the pain or discomfort is, focus on that area of the body.
Imagine that the part of your body where you experience the discomfort is a mature dandelion head; round, fuzzy, and covered with white seeds. Imagine a big, fluffy dandelion where your discomfort is.
Breathe into the area of your body where you feel the pain or uncomfortable sensation. As you breathe in, notice the dandelion representing the discomfort you are experiencing. As you breathe out, notice that you blow on the dandelion and the seeds holding your discomfort float around in the wind.
Continue for five to ten minutes, focusing your attention on the area of pain or discomfort, breathing in and out, and with each breath, notice the dandelion seeds holding your inner experience and watch them float by.
When you are ready to conclude this exercise, gently allow your awareness to expand back into the room, noticing sounds you hear and the temperature of the room, and open your eyes.
The Sky and the Weather
Your observing self is like the sky. Thoughts and feelings are like the weather. The weather changes continually, but no matter how bad it gets, the weather cannot harm the sky in any way. The mightiest thunderstorm, the most turbulent hurricane, the most severe winter blizzard–these things cannot hurt or harm the sky. And no matter how bad the weather, the sky always has room for it. Plus, sooner or later the weather always changes.
Sometimes we forget the sky is there, but it is still there. And sometimes we cannot see the sky because is it obscured by clouds. But if we rise high enough above those clouds–even the thickest, darkest thunderclouds–sooner or later we will reach clear sky, stretching in all directions, boundless and pure.
More and more, you can learn to access this part of you, a safe space inside from which to observe and make room for difficult thoughts and feelings.
Values versus Goals
Imagine that you have a mind-reading machine that is tuned into the mind of someone very important to you, so that you can hear that person’s every thought. As you tune in, that person is thinking about you; about what you stand for, what your strengths are, what you mean to him or her, and the role you play in his or her life. In an ideal world, where you have lived your life as the person you truly want to be, what would you hear this person thinking?
Waiting for the Wrong Train
Imagine you are going on a journey. The destination is somewhere really special, a place you really want to visit, somewhere you have wanted to go for as long as you can remember.
When you arrive at the train station, you see two trains, both of them with signs for your chosen destination. One is a bit odd looking and strange. Some of the seats look hard and uncomfortable, and overall it looks kind of dirty. The train on the next platform is quite different. It looks familiar, safe, and reliable. The sign says it has air-conditioning, a cinema, and a fancy dining car with free, all-you-can-eat food. You think, “Wow! I just have to take this train. I couldn’t possible make my journey on that other one. No way!”
So you wait to board the wonderful train, and in the meantime the odd-looking train goes on its way. You keep waiting for the safe, comfortable train to board, and in the meanwhile, another odd train leaves the station, and then another, and another. All the while, you are waiting for a chance to board this great, reliable train so you can take your journey.
What if the safe train will never leave the station? What if you are waiting for the wrong train?
Trying to figure out how to live your life (how to solve this problem, how to make this choice, and so on) before you decide who you really want to be and what you want to stand for would be like going forward with your remodel without fixing the foundation.
If you hang pretty drapes and lay cozy carpets but your foundation is broken, then your house will ultimately start to lean or cave in. You need to spend some extra time and money now to repair the foundation properly, and this may mean you cannot immediately afford the attractive tile and modern appliances. At the end of the day, though, you will have a solid home.
Identifying your values is like creating a solid foundation for your home. Living in alignment with your values does not guarantee that everything you want will occur or that you will necessarily feel comfortable. You will know, however, that you are on the right track, and you will be living a fuller, richer, more meaningful life that is congruent with the person you want to be. Living a valued life means that even when things do not go perfectly, not only will you still be standing, you will maintain the integrity of the building.