Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach that focuses on developing psychological flexibility as a means of gaining greater wellbeing. I have been wanting to write something for a while now that would be able to explain the essence of how it works without getting too technical. As I was reflecting on a recent urban adventure of mine, it seemed that my experiences encapsulated much of what ACT is about, so I thought I might share these insights with the hope of being able to shed some light on this approach in a more interesting and experiential way.
A short while ago I went to a talk on urban foraging that was held near my office, and for me the most useful information I gained related to picking mushrooms in our local forests. I had been mushroom picking before, though I knew very little about mushrooms, and so had only done so with someone that had more experience than me. With the knowledge and enthusiasm that I had gained from the talk however, I decided to go off on my own and give it a go. It felt a bit like a treasure hunt, and I excitedly drove off to a local forest with my bag in hand and a pep in my step.
Now for me there were a few basics about finding mushrooms in the forest. Firstly, what I had learned from the talk was that the mushrooms that I was looking for, Porcini, would be located near to an oak tree. The expert who gave this information qualified it for our benefit saying that one should be aware that oak trees in our context could be quite varied in appearance, sometimes looking similar to a pine tree, which the forest would be full of. What I was to look for was therefore a tree bearing acorns.
Next, I would be heading to an area that was relatively unexplored, off the beaten track, as mushrooms on a well used path would most likely already have been taken. This meant that I would have to do some cross country adventuring. Finally, I was not merely going to find a few mushrooms, our expert presenter had indicated that he had some secret spots where he gathers mushrooms regularly and even makes a fairly good income from. I was therefore going in search of mushrooming success.
And so, I began my hunt by following the main path into the forest. Before long a number of smaller paths began to emerge from the one that I was walking on. There I was on my small well worn path, predictably not finding any mushrooms. I chose therefore to follow a smaller track that lead into a quieter part of the forest, and immediately began looking around in search of my potential indicator, the acorn bearing tree. In this predominantly fir tree forest any other tree was relatively rare and at first I did not see any. At a short distance to my right I noticed a small grouping of shorter, more dense trees, that although not oak like, might be a lead. At that point I took the idea of any tree being a potential oak tree quite seriously. I now had the choice to go off into the more densely bushy area in search of further clues. I noticed though that in order to approach this area and to get a better look at these trees, I would need to cross a ditch with a small stream flowing below it.
I had not really prepared for much of an adventure and so I was wearing my relatively smart work clothes, and was a little hesitant in deciding whether to attempt this first obstacle. The ditch wasn’t a great challenge, but there was some water, and a clean crossing would require balancing on a fallen tree. For a moment I stopped to consider as there was a small risk of slipping into the stream and surrounding mud. I thought of the mushrooms, of the potential of finding a new spot, of being able to share my success with my friends, and my decision was easily made. Once on the other side I now entered a far more dense set of bushes, with spiders webs and many branches and twigs crossing my path. Each one of these obstacles was a new moment of consideration. Where the first web had been a scary thrashing to avoid the spider, as I continued I steadied my pace was able to find ways to go around them or I merely displaced one thread of spiderweb to another branch.
After a few more minutes of careful progress I reached a more open area, where I noticed an oak tree not far ahead. Here, my motivation increased as it became clearer that I was heading in a direction where success began to seem more likely. I had become more used to the challenges and discomforts of negotiating the route and I soon reached an oak tree.
At first I didn’t find any mushrooms at all, although I soon started to imagine that small pieces of disturbed earth might be signs of where some more experienced mushroom picker had found some prized porcinis a little earlier in the day. As I mentioned before, although mushrooms were a prize, having found a good spot was an alternative and more long-term reward. It wasn’t long however before I noticed a small group of rather large fat stemmed yellow mushrooms, and I felt immediately excited, as well as a little bit nervous. Porcini mushrooms are not traditionally yellow, and mushrooms I had the thought that mushrooms that look similar could easily be well disguised inedible and even poisonous varieties. Despite these fear eliciting thoughts I had still found some mushrooms very near to an oak tree.
The experience was enough to consider a success as even if I was to discover that these mushrooms were not of any value to me, I had still located an area that was well hidden, was suitable for mushrooms to grow and contained at least one oak tree, so it might well be a great mushroom picking spot for the future. In addition, I might well have discovered a mushroom to avoid in the future. I therefore decided to retrace my steps to my original path, so that I could learn the route to this spot.
As I returned through the dense bush, I found the return less challenging, although still a difficult walk, and re-crossing the stream I slipped and almost fell into some mud. Despite the hazards I soon arrived back at the track I had originally taken, and with a few strategic photos and mental notes I headed back to the main path. Having reached this path I turned to look back at where I had left my new spot and noticed, looking back, that if I were to follow the path along in another direction, and then head into the dense bush from there, I might enter my spot without so many hazards, and so I went off to explore this option.
It worked out that at first this route allowed me to approach my spot with a more open path, but the bush that lay in wait was more challenging and filled with more spider webs. So, I once again began to make my way back from my spot although I now had a better understanding of the lay of the land and so was able to consider another approach. I recognized a third possible route as one that had seemed too muddy and challenging as seen from the main path, but as I returned this way it turned into a relatively easy route, with neither spiders nor ditches. That it had looked so challenging from the path just added to its appropriateness as this might discourage other foragers from exploring this area. I had found my path to my spot and with this knowledge I returned from my adventure contented.
So what is the meaning of this story? Well, it illustrates for me very well how acceptance and commitment therapy works.
In our experience of our lives we are motivated by our values, those ideals that define the directions in which we head in search of fulfillment. Those were for me the adventure, the new experience, the possibility of foraging and sharing the experience and the fruits (mushrooms) with my friends and family. These are the reasons that I went to the forest, and each time I contemplated a new challenge, it was by clarifying these for myself, and asking whether engaging this challenge would be in the service of these values that I made my choices.
The expert’s advice on the diverse presentation of oak trees had introduced a flexibility to me in assessing the situation. I was no longer fused to the image of a particular tree that I knew as an oak, so instead of applying a rule, I allowed the context to influence my choice. I had the thought that although a tree might not even have visible acorns, it might still be a type of oak tree. If I had stuck by the rule of going for an oak tree I might never have chosen that direction, whereas I was on an adventure, and anything could yield fruit (mushrooms).
I knew from the start that the clear path I took to begin with, although the least hazardous, was not heading in the direction of my values, and I would thus need to forge new and unknown paths, without always knowing if these would lead to success. I also realized that these new challenges would involve risk and discomfort, and I had the choice to avoid these potentially unpleasant experiences. However, as I engaged with each new hazard, and experienced each moment of challenge, I could assess how willing I was to allow the experience, even when it was unpleasant. Each spider web was a new choice, and a new experience I could choose to negotiate.
From the moment I stepped off the path I was doing something new, I had chosen to engage in a new experience, a new behaviour, I committed to a new action. I was creating a new neural pathway. And in a metaphoric way, retracing this new pathway over time, I was creating a new path in the direction of my values. I didn’t know that the new way would take me where I wanted to be, as I wasn’t sure where that was, or what it would look like. I just knew it was possibly in that direction, and that continuing was in the service of my values.
This adventure represents the experience of psychological flexibility, which is the goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Each of the highlighted words or phrases being an element of ACT that comes together in an increased sense of wellbeing.
For more information on ACT and other contextual psychological approaches check out www.contextualpsychology.org