Monday, September 26, 2016

Steven Hayes: Happiness Is an Empty Promise: Buddhism - Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Too many people are striving for a quick and dirty way to feel hedonistic bliss without accepting the negative feelings they have, says Steven Hayes.
This was originally tagged onto my last post which spoke about Bhutan Buddhism, but I decided to make it into a separate post. I'm not sure if it is the right thing for this site, but I think Mike Norman wanted a wider range of topics so I thought I throw this in and see. I think it is relevant because in my opinion Western society is not very well.

I'm beginning to think that our society can bring unhappiness because the never ending pursuit of status and material things can bring about not only boredom, but also distress. I used to have an A type personality always at work, and I searched for pleasure by acquiring more and more things.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) was developed by scientists and psychologists whose research showed that it is very difficult for many people to feel happy, at least for significant amounts of time. It is a mindfulness based behavior therapy, which is distinctively different to Cognitive Behavior therapy, (CBT), or even mindfulness based CBT. It is an active, get out and about and do things therapy, but this is done very gently because distressed people are often very easily overwhelmed.

For many people happiness tends to be fleeting, where we all desire more things and it never feels like we have got enough. We always want a better job, a bigger house, better car, more money, more promotion, more romance, etc. So we work harder and harder and strive for more and more until in the end some people's only momentary pleasure comes only from a bit of wine in the evenings, or a few beers at the weekend. And now one in ten people are on antidepressant medications.

As the scientists developed ACT they realized how close their therapy was to Buddhist teaching. Their research showed that one of the reasons humans have conquered the world is because we always want more and are never really fully satisfied, and so this led to striving, but this can also lead to unhappiness and discontentment. The Buddhists discovered this centuries ago.

ACT also showed that the way we deal with outer reality does not work with inner reality. We tend to be very practical creatures and if we are not happy about something we will go and alter it, like cut down a tree if it is blocking all the sunlight from entering our house. But if we have unwanted thoughts and feelings we don't like we can't just make them go away by forcing them out of the mind, which actually makes them come back more. Try your best to not think of water melons for the next five minutes. Make sure no thoughts of water melons ever enter your mind.

The ACT practitioners found that through acceptance of negative, unpleasant feelings and thoughts we can reduce fear so that then some peace, contentment, and happiness are more likely to develop. This can bring about healing. But accepting things to try to make the pain go away doesn't work because that is not true acceptance. Buddhism is all about 'radical acceptance' and non-striving - although you still work hard (if you want to), go to college and get good grades, excel at sports, etc, it's just done with a different attitude with far less perfectionism.

ACT can also help people cope with chronic, physical pain and it has been shown that mindfulness and acceptance actually changes how are our brains are wired which reduces the sensation pain.

Steven Hayes is the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.


Anonymous said...

Ohhh boy! Nobody teaches a little baby how to smile, and laugh (when all is well). You cannot ‘teach’ happiness: - that’s like trying to teach people how to breathe. All you can do is feel happiness – just like that little baby. No qualification other than you are human. The question is – why have we forgotten how to feel it? And have we ever plumbed just how deep that feeling goes? Or what it brings with it.

Happiness is the natural state of the human being. We just cover it up, deluge it with stuff; that’s it. When we are very young, we are close to it. When we are adults, we wander away; far away. Then we write theories about it, and how to get back. Or compensate or get spiritual. Or dance the dance of the ego. Anything but simplicity.

All pain is resistance. Why on earth would anyone want to confront pain, in lieu of embracing joy? That’s like travelling around the world to go from your kitchen to your living room, because you headed off in the longest direction, making sure you knock your head against every obstacle along the way, walking through every bog you can find.

I couldn’t believe it: - Professor Hayes threw out the baby with the bathwater in the first 30 seconds of that video.

Peter Pan said...

Don't chase butterflies, let them come to you :)

Kaivey said...

Yes, that's it.

Matt Franko said...

"the never ending pursuit of status and material things can bring about not only boredom, but also distress"

This is textbook religion 101... Usually followed by an appeal to give some munie for charity....

Kaivey said...

When you first come across these ideas it can be upsetting. I don't think Steven Hayes threw the baby out..., and you're missing the point. If avoiding pain helps, then do it, because that's the best thing to do, but for some people it makes it worse, especially when the pain is chronic, I.e, it won't go away.

Open Focus is another Western mindfulness based technique that helps people to cope with physical and emotional pain by focusing on it. It came from biofeedback research. It's counterintuitive but the science is good. They can see how it works through brain scans, where the pain centres become less active.

Tom Hickey said...

As I have been saying, there are aspects of reality that are not obvious but discoverable. Science is one way of doing this. But the ancients also developed ways and in fact called them "ways," i.e., roads or paths. They lie at the heart of the various religions and wisdom traditions that where given by the sages and way-showers.

A lot of superstition grew up about those teachings for a variety of reasons that sociologists of religion have investigated, and which the sages themselves warned about. For example, an originally vibrant teaching passes into custom and then tradition and finally into a rigid traditions that masked the teaching at its core. A lot of baggage gets picked along the way as the original teaching is influenced by those who do not know but think they do, and especially those who seek to profit.

So there are naturalistic aspects of what is ordinarily regarded as "supernatural" along with the superstitious ideas and supercilious practices. Sorting this out is a major focus today and considerable progress has been made. Contemporary sages and way-showers have also illuminated the matter in contemporary terms.

A lot still remains to be investigated rigorously but some areas have been examined scientifically. The effects of various "spiritual practices" like various forms of meditation have been studied for decades, and the evidence is about beneficial psychological and physical changes, as well as positive social effects.

The frontiers of exploration are now inner space and outer space. The advantage of inner space exploration is that everyone can do from the time they are young children. It is relatively costless other than time invested and the potential benefits are large.

Belief in the supernatural is not required but open-mined study leads to the conclusion that that is a lot to know about reality and science is just scratching the surface at this point. Another conclusion is that knowledge is in accordance with the mode of the knower, as is already known from the way different species apprehend the environment. The sages reported that there are different modes of human knowing that enable apprehension of different aspects of reality than ordinarily available. Scientific enquiry suggests that different types of physiological functioning correspond to different modes.

Tom Hickey said...

Correction: "a rigid traditions" should be "a rigid institution." That's a huge difference between "spirituality" as a naturalistic phenomenon and institutional religion. However, at the heart of the institutional structure is a core spirituality that is transmitted through the "mystical" tradition. My contention is that genuine mysticism is naturalistic and can be experienced instead of being superstitious as is commonly believed. But this requires practice of a "discipline" that incorporates a way of life. Such ways of life do not necessarily mean leaving the world or even acting out of the ordinary as far as most other people realize if one doesn't advertise what one is doing. But it does involve re-ording priorities and shifting one's world view somewhat, e.g., from rigid to flexible and from closed to open. The basic requirement is being open to transcendence.

Institutional religions generally resist change in order to protect their investment, so especially the West, the mystical traditions have either been suppressed or tightly controlled. As a result many Westerners are now turning to Eastern spiritual "technologies" and formulating them independently of a tradition or stripping out the accumulated baggage that is not only unnecessary but also is also chaff that obscures the kernel of the teaching.

Peter Pan said...

For those interested in exploring enlightenment through magic, this website may be helpful:

Better than the stale rituals practiced by organized religion, IMO.

Ugh said...

Gee, I hear this every Sunday in my non-denominational Christian church. This concept is not exclusively Buddhist. The pursuit of more and more things, more and more money more and more sex won't make you happy. In fact giving up endless empty pursuits and helping, sharing, sacrificing with forgiveness and love is what we are taught in the Christian faith. It may be lost on most Christians - but it is the way. But hey let's shit all over that and embrace anything but...

Tom Hickey said...

A lot of spiritual ignorance, other than not knowing one true nature, amounts to wrong priorities. This can be summed up as taking what is trivial to be important and what is important to be trivial. The is nothing wrong with pursing wants subsequent to needs.

But the real freedom the one seeks is only found in not wanting and that requires renunciation. However, the renunciation required is internal renunciation rather than external.

The way to internal renunciation is not giving up but rather replacing worldly desire with inner fulfillment. As one becomes more fulfilled internally, one becomes less concerned with "me" and "mine." Then there is no contradiction between spiritual and material life. Properly ordering them removes the paradox and they become two side of the same coin.

There is a difference between inner fulfillment and ordinary happiness. At the level of the gross, happiness and suffering, pleasure and pain alternate. There is no escaping this "wheel" of opposites at the level of the wheel. That is why "the pursuit of happiness" is doomed to fail.

It is necessary to transcend the wheel of opposites by finding inner fulfillment. Then whatever happens does not overshadow inner fulfillment.

However, this is just the beginning of the spiritual path through the inner planes of awareness. This may unfold in non-ordinary experiences. The wages caution that experiences of the path are trivial and the destination is important. One's guide also can take one through the planes unawares and most are taken "blindfolded" at least part of the way, because of the distractions. Many if not most who go consciously get distracted at various points and tarry on the way. This is another matter of prioritization.

Sages have set this forth since ancient times. "Capture the fort on the hilltop and you will own the diamond mines on the slopes and the fruits in the valley." The fort symbolizes realizing one's true nature. The diamonds are the experiences of the planes, and the fruits are the goods at the level of the gross.

Anonymous said...

For me Kaivey, forty-two years of experience and every moment of over 18,000 hours of practice says Prof. Hayes threw the only lead he has, away. Through ignorance. Am not allotting blame – but it was through ignorance. So, then he turned to his mind for solutions and of course mind can come up with solutions for the problems it creates. People do not understand this – the mind has nothing to do with happiness. Your circumstances in the world have nothing to do with happiness. All of that is the dance of the ego. Mind when it understands, is still. The deeper inside you go, the further away you get, from this dance and the mind. And that is a good thing. It is the heart that experiences happiness and that is just showing you an open door - a ‘way’ to travel, within you. Consciousness is the continuing and unfolding reward, of passing that door. I know there are many many people in this world, that know exactly this.

Pain is resistance. Pain in your body is saying stop doing what you are doing; turn around, go back, and go in the right direction. Be conscious. Emotional and mental pain are exactly the same. Pain has our signature, all over it. The West is fascinated by the mind and their instruments. The heart doesn’t care. It wants substance; experience. Mind is a good partner if it knows what the heart knows. Otherwise it wanders and wonders. Tom will know: - from somewhere in the Upanishads someone wrote down ... the worldly mind is born in darkness, lives in darkness, dies in darkness. Darkness = ignorance. The mind needs light. It starts with the thirst of the heart. Some people want to listen to the mind; others want to listen to themselves. There is no mystery there on the path where you are standing – you just have to look around and figure out where you are, and where you want to go. That’s life!

Just as there are many professors of economics that wander around in their concepts, there are (and I mean no disrespect) professors of psychology. True knowledge would make psychology redundant – now there’s a thought!

Kaivey said...

Carl Jung believed that the West went outward towards physical reality, while the East explored the inner world more. He believed that synthesis, is wholeness, will come when both East and East integrate, as is happening now. Western science is now working with eastern spiritual tradition.

I've been reading up on Buddhist Nirvana and even that a bit scary to the Western mind, but it makes sense.

Kaivey said...

Yes, and this is why I wrote the article, it's wasn't to push Buddhism, but just a few of its spiritual ideas about materialism. This is why I added ACT, which is not Eastern religion, but Western science. I though the article was relevant because capitalism is all about materialism. I'm not criticising that as such, but its about balance. For me anyway.

Kaivey said...

Thankyou. I shall check it out.

Kaivey said...

Stop Press:

I just watched this TV program where this British doctor is trying to get patients at a local GP practice off their drugs. Doctors are prescribing far too many drugs, he said.

He had this one woman who was in severe chronic pain and he got various specialists to look at her, but in the end he took her to a mindfulness based, Kung Fu teacher who specialised in helping people with chronic pain. The Kung Fu that he taught was non combative and looked a bit like Tai Chi. He said that people with chronic pain tend to focus too much on their pain instead of letting the pain come to them. So it's mindfulness based, but you don't focus too much on the pain, you focus on other things as well.

Open Focus teaches people how to be more aware of things around them, so instead of turning inward getting lost in our thoughts, we turn outward and notice our surroundings more.

Anyway, the Kung Fu teacher started curing this woman of her chronic pain and she is now coming off her drugs. She's delighted. It was so good to watch.

Anonymous said...

There was a woman on Aus. TV a while back, whose emotional state led to a complete inability to walk. She struggled to put one foot in front of the other, whilst she held onto two parallel bars. There was nothing wrong with her physically. Just her emotional state, interfering with the autonomous nervous system. Her doctor put her on a motorised tread mill and wound the speed up until she was running. Without ‘thinking about it’, she could run – the muscle memory took over the emotional state and she could run. When she discovered this, she kept on walking all day long, afraid if she stopped she wouldn’t be able to walk again. She had to teach her body how to walk again, just as she did when she was little.

Quantum theorists see the smallest sub-atomic particles of matter disappear and reappear from some unknown energy state from which these particles derive their ‘charge’ and/or ‘gravity’. All is Energy (whatever that great Mystery means). When this energy flows freely in the mental, emotional, or physical body – all is well. Pain occurs when there is too little or too much; or misdirected. The material, emotional, or mental atoms, congest, scatter, dissolve, harden, or multiply uncontrollably etc. We are energy users (and abusers). We seek harmony, and to experience energy in its highest forms. We call this fulfillment; happiness, contentment. We are experiencing machines. Energy and consciousness are synonymous terms.

Happiness too is an energy, that dwells as a living, evolutionary potential in the heart. Happiness is the Self. When your heart sings, it is because you are singing. And you are here, listening. The higher energies once manifest, always have dominion over the lower. All the Kung Fu teacher did, was put his patient back in touch with herself; the magic of energy did the rest, so I hope he didn’t take credit for that. Besides, there are more direct ways. When you are truly happy, even time stands still. Your body will change, because time will not allow the body to stand still. But you can stand still, and be happy – without doing anything other than being. And when you are not here, you will be somewhere else. Can’t bottle that can you?

I just want to say, there is a choice. We can focus on all of the problems we have created for ourselves through being unconscious; or we can focus on the happiness that is within; this beautiful energy within. Yes, we will have to fix our problems; but happy people are much better at that. Happiness brings clarity and peace, generosity and kindness. The world was full of problems before we arrived and will be full of problems after we leave. That doesn’t mean we haven’t got a choice. Happiness, is the art of living. I cannot think of a better subject to learn. Know thy Self.

Tom Hickey said...

When this energy flows freely in the mental, emotional, or physical body – all is well. Pain occurs when there is too little or too much; or misdirected. The material, emotional, or mental atoms, congest, scatter, dissolve, harden, or multiply uncontrollably etc. We are energy users (and abusers). We seek harmony, and to experience energy in its highest forms. We call this fulfillment; happiness, contentment. We are experiencing machines. Energy and consciousness are synonymous terms.

This is explicitly the basis of qigong (chi kung) in the Chinese system in which traditional medicine and spiritual (holistic) cultivation are two sides of the same coin. Similarly with pranayama in Indian traditional medicine (Ayurveda) and spiritual cultivation. The sages was set forth the theory and practice of these system in great detail, beginning in ancient times.