Happiness and the motivation to change

I’ve been thinking a lot about the principle of reflection I’ve observed in my life lately.

The basic idea is that my experience of reality reflects my own deeper beliefs about reality.

For example, if I really believe that life is an endless struggle, then I will find that my experience reflects endless struggle.

Applying the principle in reverse: if my experience of life is an endless struggle, then on some level I must believe that this is how life is or should be.

In order for life to feel like a struggle, we have to want things that are unattainable, or alternatively we have to sabotage the attainable things we desire.

To be more precise, we have to feel like we want certain things, only to find that these things are unattainable either intrinsically or through self-sabotage.

For example, I used to think I wanted to lose weight. That’s fine if we define ‘want’ as a feeling. But if we define want as a motivational state – a state of mind that moves you to action – then it wasn’t true that I wanted to lose weight.

Paradoxically, when I accepted that I didn’t really want to lose weight, the sudden shock motivated me to do something about it.

By extension, I might think I want life to be easy, free, secure, prosperous, and satisfying. But if life instead feels difficult, miserable, hopeless, and full of struggle, then I need to question this apparent ‘want’.

If I wanted life to be easy and free and so on, then I would act towards those goals. I would at the very least have a plan and a course of action with definable progress along the way.

If I don’t have those things, then in what sense do I really want to be free, happy, and fulfilled?

To get a little more personal: I always had a vague goal of wanting ‘answers’ to life. But if I really wanted answers, shouldn’t I at least be clear-minded about the questions?

When I grappled with the issue of weight loss, it turned out to be quite complicated and full of self-delusion and conflicting desires. At face value I wanted to lose weight, but beneath the surface I was quite complacent about it and not really motivated to change my behaviour.

So it’s not immediately clear what I want from life either. I can only really say at this point that the most obvious answers are probably not correct.

I’ve distilled this down to a useful heuristic: when you find yourself stuck in persistent negative situations, consider the possibility that you are exactly where you want to be.

This might seem absurd, but what we don’t realise is that our psyches are complicated. There are layers of belief and motivation inside us.

For example, I might want to be a successful writer, and do my best to achieve that goal. But years earlier, perhaps when I was a teenager or a child, I decided that it was best to stay on the sidelines and avoid the limelight.

I never challenged or changed that belief, I just went on living and adding new layers as I went. So now as an adult my desire for success in various aspects of life is implicitly curtailed by my pre-existing and still operational desire to avoid the limelight and live life on the sidelines.

The end result is struggle and disappointment, but even so the struggle and disappointment must be part of the picture. On some level I’m comfortable with struggle and disappointment, because they concord with my beliefs about life.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

I don’t think there’s a single, simple answer to it either. Or maybe I just don’t want there to be a simple answer.

But at the very least it’s good to recognise that your unfulfilled desire for success may be the outcome you want deep down after all.

If you merely wanted to be successful, you would surely gravitate foremost to things you could easily succeed at. You would be mindful of your past successes. You would live and breath success, and avoid any enterprise where success seemed tenuous or uncertain. You might still suffer setbacks and failures, but you wouldn’t cling to them.

The weight-loss example is brilliant: all you have to do in order to lose weight is eat dramatically less. But we don’t do that, because we don’t really want to lose weight, or because our motivation to lose weight is far weaker than our motivation to lose ourselves in the pleasure of food.

It seems obvious with weight loss because moment-by-moment we are either eating or not eating, and it’s totally in our control.

But the same is true in other aspects of life – in our thoughts and feelings we are either oriented toward or away from our goal. It may be more subtle than putting food in your mouth, but I don’t think it’s necessarily less effective.

It’s terrifying and confronting to recognise that your supposed wants and desires are only a facade. But terror and confrontation are great sources of motivation! That’s why the weight-loss book I wrote about my experience is not for everyone. It ended up being very confronting.

Sometimes we need to be confronted with the truth of our situation. If you spend your life failing at finding happiness, then it’s worth considering if you really want happiness in the first place. Many of us would have no idea what to do with ourselves if we were happy. We’d quickly find a problem or a crisis or a new struggle to drag us back into our more comfortable misery.

It sounds paradoxical, but the strong feeling I have of wanting my life to change is only a feeling. The proof is that I haven’t done anything differently, despite my apparent frustration and unhappiness.

If we define ‘want’ as a motivational state – a state of mind that results in action – then clearly I do not want life to change. As I note in the end of my weight-loss book, the thought “I want life to change” or “I want to lose weight” is really a form of self-delusion designed to distract us from what’s really going on in our minds.

Because if you admit to yourself that you don’t want life to change, that you want life to continue as it has been, the obvious question is “Why?” Why would you want life to continue in a way that you obviously don’t enjoy?

Looking at it this way forces you to own your role in making life the way it is by performing the same kinds of actions over and over with the same motives, beliefs, and feelings. Hopefully it raises in you a genuine motivation to understand, a curiosity as to why you are perpetuating a way of life that you don’t enjoy, to such an extent that you even delude yourself with thoughts of change.

Before I lost weight I thought the benefits would all be aesthetic. I was surprised to find that the greatest changes were in my relationship with food, and my overall sense of well-being.

I could not have predicted what being thin would be like. In that sense I really didn’t know what losing weight meant until I accomplished it. It’s no wonder I couldn’t really ‘want’ it in the first place.

What helped me in the end was knowing that my relationship with food was dysfunctional and seeking to ‘work it out’. That might be a more constructive approach generally: recognise that things aren’t right and try to understand where they’re going wrong.

 

 

 

 

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Acceptance and Commitment Therapy vs spiritual event-horizon

Matthew asked about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in relation to my recent posts on acceptance.

I heard about ACT roughly two years ago, as an emerging alternative to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Here an article about ACT helpfully describes the differences between CBT, psychotherapy, and ACT:

Imagine the situation for the client who says, “I feel so anxious about going out on a date. I’m so afraid that I won’t have anything to say, or that I’ll say something really dumb.” Through the use of CBT techniques we, as counsellors, could help the client dispute the negative beliefs that she is a poor conversationalist or a boring date, replacing her anxious thoughts with positive, affirming ones, such as that she is interesting, good at conversation, or a worthy social companion.

Through longer, psychotherapeutic processes, we could help her to discover the experiences in her past (probably early childhood) which created the sense of her as socially inept. Psychotherapy takes a long time, however, and even when the effect of past history on present experience becomes known, there is still the “war of words” as the various voices within her – the critical ones and the affirming ones – clamour for attention.

The ACT principle of expansion/acceptance works differently. It would ask the client to imagine that she is about to go out on a date. She would then be instructed to scan her body, observing where she felt the anxiety most intensely. Let’s say that she reports that she experiences a huge lump in her throat. She might be then asked to observe the sensation of the lump as if she were a scientist who had never seen anything like it before: to notice the shape, weight, vibration, temperature, pulsation, and other aspects of it. She would be invited to breathe into the lump, making room for it, allowing it to be there (even though we would be highly empathetic in understanding that she did not like it or want it there!).

There’s more to ACT than just the acceptance component, but from descriptions such as those above I suspect it is aiming at the same kind of practice I’ve described as acceptance.

I haven’t undergone ACT, so I’m not in a position to recommend it, or criticise it. But I wonder how it manages the paradox of acceptance and change. On a therapeutic level, ACT must promise certain beneficial outcomes for its patients. In my experience, such promises are the biggest obstacle to practicing acceptance.

I tried acceptance and mindfulness techniques in the past, but with the benefit of hindsight I can see that those efforts were fixated on change rather than acceptance. The net result was that despite repeated efforts to ‘accept’ reality, I was still motivated by the desire for change, for a different reality. For example, the article above states:

By opening up and allowing them [unpleasant thoughts and feelings] to come and go without struggling with them, running from them, or giving them undue attention, we find that they bother us much less. They also move on more quickly, instead of hanging around and bothering us

This is precisely the kind of promise I would have clung to in the past, and attempts to ‘accept’ in such a way would be rendered fruitless by the underlying desire for change.

Perhaps this is a personal quirk, or I may be an extreme case. Or maybe an astute ACT therapist would recognise the contradiction in my efforts.

I can only speak for my own experience, and in that case the therapeutic aspect of acceptance seems accidental. The more significant motive for accepting my reality is simply that there is nothing else I can do about it.

Going a little deeper, I am my reality and my reality is me. Somehow, my reality has begun to shift in a way that is best described as acceptance. And the more I accept my reality, the more evident it becomes that nothing has really changed except my reaction to it.

Take the simplest example: people often tell me that I think too much, and in the beginning I struggled to think less. Later I struggled to understand the causes of my overthinking. Later still I tried to justify my overthinking in some terms that would be meaningful to normal people (‘underthinkers’?).

Now, as this acceptance thing slowly takes root in my mind, I’m gradually realising I can simply say “yes, I overthink everything.” I can accept it, without that acceptance implying any obligation to change, any further shame or humiliation, any loss of self.

Of course, if I’d sought that outcome in the beginning I’d have turned it into a struggle.

 

Acceptance: nothing changes, everything changes

One of the biggest problems with acceptance as a practice is that it is often presented as a means of bringing about personal change and improving your life.

The idea is that if you accept yourself for you who are, your life will change for the better.

On one level this is true, if only because acceptance is such an unfamiliar and unusual path for us to take that it is all but guaranteed to bring about a different set of outcomes.

But it is also true that everything in life is always changing anyway. If you begin accepting your experience or your reality, then you will feel less conflicted about the normal ensuing changes to your life. Life will seem to change for the better, because it is always changing and you now feel better about it.

A third aspect of change is that our refusal to accept our experience often hinges on consistent themes. I won’t accept my reality because I am not rich and powerful enough, or because I haven’t met the partner of my dreams, or because I am deeply insecure about my status.

But when we accept our experience, those themes dissipate. We might find, all of a sudden, that our anxiety about future career prospects drains away when we accept other parts of our experience. The disappearance of those compensatory themes will often feel like a change for the better too.

With all these changes going on, it’s entirely likely that other changes in our experience will occur as well. If you aren’t walking around obsessing about power and money, you might notice things you never noticed before. People might treat you differently. You might find different motives and intentions arising in you.

So, yes, accepting your experience does bring about change. But it is best to be clear about the kinds of changes that might occur, because “self-improvement” is a potent theme for many of us, and “accept your experience” can become grist for the mill of “if I do this, I’ll become a better person and my life will change for the better!”

I think we need to balance out the overly positive messages about acceptance and change.

This experience is the only reality there is for you, and your refusal to accept it is at the heart of all the delusions and complexities that arise over the course of a lifetime.

Reality is not what you think it is. Acceptance is first and foremost about reversing the impulse to run away, to create new distractions or compensate for the perceived inadequacies in your experience.

Beware the allure of acceptance as a means of personal change. You cannot practice genuine acceptance if you are using it as a means of changing your experience. That hidden motive will undermine any attempt at accepting your experience, because it constitutes a prior rejection of your experience.

I’ve found that there are times when I cannot seem to accept my experience. In fact it almost feels as though I don’t know what my experience is, so how can I accept it? This “moving target” feeling does not respond to efforts to accept it.

It doesn’t respond, because it is already a response in its own right, to something buried a little deeper. We can’t accept things that are not part of our experience through denial or ignorance. In these situations the best we can do is accept that we are reacting to, or hiding from, something else.

Usually that ‘something else’ will appear if we turn our attention to it, then we can try to accept in turn this previously hidden element of our experience.

My passive self

A sociology PhD candidate and fellow blogger whom I follow has written a couple of posts on the definition of ‘passion’ and its contemporary significance.

The etymology of passion is one of my favourite examples of how our culture has lost or forgotten its ancient bearings. We generally encounter passion as ‘excitement’ or ‘enthusiasm’ or strong emotion. Only in the arcane religious context of “the passion of the Christ” do we catch a glimpse of the full context of the original word.

In brief, the strands of Greek philosophy that were retained through Christendom and thereby shaped the modern world observed a dichotomy of activity and passivity in things. To use a rough example: when fire heats water, the fire is active and the water is passive. That is, the fire causes change while the water undergoes change. Heating is, in this sense, an action of fire and a passion of water.

In a human context, passions are what we now tend to call emotions, yet the word ’emotion’ is comparatively recent and carries the original meaning of ‘stir up’. By contrast, passion originally meant ‘to suffer’, yet suffering in turn does not refer only to painful or harmful changes, but to changes generally, or rather to things ‘undergone’.

Our emotions are changes wrought in us by external circumstances, objects, and considerations, as well as our own thoughts and ideas about such considerations. We are ‘passive’ in regard to our emotions insofar as they are changes ‘undergone’ by us.

In contemporary language people say things like “I’m passionate about the environment” to signify that they care enough about such issues as to undergo emotional changes in response to them. The original meaning of passivity is implicit here. But the meaning is entirely lost when the language shifts and people say things like “I guess the environment is my biggest passion”.

Does the original meaning matter? Apart from being able to understand that “the passion of the Christ” refers to his suffering and undergoing change rather than Christ being really enthusiastic about dying on a cross, there are also aspects of ancient anthropology or psychology that have informed our present civilisation and still make sense if we take the time to unravel the knots and tangles that our culture has made of them.

For example, various schools of Greek philosophy valued reason to such an extent that it took on divine or transcendent qualities. Yet, like the classical theistic understanding of God, reason is not passive.  Reason does not undergo change through the influence of other entities or forces. Understanding both reason and/or God as perfect, as beyond change or growth or the fulfillment of potential, this perfection is in some sense available to humanity insofar as we can embody reason in our own souls.

Yet as experience attests, our adherence to reason is challenged most significantly by the passions and the power they exert over us.  Depending on the particular philosophy, humans were viewed as enslaved by the passions through the lower appetite, or enslaved by the passions through the influence of false and irrational beliefs. A rational and virtuous man is not controlled by external objects, and not susceptible to the demands of his passionate nature.

In this sense, the passion of the Christ is significant not because a God-man went through some painful experiences, but because it is (or should be) metaphysically impossible for God to suffer in the first place.  This is, I think, a good example of how even a middling knowledge of metaphysics underscores the significance of Christian doctrine in a classical theistic context.

Or to put it another way:

“ the humble is the stem upon which the mighty grows, the low is the foundation upon which the high is laid.”