By DJ Moran, PhD
This presentation is an excerpt from the online course “Demystifying ACT: A Practical Guide for Therapists“.
- Mindfulness practice is a critical part of the ACT model.
- Mindfulness: the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally.
- It has many empirically supported benefits, not the least of which is building psychological flexibility.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is based on empirically supported principles aiming to improve psychological flexibility by leveraging the influence of mindfulness practice while utilizing evidence-based applied behavioral science. Let’s take a look at the third clause of that definition.
Mindfulness practice is a critical part of the ACT model. Mindfulness is much easier learned by experience rather than simply talking about it. It’s like learning how to ride a bike or make love. You can read about it and talk about it but the effects get acquired by actually doing it. So let’s do it right now, a mindfulness exercise, I mean.
We’ve already done one in a previous module. So let’s take a different approach. If you can do this, I hope you will join in. If you can, take a relaxed posture sitting in a chair and then a deep inhale and a slow exhale. If possible, close your eyes and make a commitment to do one thing, one, single, solitary behavior exclusively for the next few moments. I’m going to invite you to commit to sensing the chair.
Notice what it feels like to sit in that chair. Notice the temperature of the chair. Notice the pressure that the chair makes up against your body. Notice the shape that your body makes as it’s losing contact of the chair. And see if you can recall the exercise, sensing the chair as a commitment to do that one, single, solitary behavior exclusively which means if your mind wanders and starts thinking about other things like what’s going on later on today or what happened in the past or if you’re judging this exercise, see if you can notice that your language, your mind took you to another place other than the here and now, other than following through on your commitment and see if you can just gently bring yourself back to your commitment for sensing the chair.
Now, maybe your languaging has happened again. Perhaps you’re thinking about the future or the past or judging what’s going on. And that’s okay. That just shows that you have a working mind. The mind does that. But see if you can have a different relationship with these thoughts, with these private languaging. See if you can notice whatever you’ve been thinking as if it were a cloud in the sky on a windy day and watch that thought cloud just blow on by. And then bring yourself back to your commitment to sensing the chair. Bring yourself back to sensing the chair. Let that thought go too and bring your attending back to the chair. Now, go ahead and take a nice full clean deep breath. And as you exhale, open your eyes.
What we just did there was another very simple mindfulness exercise. In this particular exercise, we changed the behavior being done. We changed the commitment from breathing to sensing.
And that’s a component of mindfulness that we can embrace as practitioners
We can do lots of different things mindfully. And what we’re trying to do is teach people how to focus on what’s going on right here and right now because the present moment is when behavior happens. And if we’re in the practice of trying to help people become more psychologically flexible and change their committed actions, it’s a good idea to supplement that endeavor with a mindfulness practice.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a western guru of mindfulness, pun intended there, he actually defined mindfulness as the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment. And that’s what we just did there. That exercise was trying to build awareness of you in contact with the chair by paying attention to the sensing, your interaction, your behavior interacting with the environment, doing that purposefully in the here and now. I instructed you during that exercise if you were thinking about the future or the past to bring yourself back to the current moment and if you have any judgments that you were supposed to let them go as if they were a cloud in the sky blowing on by and bring yourself back to your committed action. So we were doing mindfulness just like Jon Kabat-Zinn would have defined it.
Not only will mindfulness practice help build psychological flexibility which is part of our aim as acceptance and commitment therapists but mindfulness also has several benefits that were listed by the American Psychological Association. Mindfulness leads to stress reduction, improved working memory, reduced rumination, less emotional reactivity, more cognitive flexibility, relationship satisfaction.
It leads to better insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation. And all these functions are associated with the brain’s middle prefrontal lobe area. Evidence also suggests that mindfulness meditation has other health benefits such as improved immune responses, improvement to well-being, less distraction and a reduction in psychological distress.
As ACT therapists, our mindfulness teaching can help those particular aspects and it also is contributing to psychological flexibility.
We will discuss how this occurs in later modules. As we explore the ACT treatment module, you will begin to see the overlap between what we are doing clinically in ACT and the outcomes of mindfulness training. Mindfulness seems to be a very hot topic in the 21st century and rest assured that the ACT approach respects the traditions of mindfulness and also explores the measurable utility of such practices in order to functionally weave them into a solid treatment plan. We will continue to discuss the definition of ACT in the next modules.
And, for now, let’s review three key points from this module.
Mindfulness practice is a critical part of the ACT model.
Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally.
And mindfulness has many empirically supported benefits, not the least of which is building psychological flexibility.