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May 15, 2017

Four Paths to Psychological Flexibility

Poetry has served me well. As a child I learned to seek refuge in silence, in reading and in writing, whenever I was confronted with difficulties. It turned into a habitual practice and offered me the confidence to trust that no matter how disturbing the circumstances I always had a way out or a way in, depending on the situation at hand. Most recently, when my thirty-two-year old niece was diagnosed with a rampant cancer that took her physical being away from us in a span of 13 months, silence, writing and reading held me together; they were the depths into which I immersed my tattered heart and my exhausted mind so I could then be there for her, in a vital and present way for most of her treatment days.

In my professional life I deal with human suffering on a daily basis. I knew that I could not possibly escape the suffering her cancer would eventually impose on us. I knew the best thing to do was to turn around and face the suffering, as opposed to run away from it. It was certainly a test of anyone’s strength to watch a vital, beautiful young woman succumb to illness, but there was nothing anyone could do but live through the experience. Right after her death, I went back to working on a manuscript where I attempt to explicate how writing has the potential to heal. I was working fervently on the manuscript when she became ill and I put it aside to be with her. It makes sense to go back to it now that I have received the gift of pain and the clarity of how it cannot be avoided.

This blog entry is my thinking out loud about the four pathways I offer as a way to restore wholeness.  They are intended to lead to the practice of psychological flexibility, to use a term coined by Steve Hayes in his Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I mentioned my own experience of losing my niece to cancer because I was better able to endure the pain of loss by continuing to walk these paths.

The human tendency is to long for or to want to set out on a voyage toward happiness. The inner pathways of that voyage are not always clear, but the soul tends to forge ahead, even when the mind or the body, even when the mind or the body show signs of needing to stop. The pursuit of happiness is natural but holding on to it as the only way of being is futile. Happiness is elusive, ineffable and transient, at best. Although these four paths are soul-rooted, they also need the mind, in all its clarity, to be concretized, so they emerge at the intersection of mind, body and soul. Like the Sufi poets, we may find ourselves spiraling, twirling around as we traverse these paths. We must hold on to the hope that with each gyration there is the possibility for a transformative experience or a new perspective. Here are the paths:

First: On the first path we compassionately as well as critically examine ourselves through writing. I often use some lines from Rumi’s “The Guest House,” as the voice calling us at the start the journey on this first path:

“This being human is a guest house. / Every morning a new arrival.  A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor… / Welcome and entertain them all. / Be grateful for whatever comes because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

On this first path, the attempt is to inhabit the house of the Self, which means we are present in the here and now, and with an attitude of acceptance for whatever comes our way. Acceptance does not mean that we are okay with what is happening but that we are willing to receive it and to know it. By being mindful, we bear witness to thoughts, emotions, memories, urges, and in so doing we can be better prepared to make value-based choices in life.

Second: On the second path we cultivate self-compassion and the practice of kindness, which begins with seeing ourselves in the other. The poet Naomi Shihab Nye, in her poem “Kindness” helps us understand what this path is all about:

 “Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, / you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. / You must see how this could be you. / Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.”

Loving kindness toward the self is not about becoming someone better, but about befriending the person we already are, approaching ourselves with curiosity and compassion and seeing ourselves reflected in the other or the other in us.

Third: On the third path, Mindfulness, a de-fusion strategy, helps us to see the self not merely as content, that is, a collection of discrete thoughts, emotions, feelings, but rather as a context, a wider perspective in which these experiences take place.

It conjures up the image of clouds passing in the sky, which is the overarching consciousness that in a sense rises above transience. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the spirit hovers over us “…brooding over the bent world…” as we go through our “petty paces” in our daily distracted lives. 

 Fourth: On the last path, we cultivate kindness toward the self through contemplative and meditative practices all aiming at taking actions that are aligned with our values. We practice commitment with utmost seriousness and as well as with humor and a light touch. On this path, we write to gain perspective. We all have the potential to be free of psychological pain by learning to embrace changing perspectives.

“Whoever you are,” says Mary Oliver, “no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, / harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”  The poet reminds us that clarifying values is a widening of the perspective to find our place in the family of things.

Writing as a mindfulness practice helps clarify the usefulness or uselessness of our thoughts, feelings and actions and is a way to question if we are living a life consistent with what is really important to us.  The ultimate goal of the four paths is to promote psychological flexibility or the recovery of wholeness, which is the ability to be fully present as life happens and, most important, to be open to all our experiences so we can take actions that are guided by our values. Psychological flexibility is more a point of view than a point of destination, more a practice than an outcome.

To write mindfully is to be present, open, and actively engaged in the creation of a life that is meaningful, vital and worth living, no matter the content of our experiences.
Marianela Medrano is a counselor and Dominican writer living and practicing in Stamford, CT. She writes poetry, essays, and creative non-fiction; with publications including essays and four books of poetry.










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