I am traveling through open fields in south France, St. Etienne, Le Puy-en-Velay, Macon. My chest feels expansive, free as I slowly inch my way through a portion of El Camino de Santiago, this ancient pilgrimage route stretching across the long and curvy body of Europe, ending in Santiago de Compostela in the north-west part of Spain. As I walk, I notice a few clouds that are pushed away by the wind displaying the pristine bluest sky. My travel companions and I walk with conviction, but with no hope of reaching Santiago this time. Work and family obligation preclude us from walking all the way to Compostela. There is something special about traversing these lands with no particular destination, just enjoying the journey. Each footstep followed by a desire to wander endlessly, a desire to discover ourselves in a different light. We have gotten suddenly quiet and that quietness makes me think of the blog entry I ought to write for ACA.
Watching the sky brings to mind the sky and weather metaphor widely used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This metaphor facilitates a disentangling from fusion between the self and the thoughts or the experiences that happen to the self. It also enhances self-observation or the skill of understanding the self as context. At the same time, the metaphor creates a platform where any person can explore painful thoughts, making contact with difficult emotions in a safe way. The observing self is like the sky. Thoughts and feelings are like the weather. The insight within the metaphor is as follows: The weather naturally and constantly changes; despite that it can never harm or change the sky. Thunderstorm, turbulent hurricanes come and go under the sky, blizzards, torrential rains, the most severe tsunamis come and go without harming the sky. In fact, no matter how difficult the weather gets the storm always passes, no meteorological phenomenon lasts forever and most importantly, no matter how harmful the weather the sky always has room for it. Often, we forget that the sky is there. At times, we can’t see it through the dark curtain of gray clouds. Those of us who travel via airplanes have seen innumerable times how the plain rises, sometimes through the darkest thunderclouds, to uncover a quiet and pristine blue sky. The sky is like the observing self that is always there, making room for difficult thoughts and feelings.
In the same way, if we are human we are bound to suffer but like the sky we can make space for the suffering among the other experiences of our life. The metaphor invites us to see how pain, physical, emotional, psychological or any other nature is universal but also forever changing, transient yet constant in its own way. Paradoxically, we try, at all cost, not to feel pain and it is in that avoidance that we are most likely to cause yet more suffering. The suggestion here is that the very intent to avoid discomfort turns into psychological inflexibility or rigid stances that get in the way of what we want and what is meaningful to us.
Very often, such inflexibility arises through entanglement with language and all the verbal rules it implies, and how language, verbal, body or mental, in a way determines the course of our actions. Taking language literally, or the thinking and interpreting of thoughts as literal, causes a fusion with our thinking. For instance, thinking that something disastrous is about to happen and actually preparing, behaving, as if indeed something of that nature is already happening, we prepare to either fight it or fly away from it. There is a real paradox here: if language is what's causing the trouble, how can psychotherapy or the talking cure be the solution? The key is that in ACT the focus is on language as a means to experience, to give texture to emotions, feelings, thoughts, and so on. Rather than relying on using language to analyze, practitioners of ACT use language to guide the experiencing of feelings, thoughts and other private events. Experiencing feelings tends to allow the space for other experiences as well. At the center of this philosophy is the practice of mindfulness, which allows us to be present in the moment, ready and willing to experience rather than thinking about our experiences. In that sense, the metaphoric language is used as a way to get in touch with experiences rather than as a way to get entangled in language.
Our cognitive abilities help us a great deal in the practical world. For instance, our ability to plan, predict, evaluate, express and relate comes really handy when we need to do something practical, like change a light bulb, or move a line of people from one side to the other, with minor problems. Let’s say, for instance, someone hits our car. We can take action by calling the police, the insurance and all parties that are involved, and eventually get the car fixed. That sequential logic does not work when someone crashes our feelings. We get caught in the idea that we ought to control our inner experiences just to find out how uncontrollable emotions and other private experiences are. A broken heart cannot be healed by us trying to stop the pain, or to control how others react to our pain, or any other reaction that invariably leads to inflexibility and suffering. The heart that's broken can most likely heal itself by feeling the depth and breath of the pain.
The metaphoric language is used as a means to probe, or to get the person in touch with the experience as opposed to getting into an analysis of the situation. One question we might ask in the case of someone paralyzed by anhedonia, or the lack of motivation experienced in depressive episodes: When you wait to feel less sad before going to work, calling your family, or moving on with your life, how is that for you? How is not crying or talking about your sadness working for you right now? How does it feel in your body to hold the pain? When you don't admit to the sense of sadness, what happens to the depression? Obviously language is being used to formulate these questions but in order to answer any of them the person has to get in touch with what she is experiencing. The aim is to create an awareness of the impact of private experiences over the person overall. The person is put in the position of seeing that she is the one having the experience of feelings and thoughts, but that she is not the feelings or the thoughts; she is the context in which the events are happening. The aim is not to determine the validity of the experience but to actually experience the self having the experience.
As in the metaphor of the weather and the sky, when we attempt to be the sky in which all kinds of weather happen, there is a likelihood of an opening of space within. This is what is called psychological flexibility or the coming to terms with the variety of experiences of being human. Being psychologically flexible means having more space in which events can easily be accommodated in a way that works best for us. So now, back in the States, I am determined to continue walking to see the sky, to experience the weather as metaphors for what is possible in my life and the life of others.
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.