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How to Unhook Yourself from Thoughts

In this interview Russ reveals why popular ideas about happiness are misleading, inaccurate, and often make us miserable.

I'm your host, Melli O'Brien and I'm so delighted to be here right now with somebody I admire very much, Russ Harris. Russ is the author of several really wonderful books, including the international bestseller, The Happiness Trap, which is a personal favorite of mine. And he's also a world-renowned trainer of acceptance and commitment therapy, which we'll learn a little bit about today. So, Russ, thank you so much for taking this time out for the Summit. I really appreciate.

Oh, you're welcome. You're welcome. It's good to be here. So Russ, you used to be a GP? At one time, yeah. So you've had that.

Yeah. So you've had quite a career shift. Could you tell us the story of what made you change careers? Well, yeah, as a GP, I just found I was less and less interested in the physical side of health and wellbeing, and much more interested in the psychological side. I mean, it's really an artificial distinction to talk about physical versus psychological when it comes to health, in the sense that, you know, even the most deeply physical things like cancer, or having an arm cut off comes with all sorts of emotional and psychological you know, pain and difficulty and stress. And so I found as a GP, I was just more and more interested in the psychological, emotional side.

And I started to lose interest in writing prescriptions. And you know, that I'm not denying that there's obviously a lot of, you know, genuine physical problems out there. But for me, the interest was in the psychological side. And even if you take something like the common cold, we're breathing in those germs all year round. Why is it that it's certain times of the year we come down with it, you know? And it's usually when we're stressed or run down or not kind of coping well with the, you know, the ongoing stressfulness of our life.

So my consultation started getting longer and longer and longer. And then I started to find that I was spending, you know, 20 minutes talking to people about their feelings and emotions and five minutes at the end talking about their physical issues. And I'm like, I might be in the wrong profession here. Yeah. So it was a gradual realization that I was in the wrong profession and psychiatry didn't really interest me as whole.

The psychiatry, really just giving people a diagnosis of a mental illness and giving them medication is, it is that there are some brilliant psychiatrists out there, but a lot of them, a lot of psychiatry as it was taught, it was really this focus on medication and diagnosis of mental illness. And that didn't really interest me either. So I gradually just started exploring psychotherapy and coaching and discovered mindfulness fairly early on. And I was very excited by the concept. And so now you spend most of your time as a therapist to coach and training other teachers in acceptance and commitment therapy.

So what, why ACT? What is acceptance and commitment therapy and why do you, why is it your passion? Why have you ended up doing that? Well, Oh, gosh, that's a big question. The ACT is the official abbreviation, not ACAT. So well done, you've got the abbreviation correct. And the name reflects a key message. Accept what is out of your personal control and commit to action that improves your life.

And everyone likes that idea. Oh, accept what's out of your control, commit to action that improves your life. It's a nice idea, but it's not so easy to do. And we often, are not really very good at knowing what is in our control and what's not in our control. So for example, the vast majority of thoughts that pop into our head every day are not in our control.

You know, you don't choose most of the thoughts. They just appear. And, you know, so, I guess I explored mindfulness via various processes and pathways before ACT. And what I really liked about ACT was a couple of things. Fisrtly, ACT is not just about mindfulness.

It's about mindfully living guided by your values. So the outcome we're looking for in ACT is psychological flexibility, which is the ability to mindfully act guided by your values. Mindfulness without values is like a ship without a rudder, you know. A serial killer could use mindfulness to kill more effectively. So you need to kind of, it's not just enough to be mindful, you need to be in touch with your values, how you want to treat yourself and others and the world around you deep in your heart.

What sort of person do you want to be? What do you want to stand for in life, and so forth? And so ACT has this really nice coming together of these elements. You know, it's about values, it's about action, goal setting, guided by those values, living in the present moment. And I also fell in love with that because it was very flexible in the way that it, you know, kind of help people to develop mindfulness skills. There was no, many other mindfulness approaches placed major emphasis on meditation, and you have to do your mindful meditation. And that's great if you like meditation.

It's great if meditation fits in with your life. But lots of people don't like it, or don't want it or find that it's just impractical to keep meditation going on a regular basis. And so, you know, if you wanted people to exercise and you said, you've got to go to the gym for 40 minutes every day, you get a lot of negative reactions to that. If you want people to exercise more and you say, you know, Dude, go for five minute walk at lunchtime, or take a flight of steps instead of the escalator or park your car a bit further away from the supermarket and walk a bit further, then you get a lot more people inonboard. And so this is the kind of ACT approach to mindfulness.

There is literally, you know, thousands and thousands of different ways of developing mindfulness skills and meditation is just a small subset of the many ways that we can develop mindfulness. So I like the flexibility of the approach. Yeah. So it sounds like ACT has not so much of a strong emphasis on, you know, you must do formal meditation, but there's much more opportunity and scope for the informal practice and just weaving it into daily life. Yeah, absolutely.

I mean, there's no emphasis on meditation. We use the word skills rather than the word meditation, because meditation comes with connotations of, you know, ohm and Buddhist monks and so forth. So it's like, if you want, I mean, we've got some exercises here that you can do as formal meditation exercises, if that's what you wanted, that's what fits for you. Great. And some people love that and like that.

But we know that, you know, for example, when people have done other mindfulness-based meditation programs and you follow them up a year later, most people aren't meditating a year after doing say an MBSR program, you know. But what they're often doing is kind of doing the little, the little kind of informal mindfulness things that you can fit in throughout your day. So, it's like, and, you know, other mindfulness based practices that can be very powerful, you know, like yoga as a mindfulness practice and Tai-Chi, and most martial arts have a kind of mindfulness practices built into them, although they often don't use the term mindfulness. So there's lots of these formal things that you can do that come out of ancient Eastern pathways. And that stuff is great if you like it and you want to do it.

And if it doesn't fit with you, there's a zillion other things that you can do. I love that. And you know, that's something that's been coming up in this summit a little bit as well is that, you know, there's a, I think a lot of people sometimes are actually practicing mindfulness, but potentially not realizing they're doing it. You know, when they're alone in nature or they're going for a swim or a surf, and sometimes people are able to just kind of realize that they can, I guess accentuate or choose deliberately when they're in those moments to either elongate the practice or to just know what they're doing as they're doing it. Well, so yeah, I mean, that's a good point.

Many people spontaneously kind of get very present in two kinds of sets of circumstances. One is when they're in beautiful environments like nature or another is where they're doing, you know, kind of some sort of activity that they really enjoy, like their favorite sport, for example. Some people, you know, when you're really playing or engaging with your kids and actually, you know, for a lot of us, when we go on holiday to an exotic country, we're very, very mindfully aware of all the different sights and smells and shapes. But probably where mindfulness is most difficult or most challenging and highly unlikely to come naturally to people are in really challenging, stressful situations. It's very hard to mindful when you're all sort of furious or anxious or upset and so forth.

Or in doing the same old stuff that we do all the time and we normally just switch off or try to do stuff. The mundane stuff. The mundane stuff, yes. So I wanted to ask you, cause I know there's a lot of definitions about, there's a lot of definitions out there of what mindfulness is. Do you have kind of a working definition that you use? I know it's a tricky question, but...

It is. There's no consensus, you know, there are many. By far, the most widely spread definition, I think is Jon Kabat-Zinn's definition, which you've probably talked about in other presentations. But I'm kind of, out of all of these different consensus, out of all of these different concepts of mindfulness, there are at least two things that virtually everybody agrees on. One is it's an attention process.

It's paying attention and it's about focusing. And the other that virtually everyone agrees on is there is some degree of acceptance involved as you pay attention. So the shortest definition of mindfulness that is out there is acceptance with awareness. That's Germer's definition. I like that.

It's pretty cool. Kabat-Zinn's definition is also pretty useful. My own definition is really just a way that I've kind of distilled from all the other stuff that's out there. I would define mindfulness as paying attention with openness, curiosity, and flexibility. So it's paying attention, but not in any old way.

There's an attitude of openness to what is here right now. I might not like it, I might not want it, I might not approve it, but I'm open to it. I'm not fighting with it. I'm not running away from it. I'm open to it.

Curiosity, most models of mindfulness emphasize this curiosity and attention. So even if it's something really unpleasant or difficult, I'm curious about it. So curiosity, openness and flexibility. Flexibility of attention. Now we have kind of, you know, for example of a rigid or inflexible attention, think of a 13 year old boy playing, you know, PlayStation.

He's glued to the screen. He's absolutely fixed on the screen. Burglars could come into his house, steal everything. As long as they don't steal the PlayStation, he won't even notice they're there. That kind of rigid, fixed attention is not mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a flexibility of attention. I'm chatting to you right now. I want to be engaged in the conversation with you, but, you know, I smell smoke coming from the kitchen. I want to be able to shift my attention. So it's kind of sometimes it's inner directed to my thoughts and feelings, sometimes externally to the world out, what I can see and hear around me, sometimes a very narrow focus, sometimes a very broad focus, this flexibility of attention.

So flexible, open, curious attention. Many definitions include something about the present moment, but I actually think that's superfluous because you can only ever pay attention to what's happening in the present moment. You can't pay attention to the past. You have thoughts about the past, but you can't pay attention to the past. You can't pay attention to the future.

You can have thoughts about the future, but you can't pay attention to them. You can only pay attention to what's here in the present moment. So, even if you were paying attention to the thoughts about the future or about the past, you would be doing that attending to those thoughts in the present moment. In the present moment. So I don't really, yeah.

So open, curious, flexible attention. I like that. And I came to your conference a couple of months ago, as you know, and it was, I really, really enjoyed it and highly recommend it to others. One of the things you said in it stuck with me a little bit. You said in the beginning of the presentation, you said, and I quote, "It kind of bothers me that mindfulness is often referred to as being exclusively a Buddhist thing." Now, Russ, it kind of bothers me too.

Right. But I'm curious to know why it kind of bothers you? Well, I think because, you know, almost every article, every book, every speaker attributes mindfulness to Buddhism, but it's much older than Buddhism. I mean, Buddhism's only 2,600 years old. Mindfulness practices can be found in all the world's religions. And certainly, there are mindful practices, well, even, look I'm no expert on Buddhism, but from the little bit of reading I've done, the Buddhist scriptures make it very clear that Buddha learned mindfulness from a Yogi.

Yeah. That's in the original Buddhist scriptures here. So in the yogic tradition, mindfulness goes back 4,000 years, but there are also mindfulness practices in Judaism that are 4,000 years old and in Taoism. Although the Taoist scriptures were written about the same time as the Buddhist scriptures, about two and a half thousand years ago. But the Taoist teachings are thought to be about 7,000 years old.

So, you know, mindfulness is ancient. And you know, it's, I just, it's not that it bothers me, it's just that it's inaccurate to say mindfulness comes from Buddhism. And every world religion you can think has got a contemplative branch and the contemplative of branch of Christianity, Islam, Judaism is very, very similar to what you find in Buddhism and Hinduism and so forth. There's this kind of core theme of mindfulness in the contemplative branches of all the world's religions, you know, which is interesting. Whereas in the literalist branches at the religions, obviously you get away from that, you know.

Yeah. I've found the same thing. And I was talking to Joseph Goldstein the other day and he was talking about a similar thing as well, that mindfulness, as a practice seems to be quite well, widely spread. And I think that, I think, you know, I think it'd be fair to say that mindfulness is a human thing, you know, not exclusively a Buddhist thing, but very much a part of that lineage, yeah, which is wonderful. So in your book, The Happiness Trap, you talk about how our common ideas about happiness often are not only misleading, but inaccurate and actually get us into a bit of trouble where they end up making us miserable.

So I was wondering if you could tell us what those common mistaken ideas are and maybe set the record straight and tell us what, where does true happiness really come from? Oh, gosh. Well, there's so many of them that the, I mean, probably the biggest ones are firstly, the idea that happiness means feeling good. You know, the Macquarie dictionary, which is Australia's number one dictionary, defines happiness as a state of pleasure or contentment. Well, if that's your definition of happiness, you know, how long does the state of pleasure or contentment last? You know, think of the happiest day of your life. You know, how long before there was some frustration, anxiety, irritation.

And so if your definition of happiness is that it's feeling good. It's a state of pleasure, a state of contentment. Then there's no such thing as lasting happiness. And you're going to struggle with reality because the things that make life rich, full of meaning, full, do not just give you pleasant feelings, right? Like you're married. Do you have kids? I don't have kids, but I do have a cat.

So it's kind of, you know, anybody watching this presentation, just think of a close relationship you have with a partner or with your children, you know. Real close relationships bring painful feelings, right? Even a cat. Like cats are a lot. He just ripped my pants this morning. These are some of my favorite pants.

Exactly. I mean, cats are a lot easier to live with than a mate, but even cats and dogs will push your buttons at times. And so, you know, relationships are fundamental to building rich and meaningful lives. And when relationships go well, there's lots of lovely, pleasant feelings. But when relationships come with conflict or tension or loss or difficulty, there's lots of painful feelings.

And so the things that make life rich, full and meaningful, don't just give you pleasant feelings. They give, I often say to my clients, if you're going to live a full human life, you're going to feel the full range of human emotions, not just the ones that feel good. So in the ACT model, we don't use the word happiness because it's such a loaded term. Most people think happiness means feeling good or a state of pleasure. We use the term vitality, a sense of embracing life to the full, whether this moment is a moment full of pain or a moment full of joy or a mixture of both.

All we have is this moment. So let's embrace this moment of life, live it to the full. Or the other phrase we use is a rich, full and meaningful life. And you know, a rich, full and meaningful life is one in which there is the full range of human emotions. And unfortunately, our culture doesn't really teach us how to deal with the painful emotions.

So another one of the big happiness myths is the way for me to kind of build on the first one. If happiness is feeling good, a state of pleasure and contentment, then the way for me to have happiness is to eliminate my painful thoughts and feelings, to kind of get rid of the unpleasant ones and accumulate the pleasant ones. And unfortunately, that, which comes naturally to all of us, right? Right. You know, you don't like unpleasant feelings. Do you? No.

I don't either it. But the more I start to live my life based on this idea that I need to avoid and get rid of painful feelings and accumulate pleasant ones, I have to get rid of my negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones, the more tightly I cling to that agenda for creating a good life, the more problems it creates. It gives rise to something that psychologists call experiential avoidance. That's a jargon word for you. Experiential avoidance, saturate that with subtitles.

Sure, we'll edit that in later. Experiential avoidance basically is the ongoing attempt to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings, usually uncomfortable, unpleasant thoughts and feelings. So everybody is experientially avoidant to some extent. But the higher your degree of experiential avoidance, the more you're going through life trying to avoid pain, trying to avoid and get rid of unpleasant, unwanted thoughts and feelings, the higher your risk of depression, anxiety, addiction, developing post-traumatic stress disorder, long-term disability from illness or injury, reduced performance at work and so on and so on. So high levels of experiential avoidance, going through life trying to avoid painful thoughts and feelings, create huge amounts of problems.

So when we do that by, you know, constantly distracting ourselves, trying to stuff things down, push them away or even this kind of a thing that I think so common in our culture of just kind of like pepping up and positive, thinking your way through it and putting on one of those nice glossy smiles when underneath, you know, you can see sometimes that people are miserable. It's such a funny thing, isn't it? Because instinctively, it feels like the thing to do, to try and push away. But you're saying that in that pushing away, it's almost like actually you use the analogy of quicksand in the conference, which just is, yeah. Could you kind of give us that analogy? I think that's a really great analogy to explain, I think, the futility of it, I guess. Yeah.

Well, I guess it's so, it's a fairly classic metaphor in the ACT approach. When you fall into quicksand, you know, every instinct tells you to struggle. Right? You know, and the more you struggle in quicksand, the faster you sink. You've seen those old cowboy films, you know, the bad guy with a black hat falls into the quicksand and struggles and struggles until, you know, there's just a black hat left on the top of the quicksand. But that's not what the good guy does.

The good cowboy, the one with the white hat, he doesn't struggle. He lies back and stretches out and floats. And if you lie back and stretch out in quicksand and then you can kind of float on it. So you you lie back, you stretch out and you whistle for your horse to rescue you. Right? And if you don't have a horse, then, you know, a trained sheep dog or in Australia, a kind of domesticated...

A kangaroo. There you go. Could be very useful. Absolutely. So, but that doesn't come naturally.

We only would know that because we saw those old cowboy films. Our instincts are to struggle. And so it is with painful emotions, our instincts are, when painful emotions show up, we tend to struggle with them. And unfortunately the more we struggle with them, typically the greater and greater the impact and influence they have over us. So anxiety disorders are not caused by anxiety.

Anxiety disorders are caused by struggling with anxiety. The more I live my life trying to avoid and get rid of anxiety, the more problems it creates. If I start avoiding social situations because I don't like the feelings of anxiety that show up when I socialize, my life becomes very narrow. If I start taking drugs and alcohol to push away the painful emotions that life is dealing me right now, I start to develop an addiction. If I start avoiding any kind of challenging issue at work or deadline because it's bringing up too much anxiety for me, then the deadlines and the challenges don't get met and then I get even more anxiety.

So we kind of, you know, I often talk about zombies. Are you a zombie fan? Do you like zombies? I don't watch scary movies. I'm one of those sensitive types, even the slightest hint of blood seems to almost make me want to vomit. So no, no zombies for me. All right.

Well, definitely don't watch the Walking Dead. I love zombies. And the reason I love zombies is because they're like the opposite of mindfulness. So zombies are on automatic pilot, no self-awareness, no consciousness, no sense of living by their values or engaging in the present moment. They're just pushed around by their most basic primordial instincts.

Right. And well all of us go into zombie mode throughout the day, again and again and again. We go on to automatic mode and there's kind of two zombie moves that we make throughout the day. One is something pleasant shows up that I really like or want. And, you know, that might be drugs, might be alcohol, it might be food, it might be an attractive person, it might be, you know, a plasma television, something that I really want or like shows up and I go, urggh, urggh.

You know, just kind of urggh, that's what I want, urggh, you know. And that underlies so many addictions and compulsions and when we get obsessed about things that I have to have in order to be happy, urggh. And the other zombie move, something unpleasant shows up and it could be a difficult task or a challenge or a situation or a difficult person, or it could be unpleasant feelings and emotions inside my body and the second zombie move, I don't know if you can see this on camera, it's kind of all over that, so that is kind of I'm not prepared, second zombie move is kind of this it's like, ugh, ugh, ugh. Kind of get out of the way. And we go through our life like this, ugh, ugh.

Whereas mindfulness mode is different. Mindfulness mode is kind of turning towards what's here with openness and curiosity. So something I really like or want shows up in instead of uugh, ah. And something unpleasant shows up and instead of ugh, go, ah. So zombie, ugh, ugh ugh.

And then mindful, ah. Zombie, ugh. Mindful, ah. You know, and that's a big difference. Ah, here's something I don't want.

Here's something I do want. Kind of make room for them, let them be there and respond to them in a way that's flexible. You know? So you're, so with mindfulness in that approach, you have this ability to stand back from the urge is still there to push or pull, but you have a choice about whether to play them out or not. Absolutely. And the more you develop that capacity, I mean, that's how you are able to break self-defeating habits.

Whatever the self-defeating habit is, it's likely to be some combination of uggh this or uggh that or both. Right? And so you need to be aware that you're doing that. And notice, there's an urge to do these things and let the urges be there and let the thoughts and feelings be there, come to this kind of open curious, ah, this is what's going on here. And then make a choice. And that's where the values come in.

You know, if I just let my values guide what I do here, what would I choose to do? How can I act in a way that supports me in being the person that I really want to be? What do I really want here instead of just reflexive action? Yeah. What do I want to be about, you know? So often when we, you know, lose our temper, you know, we're not, you know, we lose touch with our values. We just get so caught up in our... Yeah. The, I think, you know, building on what we're talking about in ACT, you talk about cognitive fusion and cognitive diffusion, which I think in some, Spiritual texts or some religious traditions or spiritual traditions is sometimes referred to as identification or non identification.

I think we're talking about the same thing. So I was just wondering if you could, we just kind of touched on that ability to stand back from feelings and thoughts and be a bit, have a bit more choice. Could you explain what cognitive fusion is and also how mindfulness helps with cognitive diffusion? Well, yeah. Okay. I think the best thing is I'll take you for a little exercise now.

I'll get you to do it with me. Oh, I'd love to. And anybody watching the, anybody watching the video, I'll get them to do it with me too. So if you just kind of turn so that you can kind of, particularly viewers, you know, you can kind of see the, everything in front of you right now. I want you to imagine that in front of you is everything that makes your life rich, full, and meaningful.

The people you love, the activities you love, your favorite, you know, food and music and all that kind of stuff. Also what's in front of you right now is all the real problems and challenges in your life that you have to face up to and deal with, all the difficult stuff. And also what's in front of you right now are all the tasks you have to do on an ongoing basis to make your life work. And I want you to imagine that your hands are your thoughts and feelings. Okay.

And just kind of put them together like pages in a book. I might just kind of step back a bit from the camera again. So, if you're watching this at home or wherever you're watching this, I want you to kind of do a lot of imagining that everything you care about is in front of you. Your hands are your thoughts and feelings. And now copy me.

See what happens is you get hooked by your thoughts and feelings, caught up, entangled in your thoughts and feelings. And so kind of bring your hands right up till they're covering your eyes. The technical name for this is fusion. So your now fused with your thoughts and feelings. Or if you don't like the term fused, you could say hooked, entangled, caught up.

And so notice three things keeping your hands over your eyes. Notice three things. Firstly, how much are you missing out on right now? You know, if the people you love and the activities you love or in front of you, how disconnected and disengaged are you? How much are you missing out on? Secondly, notice how hard it is to focus your attention? If, you know, if you keep your hands over your eyes and look back at the computer screen and the video of me, just imagine that I am the person you need to focus on. How hard is it to focus on me like this? How hard for you to focus on the task that you need to do or to engage fully in what you're doing? And the third thing to notice is how difficult is it to take action? How difficult is it like this to do the tasks that make your life work to drive a car or type on a computer or cuddle a baby or hug the person you love? You know, it's very difficult. Ever so slowly, again copy me here.

Ever so slowly, bring your hands away, kind of, this is diffusion, starting to diffuse, to unhook, detach, disentangle, diffuse. And now look around and notice the difference. How much richer and fuller your experience is? How much more you can see and take in? How much easier, excuse me, how much easier to engage and connect to the person you love? How much easier to give me your full attention, keep your arms around? How much easier is it now to take action, to type on a computer or drive a car or hug the person you love or cook dinner? So notice you haven't gotten rid of these things, they're still there. You haven't chopped them off and gotten rid of them. They're still there.

If there's something useful you can do with them, then use them. You know, even the most painful thoughts and feelings often have some useful information. They alert you to things in your life that you need to take action on or, you know, important values connected to this pain. But if there's nothing useful you can do with them, then you just let them sit there. So this is kind of the, fusion means we get entangled, caught up in our thoughts and feelings, and they have a huge impact and influence on us.

And as we start to diffuse from our thoughts and feelings, it enables us to be present and engage and take action, guided by our values to do the things that make life rich, full, and meaningful and engage fully in what we're doing. And this is what we aim to do in ACT. And so mindfulness helps us to build that capacity to experience, if you will, cognitive diffusion. Would you say that mindfulness is the means by which we're able to kind of do this? Well, what we would say in the ACT model is this kind of three basic mindfulness processes. And you can see them all in this little exercise.

So one process is contacting the present moment. So noticing right here, right now, engaging in what is happening in the present moment, outside me or inside me or both. Then the second process is what we call diffusion, short for cognitive diffusion, which is very specifically around starting to recognize the thoughts, images, memories, what we call cognitions that are linked into. I use the phrase, thoughts and feelings, and what we're talking about is all the kind of words and images from, from some little pop-up thoughts to deep interpretations of meaning. All the stuff that shows up when you're feeling sad or angry or anxious, you know.

That's all cognition. So we start to become aware of our cognitions and start to separate and detach from them. And then the third element is, you know, at the end of this exercise, your hands... Well, if I was sitting down, you know, they'd be resting in my lap and that's acceptance. So allowing it to be there.

So you've got contacting the present moment. You've got diffusing from your cognitions and you've got acceptance, allowing it to be there. And all of that is mindfulness. There was a practice that you led during the conference which I think really is a wonderful experiential practice of knowing what it is to have that diffusion. So I was wondering if you would care to just guide us through even just a short practice for a couple of minutes to experience that.

I'm just going ask our viewers to pick a nasty, negative self judgment. You know, in ACT, we talk a lot about how your mind is like a judgment machine. It just conjures up judgements all the time about yourself and others and the world around you. And virtually everyone's walking around with multiple versions of the I'm not good enough story. Have you got some I'm not good at story? Of course, I do.

And they usually start young. My first versions of the I'm not goodness story started when I was about four years old. What about you? When did you start? Oh, for as long as I can remember. I think that's my oldest record, I think. Yeah.

So it's kind of, and no one's found a way to get rid of, I'm not good enough stories. All the positive thinking courses in the world and self-affirmations don't stop your mind from saying this, you know. So,I'll get people just to give them a taste of diffusion, bring to mind a nasty version of the I'm not good enough story. Something your mind says when it beats you up or brings you down, put it into a short sentence, like: I am X or I am not Y enough, I am fat, I am stupid, I am not smart enough, I'm a lousy mother. I'm a, you know, I'm too judgmental.

You know, you get the idea. So keep it short and sweet. And I will say to the viewers, you know, make sure you pick something that is having an impact in your life today, that in some way, when your mind judges you this way, it pulls you back or brings you down, something like that. And first of all, I'm going to ask the viewers to, for 10 seconds, to buy into the nasty negative self judgment. So do not challenge it.

Do not dispute it. Don't try to push it away. Don't try to replace it with a positive thought. I want them to experience fusion. I want to, so for about 10 seconds, and in fact it's more powerful if you can close your eyes for this so that you could cut off from the outside world and really fuse with the thought.

So everybody watching the video, please do this now. Close your eyes and fuse with that nasty I'm not good enough story. I'm fat. I'm stupid. I'm not smart enough.

I don't measure up. Just stay with it for a few more seconds. Buy into it. Believe it as much as you can. Now silently, again keeping your eyes closed, silently replay that thought with these words in front, I am having the thought of that.

So I'm having the thought that I'm incompetent. Now, finally replay it one more time. The phrase is a bit longer. I notice I'm having the thought that. Okay.

So I notice I'm having the thought that I am boring. And coming back. And so, Melli, you can come back now. And so can the viewers. You have to tell me to open my eyes, otherwise I'll just stay there.

With your hands, kind of, if this is totally, you know, hooked or fused, and this is totally defused, just show me what happened during that exercise for you. Yeah. So you felt that kind of unhooking and that diffusion. So notice we didn't challenge the thought. We didn't look at it, whether it was true or false or try to get rid of it.

We just acknowledged it's a thought, you know. I am having the thought that I am X. And then we added another stage, I notice I'm having the thought that I'm X. And that little simple mindfulness technique, the diffusion technique is something that I would encourage all your viewers to take away and practice throughout the day. Anytime you realize you've been hooked, you know, is my favorite term for fused, every time that you've been hooked by some unhelpful thought, just kind of push your feet into the floor, you know, ground yourself, center yourself.

Try replaying that little phrase, I'm having the thought that, and if you're still hooked, then go a stage further, ,I notice I'm having the thought that. What I find is about 50% of the time when I do this with clients, they object initially. They say, but it's true. I really am, you know, X, Y, and Z. So my response is, you know, in this approach, in the ACT approach, we're not interested in whether your thoughts are true or false 99.9% of the time, only, very, very rarely.

Most of the time, we're not interested in whether your thoughts are true or false. What we're interested in is when these thoughts pop into your head, when your mind starts telling you this stuff, if you get all caught up in those thoughts, does it help you to be the person you want to be? Does it help you to do the things you want to do? If it does, then obviously use those thoughts. But a lot of the time, most of the time, nasty, negative self judgements don't have that effect, you know. So true or false, doesn't usually matter. It's just does it help me to hold onto this? That's really helpful.

And especially in times of, especially in the times when those negative nasty thoughts are really starting to pile up, just to have a moment of grounding and noticing that they're thoughts. They're just thoughts. Yeah. Absolutely. So, you know, the, and they may be true and they may be false, you know? It's like, I'll finish up with an anecdote about this guy was referred to me with depression.

He was a hugely obese truck driver, massive guy. And he was having lots of a really self judgmental thoughts, you know. I'm fat. I'm disgusting. I'm, you know, killing myself with all this junk food.

Those were the milder ones. There were really kind of he was really, his mind was really tough on him. It was basically just calling him a fat slob all the time. And we started to do a bit of diffusion and he said, but it's true. I really am fat.

And he pulled his shirt up. Like, Okay. Thanks for sharing. So I had this little chat with him. I said, you know, tell me a bit about your values.

Okay. If I could wave a magic wand so that all of these thoughts and feelings were like water off a duck's back, they weren't pushing you around anymore, how would you like to treat your body? Well, you know, I wouldn't eat so much shit, mate. Okay. So you might eat some more healthy food. Yeah.

What else would you do? Well, wouldn't sit around all day watching crap on the teli. Okay, you might exercise more. Yeah. Okay. So it sounds like there's a really important value here, which is about self care, kind of caring for yourself, taking care of the body.

And if you were really in touch with that value, you'd be doing things like eating healthy food and exercising. Now when your mind starts speaking to you and saying I'm a fat slob. I've got no willpower. I've got no discipline. I'm killing myself.

I'm disgusting. If you get all caught up in those thoughts, does it help you to live that value of self care and taking care of your body and eating well? Oh no. What happens when you get caught up in those thoughts? Well, I get depressed. Then what you do? I eat shit, man. So I was like, okay.

So, I don't know how to stop your mind speaking to you that way. We're certainly not going to waste your time and my time debating whether these thoughts are true or false, it's not relevant. Would you like to learn a new way of responding to those thoughts so that next time your mind starts telling you the I'm a fat slob story, instead of this, you can learn to do this so that you can then start treating your body in a different way. So it's a big paradigm shift for most people. Here of just seeing thoughts as thoughts and not getting into judging whether they're true or false or positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic.

That doesn't matter. The big question is, if I let these thoughts guide what I do, does it help me to be the person I want to be? Yeah, that's powerful. That's a powerful story. Lovely. Thank you so much for your time, Russ.

I really appreciate it. And I wish you all the best. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Talk

4.5

How to Unhook Yourself from Thoughts

In this interview Russ reveals why popular ideas about happiness are misleading, inaccurate, and often make us miserable.

Duration

Your default time is based on your progress and is changed automatically as you practice.

I'm your host, Melli O'Brien and I'm so delighted to be here right now with somebody I admire very much, Russ Harris. Russ is the author of several really wonderful books, including the international bestseller, The Happiness Trap, which is a personal favorite of mine. And he's also a world-renowned trainer of acceptance and commitment therapy, which we'll learn a little bit about today. So, Russ, thank you so much for taking this time out for the Summit. I really appreciate.

Oh, you're welcome. You're welcome. It's good to be here. So Russ, you used to be a GP? At one time, yeah. So you've had that.

Yeah. So you've had quite a career shift. Could you tell us the story of what made you change careers? Well, yeah, as a GP, I just found I was less and less interested in the physical side of health and wellbeing, and much more interested in the psychological side. I mean, it's really an artificial distinction to talk about physical versus psychological when it comes to health, in the sense that, you know, even the most deeply physical things like cancer, or having an arm cut off comes with all sorts of emotional and psychological you know, pain and difficulty and stress. And so I found as a GP, I was just more and more interested in the psychological, emotional side.

And I started to lose interest in writing prescriptions. And you know, that I'm not denying that there's obviously a lot of, you know, genuine physical problems out there. But for me, the interest was in the psychological side. And even if you take something like the common cold, we're breathing in those germs all year round. Why is it that it's certain times of the year we come down with it, you know? And it's usually when we're stressed or run down or not kind of coping well with the, you know, the ongoing stressfulness of our life.

So my consultation started getting longer and longer and longer. And then I started to find that I was spending, you know, 20 minutes talking to people about their feelings and emotions and five minutes at the end talking about their physical issues. And I'm like, I might be in the wrong profession here. Yeah. So it was a gradual realization that I was in the wrong profession and psychiatry didn't really interest me as whole.

The psychiatry, really just giving people a diagnosis of a mental illness and giving them medication is, it is that there are some brilliant psychiatrists out there, but a lot of them, a lot of psychiatry as it was taught, it was really this focus on medication and diagnosis of mental illness. And that didn't really interest me either. So I gradually just started exploring psychotherapy and coaching and discovered mindfulness fairly early on. And I was very excited by the concept. And so now you spend most of your time as a therapist to coach and training other teachers in acceptance and commitment therapy.

So what, why ACT? What is acceptance and commitment therapy and why do you, why is it your passion? Why have you ended up doing that? Well, Oh, gosh, that's a big question. The ACT is the official abbreviation, not ACAT. So well done, you've got the abbreviation correct. And the name reflects a key message. Accept what is out of your personal control and commit to action that improves your life.

And everyone likes that idea. Oh, accept what's out of your control, commit to action that improves your life. It's a nice idea, but it's not so easy to do. And we often, are not really very good at knowing what is in our control and what's not in our control. So for example, the vast majority of thoughts that pop into our head every day are not in our control.

You know, you don't choose most of the thoughts. They just appear. And, you know, so, I guess I explored mindfulness via various processes and pathways before ACT. And what I really liked about ACT was a couple of things. Fisrtly, ACT is not just about mindfulness.

It's about mindfully living guided by your values. So the outcome we're looking for in ACT is psychological flexibility, which is the ability to mindfully act guided by your values. Mindfulness without values is like a ship without a rudder, you know. A serial killer could use mindfulness to kill more effectively. So you need to kind of, it's not just enough to be mindful, you need to be in touch with your values, how you want to treat yourself and others and the world around you deep in your heart.

What sort of person do you want to be? What do you want to stand for in life, and so forth? And so ACT has this really nice coming together of these elements. You know, it's about values, it's about action, goal setting, guided by those values, living in the present moment. And I also fell in love with that because it was very flexible in the way that it, you know, kind of help people to develop mindfulness skills. There was no, many other mindfulness approaches placed major emphasis on meditation, and you have to do your mindful meditation. And that's great if you like meditation.

It's great if meditation fits in with your life. But lots of people don't like it, or don't want it or find that it's just impractical to keep meditation going on a regular basis. And so, you know, if you wanted people to exercise and you said, you've got to go to the gym for 40 minutes every day, you get a lot of negative reactions to that. If you want people to exercise more and you say, you know, Dude, go for five minute walk at lunchtime, or take a flight of steps instead of the escalator or park your car a bit further away from the supermarket and walk a bit further, then you get a lot more people inonboard. And so this is the kind of ACT approach to mindfulness.

There is literally, you know, thousands and thousands of different ways of developing mindfulness skills and meditation is just a small subset of the many ways that we can develop mindfulness. So I like the flexibility of the approach. Yeah. So it sounds like ACT has not so much of a strong emphasis on, you know, you must do formal meditation, but there's much more opportunity and scope for the informal practice and just weaving it into daily life. Yeah, absolutely.

I mean, there's no emphasis on meditation. We use the word skills rather than the word meditation, because meditation comes with connotations of, you know, ohm and Buddhist monks and so forth. So it's like, if you want, I mean, we've got some exercises here that you can do as formal meditation exercises, if that's what you wanted, that's what fits for you. Great. And some people love that and like that.

But we know that, you know, for example, when people have done other mindfulness-based meditation programs and you follow them up a year later, most people aren't meditating a year after doing say an MBSR program, you know. But what they're often doing is kind of doing the little, the little kind of informal mindfulness things that you can fit in throughout your day. So, it's like, and, you know, other mindfulness based practices that can be very powerful, you know, like yoga as a mindfulness practice and Tai-Chi, and most martial arts have a kind of mindfulness practices built into them, although they often don't use the term mindfulness. So there's lots of these formal things that you can do that come out of ancient Eastern pathways. And that stuff is great if you like it and you want to do it.

And if it doesn't fit with you, there's a zillion other things that you can do. I love that. And you know, that's something that's been coming up in this summit a little bit as well is that, you know, there's a, I think a lot of people sometimes are actually practicing mindfulness, but potentially not realizing they're doing it. You know, when they're alone in nature or they're going for a swim or a surf, and sometimes people are able to just kind of realize that they can, I guess accentuate or choose deliberately when they're in those moments to either elongate the practice or to just know what they're doing as they're doing it. Well, so yeah, I mean, that's a good point.

Many people spontaneously kind of get very present in two kinds of sets of circumstances. One is when they're in beautiful environments like nature or another is where they're doing, you know, kind of some sort of activity that they really enjoy, like their favorite sport, for example. Some people, you know, when you're really playing or engaging with your kids and actually, you know, for a lot of us, when we go on holiday to an exotic country, we're very, very mindfully aware of all the different sights and smells and shapes. But probably where mindfulness is most difficult or most challenging and highly unlikely to come naturally to people are in really challenging, stressful situations. It's very hard to mindful when you're all sort of furious or anxious or upset and so forth.

Or in doing the same old stuff that we do all the time and we normally just switch off or try to do stuff. The mundane stuff. The mundane stuff, yes. So I wanted to ask you, cause I know there's a lot of definitions about, there's a lot of definitions out there of what mindfulness is. Do you have kind of a working definition that you use? I know it's a tricky question, but...

It is. There's no consensus, you know, there are many. By far, the most widely spread definition, I think is Jon Kabat-Zinn's definition, which you've probably talked about in other presentations. But I'm kind of, out of all of these different consensus, out of all of these different concepts of mindfulness, there are at least two things that virtually everybody agrees on. One is it's an attention process.

It's paying attention and it's about focusing. And the other that virtually everyone agrees on is there is some degree of acceptance involved as you pay attention. So the shortest definition of mindfulness that is out there is acceptance with awareness. That's Germer's definition. I like that.

It's pretty cool. Kabat-Zinn's definition is also pretty useful. My own definition is really just a way that I've kind of distilled from all the other stuff that's out there. I would define mindfulness as paying attention with openness, curiosity, and flexibility. So it's paying attention, but not in any old way.

There's an attitude of openness to what is here right now. I might not like it, I might not want it, I might not approve it, but I'm open to it. I'm not fighting with it. I'm not running away from it. I'm open to it.

Curiosity, most models of mindfulness emphasize this curiosity and attention. So even if it's something really unpleasant or difficult, I'm curious about it. So curiosity, openness and flexibility. Flexibility of attention. Now we have kind of, you know, for example of a rigid or inflexible attention, think of a 13 year old boy playing, you know, PlayStation.

He's glued to the screen. He's absolutely fixed on the screen. Burglars could come into his house, steal everything. As long as they don't steal the PlayStation, he won't even notice they're there. That kind of rigid, fixed attention is not mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a flexibility of attention. I'm chatting to you right now. I want to be engaged in the conversation with you, but, you know, I smell smoke coming from the kitchen. I want to be able to shift my attention. So it's kind of sometimes it's inner directed to my thoughts and feelings, sometimes externally to the world out, what I can see and hear around me, sometimes a very narrow focus, sometimes a very broad focus, this flexibility of attention.

So flexible, open, curious attention. Many definitions include something about the present moment, but I actually think that's superfluous because you can only ever pay attention to what's happening in the present moment. You can't pay attention to the past. You have thoughts about the past, but you can't pay attention to the past. You can't pay attention to the future.

You can have thoughts about the future, but you can't pay attention to them. You can only pay attention to what's here in the present moment. So, even if you were paying attention to the thoughts about the future or about the past, you would be doing that attending to those thoughts in the present moment. In the present moment. So I don't really, yeah.

So open, curious, flexible attention. I like that. And I came to your conference a couple of months ago, as you know, and it was, I really, really enjoyed it and highly recommend it to others. One of the things you said in it stuck with me a little bit. You said in the beginning of the presentation, you said, and I quote, "It kind of bothers me that mindfulness is often referred to as being exclusively a Buddhist thing." Now, Russ, it kind of bothers me too.

Right. But I'm curious to know why it kind of bothers you? Well, I think because, you know, almost every article, every book, every speaker attributes mindfulness to Buddhism, but it's much older than Buddhism. I mean, Buddhism's only 2,600 years old. Mindfulness practices can be found in all the world's religions. And certainly, there are mindful practices, well, even, look I'm no expert on Buddhism, but from the little bit of reading I've done, the Buddhist scriptures make it very clear that Buddha learned mindfulness from a Yogi.

Yeah. That's in the original Buddhist scriptures here. So in the yogic tradition, mindfulness goes back 4,000 years, but there are also mindfulness practices in Judaism that are 4,000 years old and in Taoism. Although the Taoist scriptures were written about the same time as the Buddhist scriptures, about two and a half thousand years ago. But the Taoist teachings are thought to be about 7,000 years old.

So, you know, mindfulness is ancient. And you know, it's, I just, it's not that it bothers me, it's just that it's inaccurate to say mindfulness comes from Buddhism. And every world religion you can think has got a contemplative branch and the contemplative of branch of Christianity, Islam, Judaism is very, very similar to what you find in Buddhism and Hinduism and so forth. There's this kind of core theme of mindfulness in the contemplative branches of all the world's religions, you know, which is interesting. Whereas in the literalist branches at the religions, obviously you get away from that, you know.

Yeah. I've found the same thing. And I was talking to Joseph Goldstein the other day and he was talking about a similar thing as well, that mindfulness, as a practice seems to be quite well, widely spread. And I think that, I think, you know, I think it'd be fair to say that mindfulness is a human thing, you know, not exclusively a Buddhist thing, but very much a part of that lineage, yeah, which is wonderful. So in your book, The Happiness Trap, you talk about how our common ideas about happiness often are not only misleading, but inaccurate and actually get us into a bit of trouble where they end up making us miserable.

So I was wondering if you could tell us what those common mistaken ideas are and maybe set the record straight and tell us what, where does true happiness really come from? Oh, gosh. Well, there's so many of them that the, I mean, probably the biggest ones are firstly, the idea that happiness means feeling good. You know, the Macquarie dictionary, which is Australia's number one dictionary, defines happiness as a state of pleasure or contentment. Well, if that's your definition of happiness, you know, how long does the state of pleasure or contentment last? You know, think of the happiest day of your life. You know, how long before there was some frustration, anxiety, irritation.

And so if your definition of happiness is that it's feeling good. It's a state of pleasure, a state of contentment. Then there's no such thing as lasting happiness. And you're going to struggle with reality because the things that make life rich, full of meaning, full, do not just give you pleasant feelings, right? Like you're married. Do you have kids? I don't have kids, but I do have a cat.

So it's kind of, you know, anybody watching this presentation, just think of a close relationship you have with a partner or with your children, you know. Real close relationships bring painful feelings, right? Even a cat. Like cats are a lot. He just ripped my pants this morning. These are some of my favorite pants.

Exactly. I mean, cats are a lot easier to live with than a mate, but even cats and dogs will push your buttons at times. And so, you know, relationships are fundamental to building rich and meaningful lives. And when relationships go well, there's lots of lovely, pleasant feelings. But when relationships come with conflict or tension or loss or difficulty, there's lots of painful feelings.

And so the things that make life rich, full and meaningful, don't just give you pleasant feelings. They give, I often say to my clients, if you're going to live a full human life, you're going to feel the full range of human emotions, not just the ones that feel good. So in the ACT model, we don't use the word happiness because it's such a loaded term. Most people think happiness means feeling good or a state of pleasure. We use the term vitality, a sense of embracing life to the full, whether this moment is a moment full of pain or a moment full of joy or a mixture of both.

All we have is this moment. So let's embrace this moment of life, live it to the full. Or the other phrase we use is a rich, full and meaningful life. And you know, a rich, full and meaningful life is one in which there is the full range of human emotions. And unfortunately, our culture doesn't really teach us how to deal with the painful emotions.

So another one of the big happiness myths is the way for me to kind of build on the first one. If happiness is feeling good, a state of pleasure and contentment, then the way for me to have happiness is to eliminate my painful thoughts and feelings, to kind of get rid of the unpleasant ones and accumulate the pleasant ones. And unfortunately, that, which comes naturally to all of us, right? Right. You know, you don't like unpleasant feelings. Do you? No.

I don't either it. But the more I start to live my life based on this idea that I need to avoid and get rid of painful feelings and accumulate pleasant ones, I have to get rid of my negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones, the more tightly I cling to that agenda for creating a good life, the more problems it creates. It gives rise to something that psychologists call experiential avoidance. That's a jargon word for you. Experiential avoidance, saturate that with subtitles.

Sure, we'll edit that in later. Experiential avoidance basically is the ongoing attempt to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings, usually uncomfortable, unpleasant thoughts and feelings. So everybody is experientially avoidant to some extent. But the higher your degree of experiential avoidance, the more you're going through life trying to avoid pain, trying to avoid and get rid of unpleasant, unwanted thoughts and feelings, the higher your risk of depression, anxiety, addiction, developing post-traumatic stress disorder, long-term disability from illness or injury, reduced performance at work and so on and so on. So high levels of experiential avoidance, going through life trying to avoid painful thoughts and feelings, create huge amounts of problems.

So when we do that by, you know, constantly distracting ourselves, trying to stuff things down, push them away or even this kind of a thing that I think so common in our culture of just kind of like pepping up and positive, thinking your way through it and putting on one of those nice glossy smiles when underneath, you know, you can see sometimes that people are miserable. It's such a funny thing, isn't it? Because instinctively, it feels like the thing to do, to try and push away. But you're saying that in that pushing away, it's almost like actually you use the analogy of quicksand in the conference, which just is, yeah. Could you kind of give us that analogy? I think that's a really great analogy to explain, I think, the futility of it, I guess. Yeah.

Well, I guess it's so, it's a fairly classic metaphor in the ACT approach. When you fall into quicksand, you know, every instinct tells you to struggle. Right? You know, and the more you struggle in quicksand, the faster you sink. You've seen those old cowboy films, you know, the bad guy with a black hat falls into the quicksand and struggles and struggles until, you know, there's just a black hat left on the top of the quicksand. But that's not what the good guy does.

The good cowboy, the one with the white hat, he doesn't struggle. He lies back and stretches out and floats. And if you lie back and stretch out in quicksand and then you can kind of float on it. So you you lie back, you stretch out and you whistle for your horse to rescue you. Right? And if you don't have a horse, then, you know, a trained sheep dog or in Australia, a kind of domesticated...

A kangaroo. There you go. Could be very useful. Absolutely. So, but that doesn't come naturally.

We only would know that because we saw those old cowboy films. Our instincts are to struggle. And so it is with painful emotions, our instincts are, when painful emotions show up, we tend to struggle with them. And unfortunately the more we struggle with them, typically the greater and greater the impact and influence they have over us. So anxiety disorders are not caused by anxiety.

Anxiety disorders are caused by struggling with anxiety. The more I live my life trying to avoid and get rid of anxiety, the more problems it creates. If I start avoiding social situations because I don't like the feelings of anxiety that show up when I socialize, my life becomes very narrow. If I start taking drugs and alcohol to push away the painful emotions that life is dealing me right now, I start to develop an addiction. If I start avoiding any kind of challenging issue at work or deadline because it's bringing up too much anxiety for me, then the deadlines and the challenges don't get met and then I get even more anxiety.

So we kind of, you know, I often talk about zombies. Are you a zombie fan? Do you like zombies? I don't watch scary movies. I'm one of those sensitive types, even the slightest hint of blood seems to almost make me want to vomit. So no, no zombies for me. All right.

Well, definitely don't watch the Walking Dead. I love zombies. And the reason I love zombies is because they're like the opposite of mindfulness. So zombies are on automatic pilot, no self-awareness, no consciousness, no sense of living by their values or engaging in the present moment. They're just pushed around by their most basic primordial instincts.

Right. And well all of us go into zombie mode throughout the day, again and again and again. We go on to automatic mode and there's kind of two zombie moves that we make throughout the day. One is something pleasant shows up that I really like or want. And, you know, that might be drugs, might be alcohol, it might be food, it might be an attractive person, it might be, you know, a plasma television, something that I really want or like shows up and I go, urggh, urggh.

You know, just kind of urggh, that's what I want, urggh, you know. And that underlies so many addictions and compulsions and when we get obsessed about things that I have to have in order to be happy, urggh. And the other zombie move, something unpleasant shows up and it could be a difficult task or a challenge or a situation or a difficult person, or it could be unpleasant feelings and emotions inside my body and the second zombie move, I don't know if you can see this on camera, it's kind of all over that, so that is kind of I'm not prepared, second zombie move is kind of this it's like, ugh, ugh, ugh. Kind of get out of the way. And we go through our life like this, ugh, ugh.

Whereas mindfulness mode is different. Mindfulness mode is kind of turning towards what's here with openness and curiosity. So something I really like or want shows up in instead of uugh, ah. And something unpleasant shows up and instead of ugh, go, ah. So zombie, ugh, ugh ugh.

And then mindful, ah. Zombie, ugh. Mindful, ah. You know, and that's a big difference. Ah, here's something I don't want.

Here's something I do want. Kind of make room for them, let them be there and respond to them in a way that's flexible. You know? So you're, so with mindfulness in that approach, you have this ability to stand back from the urge is still there to push or pull, but you have a choice about whether to play them out or not. Absolutely. And the more you develop that capacity, I mean, that's how you are able to break self-defeating habits.

Whatever the self-defeating habit is, it's likely to be some combination of uggh this or uggh that or both. Right? And so you need to be aware that you're doing that. And notice, there's an urge to do these things and let the urges be there and let the thoughts and feelings be there, come to this kind of open curious, ah, this is what's going on here. And then make a choice. And that's where the values come in.

You know, if I just let my values guide what I do here, what would I choose to do? How can I act in a way that supports me in being the person that I really want to be? What do I really want here instead of just reflexive action? Yeah. What do I want to be about, you know? So often when we, you know, lose our temper, you know, we're not, you know, we lose touch with our values. We just get so caught up in our... Yeah. The, I think, you know, building on what we're talking about in ACT, you talk about cognitive fusion and cognitive diffusion, which I think in some, Spiritual texts or some religious traditions or spiritual traditions is sometimes referred to as identification or non identification.

I think we're talking about the same thing. So I was just wondering if you could, we just kind of touched on that ability to stand back from feelings and thoughts and be a bit, have a bit more choice. Could you explain what cognitive fusion is and also how mindfulness helps with cognitive diffusion? Well, yeah. Okay. I think the best thing is I'll take you for a little exercise now.

I'll get you to do it with me. Oh, I'd love to. And anybody watching the, anybody watching the video, I'll get them to do it with me too. So if you just kind of turn so that you can kind of, particularly viewers, you know, you can kind of see the, everything in front of you right now. I want you to imagine that in front of you is everything that makes your life rich, full, and meaningful.

The people you love, the activities you love, your favorite, you know, food and music and all that kind of stuff. Also what's in front of you right now is all the real problems and challenges in your life that you have to face up to and deal with, all the difficult stuff. And also what's in front of you right now are all the tasks you have to do on an ongoing basis to make your life work. And I want you to imagine that your hands are your thoughts and feelings. Okay.

And just kind of put them together like pages in a book. I might just kind of step back a bit from the camera again. So, if you're watching this at home or wherever you're watching this, I want you to kind of do a lot of imagining that everything you care about is in front of you. Your hands are your thoughts and feelings. And now copy me.

See what happens is you get hooked by your thoughts and feelings, caught up, entangled in your thoughts and feelings. And so kind of bring your hands right up till they're covering your eyes. The technical name for this is fusion. So your now fused with your thoughts and feelings. Or if you don't like the term fused, you could say hooked, entangled, caught up.

And so notice three things keeping your hands over your eyes. Notice three things. Firstly, how much are you missing out on right now? You know, if the people you love and the activities you love or in front of you, how disconnected and disengaged are you? How much are you missing out on? Secondly, notice how hard it is to focus your attention? If, you know, if you keep your hands over your eyes and look back at the computer screen and the video of me, just imagine that I am the person you need to focus on. How hard is it to focus on me like this? How hard for you to focus on the task that you need to do or to engage fully in what you're doing? And the third thing to notice is how difficult is it to take action? How difficult is it like this to do the tasks that make your life work to drive a car or type on a computer or cuddle a baby or hug the person you love? You know, it's very difficult. Ever so slowly, again copy me here.

Ever so slowly, bring your hands away, kind of, this is diffusion, starting to diffuse, to unhook, detach, disentangle, diffuse. And now look around and notice the difference. How much richer and fuller your experience is? How much more you can see and take in? How much easier, excuse me, how much easier to engage and connect to the person you love? How much easier to give me your full attention, keep your arms around? How much easier is it now to take action, to type on a computer or drive a car or hug the person you love or cook dinner? So notice you haven't gotten rid of these things, they're still there. You haven't chopped them off and gotten rid of them. They're still there.

If there's something useful you can do with them, then use them. You know, even the most painful thoughts and feelings often have some useful information. They alert you to things in your life that you need to take action on or, you know, important values connected to this pain. But if there's nothing useful you can do with them, then you just let them sit there. So this is kind of the, fusion means we get entangled, caught up in our thoughts and feelings, and they have a huge impact and influence on us.

And as we start to diffuse from our thoughts and feelings, it enables us to be present and engage and take action, guided by our values to do the things that make life rich, full, and meaningful and engage fully in what we're doing. And this is what we aim to do in ACT. And so mindfulness helps us to build that capacity to experience, if you will, cognitive diffusion. Would you say that mindfulness is the means by which we're able to kind of do this? Well, what we would say in the ACT model is this kind of three basic mindfulness processes. And you can see them all in this little exercise.

So one process is contacting the present moment. So noticing right here, right now, engaging in what is happening in the present moment, outside me or inside me or both. Then the second process is what we call diffusion, short for cognitive diffusion, which is very specifically around starting to recognize the thoughts, images, memories, what we call cognitions that are linked into. I use the phrase, thoughts and feelings, and what we're talking about is all the kind of words and images from, from some little pop-up thoughts to deep interpretations of meaning. All the stuff that shows up when you're feeling sad or angry or anxious, you know.

That's all cognition. So we start to become aware of our cognitions and start to separate and detach from them. And then the third element is, you know, at the end of this exercise, your hands... Well, if I was sitting down, you know, they'd be resting in my lap and that's acceptance. So allowing it to be there.

So you've got contacting the present moment. You've got diffusing from your cognitions and you've got acceptance, allowing it to be there. And all of that is mindfulness. There was a practice that you led during the conference which I think really is a wonderful experiential practice of knowing what it is to have that diffusion. So I was wondering if you would care to just guide us through even just a short practice for a couple of minutes to experience that.

I'm just going ask our viewers to pick a nasty, negative self judgment. You know, in ACT, we talk a lot about how your mind is like a judgment machine. It just conjures up judgements all the time about yourself and others and the world around you. And virtually everyone's walking around with multiple versions of the I'm not good enough story. Have you got some I'm not good at story? Of course, I do.

And they usually start young. My first versions of the I'm not goodness story started when I was about four years old. What about you? When did you start? Oh, for as long as I can remember. I think that's my oldest record, I think. Yeah.

So it's kind of, and no one's found a way to get rid of, I'm not good enough stories. All the positive thinking courses in the world and self-affirmations don't stop your mind from saying this, you know. So,I'll get people just to give them a taste of diffusion, bring to mind a nasty version of the I'm not good enough story. Something your mind says when it beats you up or brings you down, put it into a short sentence, like: I am X or I am not Y enough, I am fat, I am stupid, I am not smart enough, I'm a lousy mother. I'm a, you know, I'm too judgmental.

You know, you get the idea. So keep it short and sweet. And I will say to the viewers, you know, make sure you pick something that is having an impact in your life today, that in some way, when your mind judges you this way, it pulls you back or brings you down, something like that. And first of all, I'm going to ask the viewers to, for 10 seconds, to buy into the nasty negative self judgment. So do not challenge it.

Do not dispute it. Don't try to push it away. Don't try to replace it with a positive thought. I want them to experience fusion. I want to, so for about 10 seconds, and in fact it's more powerful if you can close your eyes for this so that you could cut off from the outside world and really fuse with the thought.

So everybody watching the video, please do this now. Close your eyes and fuse with that nasty I'm not good enough story. I'm fat. I'm stupid. I'm not smart enough.

I don't measure up. Just stay with it for a few more seconds. Buy into it. Believe it as much as you can. Now silently, again keeping your eyes closed, silently replay that thought with these words in front, I am having the thought of that.

So I'm having the thought that I'm incompetent. Now, finally replay it one more time. The phrase is a bit longer. I notice I'm having the thought that. Okay.

So I notice I'm having the thought that I am boring. And coming back. And so, Melli, you can come back now. And so can the viewers. You have to tell me to open my eyes, otherwise I'll just stay there.

With your hands, kind of, if this is totally, you know, hooked or fused, and this is totally defused, just show me what happened during that exercise for you. Yeah. So you felt that kind of unhooking and that diffusion. So notice we didn't challenge the thought. We didn't look at it, whether it was true or false or try to get rid of it.

We just acknowledged it's a thought, you know. I am having the thought that I am X. And then we added another stage, I notice I'm having the thought that I'm X. And that little simple mindfulness technique, the diffusion technique is something that I would encourage all your viewers to take away and practice throughout the day. Anytime you realize you've been hooked, you know, is my favorite term for fused, every time that you've been hooked by some unhelpful thought, just kind of push your feet into the floor, you know, ground yourself, center yourself.

Try replaying that little phrase, I'm having the thought that, and if you're still hooked, then go a stage further, ,I notice I'm having the thought that. What I find is about 50% of the time when I do this with clients, they object initially. They say, but it's true. I really am, you know, X, Y, and Z. So my response is, you know, in this approach, in the ACT approach, we're not interested in whether your thoughts are true or false 99.9% of the time, only, very, very rarely.

Most of the time, we're not interested in whether your thoughts are true or false. What we're interested in is when these thoughts pop into your head, when your mind starts telling you this stuff, if you get all caught up in those thoughts, does it help you to be the person you want to be? Does it help you to do the things you want to do? If it does, then obviously use those thoughts. But a lot of the time, most of the time, nasty, negative self judgements don't have that effect, you know. So true or false, doesn't usually matter. It's just does it help me to hold onto this? That's really helpful.

And especially in times of, especially in the times when those negative nasty thoughts are really starting to pile up, just to have a moment of grounding and noticing that they're thoughts. They're just thoughts. Yeah. Absolutely. So, you know, the, and they may be true and they may be false, you know? It's like, I'll finish up with an anecdote about this guy was referred to me with depression.

He was a hugely obese truck driver, massive guy. And he was having lots of a really self judgmental thoughts, you know. I'm fat. I'm disgusting. I'm, you know, killing myself with all this junk food.

Those were the milder ones. There were really kind of he was really, his mind was really tough on him. It was basically just calling him a fat slob all the time. And we started to do a bit of diffusion and he said, but it's true. I really am fat.

And he pulled his shirt up. Like, Okay. Thanks for sharing. So I had this little chat with him. I said, you know, tell me a bit about your values.

Okay. If I could wave a magic wand so that all of these thoughts and feelings were like water off a duck's back, they weren't pushing you around anymore, how would you like to treat your body? Well, you know, I wouldn't eat so much shit, mate. Okay. So you might eat some more healthy food. Yeah.

What else would you do? Well, wouldn't sit around all day watching crap on the teli. Okay, you might exercise more. Yeah. Okay. So it sounds like there's a really important value here, which is about self care, kind of caring for yourself, taking care of the body.

And if you were really in touch with that value, you'd be doing things like eating healthy food and exercising. Now when your mind starts speaking to you and saying I'm a fat slob. I've got no willpower. I've got no discipline. I'm killing myself.

I'm disgusting. If you get all caught up in those thoughts, does it help you to live that value of self care and taking care of your body and eating well? Oh no. What happens when you get caught up in those thoughts? Well, I get depressed. Then what you do? I eat shit, man. So I was like, okay.

So, I don't know how to stop your mind speaking to you that way. We're certainly not going to waste your time and my time debating whether these thoughts are true or false, it's not relevant. Would you like to learn a new way of responding to those thoughts so that next time your mind starts telling you the I'm a fat slob story, instead of this, you can learn to do this so that you can then start treating your body in a different way. So it's a big paradigm shift for most people. Here of just seeing thoughts as thoughts and not getting into judging whether they're true or false or positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic.

That doesn't matter. The big question is, if I let these thoughts guide what I do, does it help me to be the person I want to be? Yeah, that's powerful. That's a powerful story. Lovely. Thank you so much for your time, Russ.

I really appreciate it. And I wish you all the best. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

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