A Less Mysterious Mindfulness Exercise



At the beginning of the year, I stumbled upon a self-help book based on the ideas of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I assimilated it insights and started practicing a simple exercise and quickly noticed its effectiveness, to the point of becoming convinced that I had found a fully general mindhack that would help me deal with all psychological issues that I had or could have in the future. I even still believe it now, after eight months. I want to share this newfound knowledge in the hope that it will help others but I don't feel competent to write a comprehensive introduction to ACT. So I'll focus on describing my experience and hope for the best. I start with some conceptual background and the exercise follows.

A one-sentence summary of acceptance and commitment therapy could look like this: in order to live effectively, we have to accept our negative emotional states and commit ourselves to acting according to our values. The alternative to acceptance is emotional avoidance — trying to make bad thoughts and emotions go away — and it doesn't work. Trying to suppress thoughts or emotions backfires as everyone can see by failing to not think about a pink elephant for the next five minutes. Less direct attempts at experiential avoidance fail too. For example, not engaging in social interactions in order to avoid social anxiety until you eventually start feeling really anxious all the time about being a friendless loser or maybe procrastinating to avoid the unpleasantness of work until eventually you have to go through a lot of unpleasantness very quickly if you want to meet your deadline.

Nevertheless, emotional avoidance seems to be the default mode of operation for most people. The very phrase 'overcoming social anxiety' seems to imply that the way to do it is to figure out how to make anxiety go away and then proceed to have a stress-free social life. It's really tricky to stop trying to do this and maybe even impossible to verbally argue yourself out of it. If someone with the habit of experiential avoidance decides to give acceptance a try, they might end up thinking 'well, trying to destroy emotions directly doesn't seem to work but I can destroy them by pretending that I don't want to' which completely misses the point. And if they decide to try really, really hard, they might end up trying to suppress their dislike of particular emotions or their desire to make them go away which sounds reasonable at first glance (how else to accept stuff than to get rid of the things that interfere with acceptance?) but really it just adds another recursive layer to the problem.

So we need to make a non-verbal shift into a mental state that will allow us to accept all of our experiences, even those that seem to go against the spirit of acceptance. This state might be that which is referred to as 'mindfulness' in western psychology. For example, one definition of mindfulness states that it is:

a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.

There are two concepts that we can use to turn that very nice sounding but also very vague definition into something actionable. The first of them is indirect realism — the idea that we don't experience reality directly but we only ever experience our mental representations that might describe reality to a greater or lesser extent. Everyone probably already knows and agrees with it, however there's a difference between acknowledging something verbally and actually living it. Our experiences tend to fill our awareness, we get caught up in them and it's easy to forget that what we're experiencing is just a mental representation. Who had never obsessed about a future situation, going through various scenarios only to later realize that actual events didn't even come close to matching any of them?

The second concept is the observing self or self-as-context. The idea is to stop identifying with the contents of your experience. Think of your mind as a background against which mental events occur. They are observed by you but they aren't you. So instead of thinking 'I'm anxious' you would think 'I'm having the experience of anxiety.' When you think like that, the idea of accepting all of your experience starts to seem less like giving up and possibly allowing to be overwhelmed by your emotions and more like simply acknowledging what's already there and outside of your control. 

And finally the promised exercise, quoted directly from the book (I'll tell you what book later):

For this exercise, begin by getting comfortable in a quiet space and closing your eyes. With practice, you will probably be able to do this exercise during your daily activities.

Once you are comfortable, visualize a parade of tiny soldiers marching in front of you. Each soldier is carrying a sign, and each sign has one of your thoughts written on it. Each new thought goes on a sign in this never-ending parade of tiny soldiers. The signs can carry words, images, even sounds and voices. Whatever your mind produces can go on a sign.

If you prefer, your thoughts can float by on leaves flowing in a stream, as clouds in the sky, as credits on a movie screen, or as widgets on a conveyer belt. What matters is that you imagine watching your mind’s activities from a distance as the thought parade goes by.

When you notice that you’ve forgotten what you’re doing and you become attached to a particular thought, simply climb back into the bleachers and let the parade resume (adapted from Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson 1999).

That’s the easy part. The hard part is in simply observing your thoughts without trying to change them or make them go away. It may help to remind yourself that none of the thoughts are facts, even if they seem compelling or if it seems that you must do something with them (like make the parade go faster so a particular thought will disappear).

You may also notice that you’re experiencing judgments about the thoughts. I shouldn’t be thinking that or Only a crazy person would have that thought. Take those thoughts, put them on a sign, and add them to the parade. They are not facts, and you need not respond to them.

What I would add to that is to use a timer. It helps with staying focused. I used one set to a five minute interval so that every five minutes I'd decide whether to continue practicing or finish but I setting aside a larger chunk of time up front should work too.

I would also add that the picture doesn't have to be as vivid as the description suggests. I didn't try to put any writing or even a vague impression of writing on the objects I was visualizing. I just thought 'well, this one corresponds to that thought'. I also couldn't keep track of them for very long and they tended to fade out long before reaching the 'edge' of the picture. And while I was a bit obsessive in trying to picture a stable, vivid backdrop, it would probably work as well if I settled for a uniformly colored background and uniformly colored shapeless blobs as thought-representing tokens.

The first time I tried this, it took somewhere around 10 minutes to notice a distinct shift in my mental state which I can't really describe better than the above vague definition of mindfulness does. It felt quite awesome. After I tried it a couple more times, the exercise turned out to be reliably effective in bringing about that mental state. My hope in writing all of this is that it will prove similarly effective for you, so if you can spare several minutes right now, I ask you to give it a try (and then tell me whether it worked in the comments).

In a way, this exercise resembles the typical instructions for mindfulness meditation. There's an object of focus and whenever you stray from it, you're supposed to notice the thought you're having, acknowledge it and get back to the focus of attention. However, the fact that the object of focus has internal structure that gets constantly updated to represent the contents of the mind seems to make a big difference compared to the typically recommended practice of focusing on the breath. Focusing on the movement of objects already in the picture reminds you to expect incoming thoughts and once you have a thought, your attention is drawn back to the picture in order to update it with a new token.

All of this seems to provide a much more intensive practice in the mysterious skill of 'letting things go' than focusing on your breath. In fact, it's so effective that after a couple of weeks I could do it without the visualization, at which point I dropped it completely, because while it helps it also takes a significant chunk of attention and makes you notice less stuff. The ability to simply will myself into paying nonjudgmental attention to everything that's happening is something that I haven't ever been able to acquire from meditation, even when I practiced it for months at a time (in fact I wasn't even able to reliably reach it while meditating — maybe I just suck at this).

Once noting mental events without getting caught up in them became easy, the whole 'accept your experience, ask yourself what you want to do and then go do it' thing started to make much more sense. If I were doing something which caused particularly intense emotions, I could take a break to do the exercise for a couple of minutes. This would allow me to practice accepting the specific thoughts and emotions associated with that activity and also put me in a more accepting state of mind that tended to persist for some time after ending the exercise. And as I practiced, over time my baseline mental state kept shifting so that distancing myself from thoughts and emotions was becoming more automatic. All of this led to a big decrease in social anxiety, increased confidence and self-esteem, less pointless worrying, less anger, more empathy and all around improvement in my life. Self-helpy discussions on LessWrong mostly focus on akrasia and recently I had success with that too. I procrastinate less and manage to walk through my ugh fields without flinching much more often.

The last point might look unimpressive — that it took me several months to succeed against akrasia. But I think this could happen much earlier if I hadn't stumbled into a failure mode that seems to be worth warning against. When you stop your attempts at experiential avoidance and accept your thoughts and emotions, they often do go away after a while. I noticed this as I became better at using mindfulness and then I started treating it as a clever trick for controlling the contents of experience, completely forgot about acceptance and reverted back to the old habit of trying to completely get rid of negative experience before moving on with my life. Needless to say, this wasn't good and my progress mostly stopped until I got sufficiently frustrated to read another book about ACT in search of missing insights and got quickly reminded that the 'acceptance' in the name isn't just for decoration.

This probably means that if any of the above works for you, and you want it to keep working, it will be worth it to read a more comprehensive description of ACT. And even if it didn't work for you but the ideas seemed interesting, reading about ACT might still be worth it because the presentation here is very much based on my personal experience. For example, the described exercise is in no way presented as central in the book I got it from or in ACT in general. It just happened to work really, really well for me.

Some recommendations. The book that I've first stumbled upon was 'The User's Guide to the Human Mind' by Shawn T. Smith which, as you can probably infer from the title, is a self-help book. It's based rather loosely on ACT and doesn't actually mention it by name but it does get the ideas across. It is the source of the big blockquote with the exercise. The citation in that quote references 'Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change' by Hayes, Strosahl and Wilson which seems to be the seminal textbook on the subject and while it sure seems insightful from my limited reading of it, it's probably not a good introduction. The book that helped me to get out of the failure mode is 'Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life' by Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith. Another self-help book that's far more directly based on ACT (what with being written by one of the key people behind it). It's also a workbook which means that the ideas are interspersed with exercises that you're actually expected to complete before moving on. I suspect it might be a better introduction to ACT than the first one but I can't really tell.