Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

malcolmocean comments on A Less Mysterious Mindfulness Exercise - Less Wrong

24 [deleted] 18 September 2012 11:33PM

You are viewing a comment permalink. View the original post to see all comments and the full post content.

Comments (62)

You are viewing a single comment's thread. Show more comments above.

Comment author: malcolmocean 14 July 2013 05:35:16AM *  3 points [-]

(tl;dr: ACT claims a false dichotomy between "fighting" and "accepting", while completely ignoring "eliminate without fighting" as an option.)

I would like to offer a distinction between two different kinds of accepting. One is the opposite of denial (which is being called "fighting" in this case). The other is the opposite of changing. Obviously, as rationalists, we want to move to do as much of the first kind of accepting as possible: this is what the Litany of Gendlin is all about: "what is true is already so" so we might as well accept that it is presently true, regardless of whether or not we'd like to change it long-term. This is true of our thoughts as well. Am I thinking of a pink elephant? Very well, I'm thinking of a pink elephant. Fighting the thought doesn't work, so why do it?

Another analogy. Consider a student who has received a poor mark on their midterm. "I can't believe this!" they exclaim. Well, once they've checked through and realized it wasn't a clerical error, they might as well believe it, which is the first half of acceptance #1. However, they might still think "this grade is unacceptable" and therefore not accept that as a final grade and study really hard for their final. This is acceptance #2. The other part of the first kind of acceptance is lack of judgement. I suppose some people are motivated by this sort of thing, but I've found it to be unhelpful to yell at past-selves for their mistakes. Your past selves can't do anything about it.

"Accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, and have the wisdom to know the difference." A rather obvious axiom of mindfulness is that it's too late to change the present. So you might as well accept it.*

I think the false dichotomy is a result of using only the former definition of accepting.

*unless you have a time-turner, in which case subtract six hours.

Comment author: pjeby 14 July 2013 05:28:49PM 1 point [-]

I think the false dichotomy is a result of using only the former definition of accepting.

No, the false dichotomy comes from a definition on the other side of the dichotomy: people assuming that any non-ACT strategy equals "fighting".

For example, does disbelieving a thought equal fighting it?

A few weeks ago I made a change in my belief structure, such that I stopped believing my primary inner critical voice. In fact, I started finding it laughable, as in "Is that all you've got?" The voice quit bugging me after that, except that once or twice a week it opens its (figurative) mouth to comment on something and I cut it off before it can even really start, with something like, "Really? That's what you're going to complain about?" (This was a voice that could previously make me pretty depressed within minutes or seconds of anything it wanted to criticize. Now I find it amusing how utterly irrelevant it is.)

According to many people's interpretation of ACT, what I just described is bad and evil because they would consider it to fall under "fighting". It also does not obviously fall under either of your definitions of "accepting", since I am definitely not accepting my brain's critical thoughts any more.

On a deeper level, one could say that I'm in agreement with ACT that thoughts are not something you can consciously control: neither the critical voice nor my newly-minted amusement and disdain for it are things I am consciously doing, but "just happen". And you could in principle say that I'm simply accepting both sets of thoughts as existing.

However, that's a misleading description in the context of some people's interpretations of ACT, which leads them to conclude that anything that isn't an ACT technique constitutes "fighting" and that one must instead learn to put up with such thoughts or voices rather than seeking to eliminate them.

Presumably, the assumption causing the problem is an assumption that it isn't possible to eliminate a category of thoughts before they even come up. If it weren't possible to change one's beliefs in such a fashion, then certainly the only question would be what to do with a thought once you have it. As I quoted from the original article:

The alternative to acceptance is emotional avoidance — trying to make bad thoughts and emotions go away — and it doesn't work.

The post author makes the assumption that "trying to make bad thoughts and emotions go away ... doesn't work". This assumption is simply wrong, unless you add in the qualifier that the bad thoughts and emotions are ones that have already arisen (vs. similar thoughts arising in the future). Many people reading things written about ACT (such as this article) do not necessarily read in this qualifier, and then go on to form the semi-religious belief that any way of trying to make bad stuff go away "doesn't work" or is a form of suppression that will cause harm.

(Actually, even with the qualifier, it's not a universally true statement. You can get rid of some thoughts and feelings that are already present, it's just that most naive approaches to doing so don't work, and even the better ones don't always work. It's much more efficient to eliminate future thoughts or feelings along a particular line than to try to get rid of one you already have... especially since the process of getting rid of the future ones will generally change your current state as a side-effect.)