Present-moment being - often referred to as “mindfulness” - or touching the present moment in an open, accepting, and nonjudgmental manner, is something I encourage in all my clients, as well as a practice I attempt to personally cultivate.
Part of what was recently driven home for me at an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) intensive training workshop is how our use of language and stories can become problematic when it pulls us away from the ability to be mindful or to experience present moment being.
As humans we are verbal, meaning-making creatures who inherently, habitually, and automatically employ language to make sense and meaning of the world. Often, this includes using labels (“I am a therapist”) and narratives (“I am a therapist, but my prior careers were aspiring actress and casting assistant”). It also includes using the story of prior experience to extrapolate what may happen and provide context for the future (“I had three careers before the age of forty, so I imagine I will have a fourth career at some point in the future”). (For the record, that last statement isn’t true.)
Of course, the use of language, labels, and stories isn’t always a problem. As Patricia A. Bach, PhD and Daniel J. Moran, PhD point out in their book ACT in Practice: Case Conceptualization in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, “Some very treasured moments in many people’s lives are when they are reminiscing about the past or planning for the future.”
It becomes problematic, however, when becoming so tied up in the language we use to make meaning of our lives and the world around us leads us to miss possibilities or prevents us from moving forward with taking action in line with our values.
For example, what if my narrative about my career as a therapist went like this: “I had three careers before the age of forty, so clearly I have a problem committing to things and shouldn’t even bother putting effort into my job since I probably won’t have it much longer?” I imagine this would not only create emotional suffering for me, but would also move me away from learning new skills and giving my work the attention it deserves. It could also take me away from sitting in integrity with my clients and from being invested and in touch with the present moment during sessions.
To get a bit more personal: recently I have realized the gift in watching my 91-year-old father move more deeply into old age and dementia. Namely, I notice that he is an embodiment of present-moment being as a result of his brain rendering him at times unable to be in contact with anything but the present moment. Sometimes it seems every couple of minutes is a brand new moment for him (which of course, it is for all of us, but most of us certainly don’t live that way). Often, he asks the same question repeatedly in a short span of time and seems to hear the same answer as though he had never heard it before.
And because he can’t track thoughts or conversations (language or stories) for very long, there is little to no attachment to the content of what is being discussed or considered. And because there is little to no attachment, there is no judgment. I suspect that without this attachment or judgment, there is very little emotional pain. At least that’s how it seems. After 91 years of days, labels, and memories, his thoughts truly appear to be like the old mindfulness metaphor: leaves on a stream just floating by, coming and going with ease. What a difference between this experience and the experience I would have were I to believe the stories about myself as a career-commitment-phobe.
As I lie wide awake in the pre-dawn morning, telling myself familiar narratives and making predictions about the pain of loss (“I will never get over my father’s death for as long as I live”), I realize that his way of being is yet another lesson my father is teaching me, not only about how to approach death but also how best to go on being alive.