The Cure #2: Acceptance Commitment Theology

In my post The Sickness I bashed psychoanalys and different strands of psychology for being in service of capitalism; of an ideological production of a self-sufficient individual. However, when I’m now turning to formulating a remedy, there are different aspects of this where I think that Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) is productive. But I would like to advance this to Acceptance Commitment Theology.

It’s all the rage with psychoanalysis, philosophy and theology meeting each other in various ways. Everyone from local theology superstars like Ola Sigurdson to global philosopher superstar Slavoj Zizek are versed in philosophy, psychoanalysis and theology alike. I also do believe that Syntheism has something very productive to offer theology at large, which has to do with what is called theological incorrectness. Within Religious Studies and a more critical approach to religion as a social phenomenon it’s often seen that people don’t do as they are supposed to, if you contrast how people actually live, practice and believe, in comparison to theology. This is what theological incorrectness means. This means two things: A general disregard for theology, as most people don’t seem to think that it has much to offer contemporary society. Theologian David Capener put it well, in something like the following terms: It seems like theology today is about answering questions that no one is asking.

Within Syntheism it seems like chief ideologues like Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist are banking on this. It’s a matter of there being a movement and there being a sort of atheist theology, but it has a different relation. No matter what you think of Syntheism as such – after all, not all of us are atheists, spiritually interested or not – when encountering the Syntheist movement and the burner culture at large, it seems that theology and philosophy is not necessarily that important to people. Rather, it’s a parallell movement that suggests how we can gain a self-understanding of what’s important in philosophical and intellectual terms. Syntheism places god in the future; as something we are creating. This is an ontological understanding of god, rather than ontic. (I wont go into this deeper at the moment, but you can read an excellent account, based on Heidegger, in Bard and Söderqvist’s ”Syntheism – creating god in the internet age)”. However, what I think is really important here is that a lot of people in there, knows that this theology exists, but there is no shame in not having read or wholly understood it. Within a christian or a muslim context, people are often aware what they are supposed to do, and thus instead end up feeling like they are ‘bad christians’ or ‘bad muslims’ for drinking alcohol, eating pork or having group sex. And there is an interesting saying (who said it escapes me at the moment) which is that ‘religion is too important to leave to the theologians’, and I believe this to be true (which is somewhat paradoxical perhaps, given that I’m a philosopher of religion).

So acceptance, commitment therapy, then.

There are two important terms that I think can be productive, and doesn’t have to direct agency towards a capitalist ethos, or being about self-discipline in order to align with ideology proper. Thinking that we can exert control over ourselves, and by controlling ourselves we can stretch some measure of control into our immediate environment and through it gain a productive life. I think that basic premise is ultimately flawed. I think this might be an interim step, where we can work on ourselves because the world is struck by the sickness. But I don’t think that it should ever be the goal of what we’re doing. So given that, the next steps in all of this are the two things in ACT which I believe are most important.

One is pure versus impure discomfort. And there are a lot of thinking that goes along the lines: If we just follow the rules (which ever rules we talk about; religious rules, dietary restriction – see ‘why diets are destructive‘, ideological rules, capitalist rules) then we will find happiness. This is a flawed notion, says acceptance commitment therapy, and I share this belief. If you want to be happy, then you need to tackle negative emotions and experiences differently. The best you can do, says Russ Harris, is to accept that life in all its richness presents us with all these sensations and experiences, some of which are deeply painful, others are pleasant. We have to deal with loved one dying or leaving us. We have to deal with various forms of trauma. We may have to perform tasks in our daily lives which are highly unpleasant forms of work, which are less than dignified all the time. We have to deal with being treated in ways that are far from optimal. This is life. No therapy should claim to be able to fix this. If they do (‘just think happy happy thoughts’) you shouldn’t believe it.

Accepting the stance that there is no life of pure happiness, but that life is full of pain can lead us to resent the world less. I think that’s a key aspect of ACT. What ACT psychology does is provide us with tools; mindfulness, meditative exercise, decentering techniques, that allows us to carry ourselves differently through the pain which we must inevitably encounter. I think theology has long been on the side of enhancing impure discomfort. Because theology often builds on a premise that feeling the discomfort that you’re currently experiencing means that you’re not close enough to god. ACT doesn’t say that if you’re just close enough to your values or true enough to yourself you wont experience pain. You will always experience pain. I think this rings very true, and it goes in an opposite direction from the general perception that you can choose happiness and then (magically) happiness will be all around and you will experience nothing but it. ACT doesn’t say that you wont experience happiness. It’s just that happiness like any other feeling is like the weather; you can’t change it, you can’t deny it, you can’t make sunshine stay and make it so that it never rains. But you can choose your outfit wisely according to the circumstances. You can enhance your experience for a period of time. You can totally go into burst of happiness, spontaneity, generosity, love, intimacy, and creativity that you encounter. The problem is that we’re evolutionarily wired to be able to detect threats of pain and death, and cultivate these to take over your life. Unfortunately we are not wired to enhance states of happiness as to transform them from transient states to a permanent experience of pure bliss. We’re much better at enhancing the negative rather than the positive. That’s just a sucky evolutionary fact that we have to deal with.

Values

The other aspect of ACT psychology that is productive is values. Values is construed in this context as what you try to act out, during your short stint on this earth. It’s not what you want from other people, not what you would value that others did to you. Russ Harris sums it up with the following; if you can’t do it yourself, it’s not a value. That’s the ACT construal of the concept values.

This is interesting, because it’s a view on your agency. Your agency as the focus of how you want to interact with the world around you. In a relationship it may be important for you to experience certain modes of appreciation. But values are not what you want to see from others, but how you choose to enact your visions of being a partner. Is sensuality, intimacy, depth of conversation, trust or something else (or all of them) values that you want to stand for, no matter if your partner reciprocates?

I recently went through a divorce. And for a while, not knowing ACT psychology, but merely knowing despair, really, I felt that I didn’t know what I wanted from my life anymore. I felt entirely disoriented. I didn’t know how I was supposed to go on as a human being. Merely breathing and remaining on earth seemed to almost exceed my abilities. I only knew what kind of human being I wanted to be. Even in the absence of a life that I felt was worth living. I still struggle immensely with a feeling of there being some sense to existence. It has struck me really, really hard. But. It was interesting and comforting to find out that I had acted on a central principle of acceptance commitment therapy; staying true to my values, and making sure that when I meet people I don’t want to accuse them of things. I don’t want to be aggressive towards others. I don’t want to (as the hip hop saying goes) spread the pain. I want to be mindful of other people’s boundaries, hopes and fears. I wanted to be perceptive and build trust with people around me. I wanted to be a loving father. All were values I acted upon. Even though I struggle daily which actually building a life that makes sense in a grand-narrative kind of way, where things are placed in an orderly relation to each other, given that there is a overarching, structuring principle creating order, I still try my very best to enact these values. That’s something I believe I can do. Even when anxiety grips me. I don’t have to try and find the faulty party in the universe and pour out my anger and frustration over them.

These are what I see as the productive elements of acceptance commitment therapy. What I see as less productive, however, is the constant focus on self. I believe to a great extent that the self is an illusion. Consciousness – the experience we all have that we are a consciousness, a subject that can experience things – is undoubtedly a mystery. Not least because advances in natural sciences prove to an ever increasing extent that ‘we’ (the human body) is a site of multiple centra of if not outright consciousness, then at least subjectivity. Why, then, do we perceive ourselves as one consciousness, one ‘mind’, rather than multiple, that sometimes align and guide you down one path – and other times it tears you in different directions that you feel an urge to explore simultaneously? Nobody really knows.

However, individualism as an ideology certainly ”helps” us to feel as though we should we a kept together, aligned subject. And we feel that we’re probably faulty whenever we experience something other than that. I think what deleuzian thinking can add to ACT is this: That there’s nothing strange in the fact that we may sometimes have opposing values, that we may be torn in different directions. Even when we reflect upon values, we may find that we want to do conflicting things, have casual sex with multiple partners, and staying true to your spouse, for instance. Or something where you want to live in profound asceticism and give all your money away to beggars, but you still want to be a millionaire with unlimited funds in the bank (just in case this whole asceticism doesn’t work out). It may be that you feel that these things are pulling you in different directions. What is important then is that you don’t try to join together or come up with an amalgamation that is more than temporary. Allow yourself to be highly provisionary, with an equally temporary list of priorities of values. You don’t have to chisel out eternal values, that then crystallizes into eternal values that cannot be revisited or debated with (as you feel you owe it to yourself and others to keep to these values).

Agonistic political theorists like Chantal Mouffe and William Connolly say that it’s not consensus that is the given nature of things, but rather the opposite; it’s conflict. Then, the issue is not whether or not there are conflicts, but rather that we should see it as natural, and productive. And we should enact – or let conflict enfold – in the proper arenas. Mouffe has pointed out that populist and neo-fascist parties in Europe (and sure, Trump fits the bill as well) are advancing their positions, because we have started to say ‘Donald Trump is not a real politician’ or ‘we will never work with these fascists’ and therefore we have tried the tactic of pushing these people out of politics – a pre-political consideration – by declaring that their perspective can never be allowed in the arena of deciding ‘who should get what and when’. It’s as if we say that these are subhumans that don’t belong in politics to begin with. It means that instead of letting horrible opinions being considered as horrible political opinions, we say that ‘horrible enough opinions’ are not valid political stances. We say that ‘this have to happen outside of politics’. Not only is the troll factory of the internet a great (terrifying) example that the political struggle – if not enacted in the political arena – then takes on other forms, in this case an unruly hoard throws around resentment, deaththreats, misogyni, and a sense of entitlement elsewhere. The problem for both the hoard and the established parties, however, is that they fail to see how the solution to any conflict is never more than temporary. Thus, the racist internet hoard and the populist parties pointing out removing (today typically) muslims as a fix-all solution to all problems, hints at a one-time quick-fix, that will (if it was ever enacted) prove to be a shortsited uncreative response to all of society’s problems. Once they have played out their one hand, creativity is required to solve all the remaining issues. (And my guess – it may come as no surprise – is that all the issues will be left to solved.)

I do believe that a lot of racism has to do with projecting your resentment onto the immigrant population. Here ACT can help identifying values that you want to stand for as a person. It can also help with something different. But trying not to project things outside of yourself, to some extent, may be a thought spawned in the notion that you are entitled to a life without pain. Accepting this as a (in many regards ideological) myth, helps. It doesn’t make life much easier to life, necessarily, but it at least gives you some tools to grasp that the immigrants are not gods in charge of your destiny, whereas you yourself have much less influence over your existence. You can let go of the logic that if you can point to a certain person or group in society and see that they are the ‘origin’ of your pain, then you can purge society from then, and thus purge yourself from pain. The painstaking discovery that you will be left with, however, is that your pain remains, in full force – especially if you for a long time have practiced the arts of resentment and entitlement – on the other side of the exercise of trying to ban the ‘pain people’. And the pain will likely increase, because you will first then realise that you have acted in violence towards a group that was actually not the source of your pain in the first place. You will have spread the pain, and done violence to other people, torn their world apart, because you could not handle your own pain.

Workers in jobs that do not require education will, in a capitalist system, always experience themselves as the lowest on the rung. Unemployed people, in a capitalist system, will always feel subhuman as long as we write up the connection between human worth and the specific contribution you make to society by being employed and paying taxes.

So, summarising some basic tenets of the cure: First of all; accepting pain. I love the saying that capitalism is a culture where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. And I think that when people don’t know the worth of something, it gets very hard to lead a worth while life, and create a future containing more ‘things’ that are valuable. But I also think that this is important; that we revisit what worth and value are for us. Values are transient. The problem with theology, generally, is that it has often attempted (historically) to give people eternal values ‘here you go, now adhere to these F O R E V E R !!’. I think there is a much richer theology to be had, by looking at the world as it is now. A theology that take things seriously in ways that we haven’t before.

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