How Psychological Flexibility is Cultivated Through Mindfulness


By Benjamin Schoendorff, Contextual Psychology Institute

I was first introduced to formal meditation practice in a Zen dojo in 1994. At the time, my life was chaotic and it would remain so for another 10 years. On several occasions over these ten years, I tried to build a regular meditation practice. Although I never managed more than meditating intermittently, I have no doubt that what little practice I did manage helped me. It helped me by giving me a direct experience of distancing from my thoughts. I had previously experienced what I thought as being a part of my essence, as what was defining me, and thus of the utmost importance.

Through meditation I experienced that my thoughts came and went. They were more like clouds in the sky of my consciousness than what defined that sky. The second thing I experienced was closely related. It was a sense that I was more than my thoughts and emotions, more than my experiences. That there was a part of me that was not affected by my experiences, that remained an observer no matter how painful the feelings of the moment or hooky the thoughts.

When I started getting my life in order and, after a brief course of psychotherapy, decided to make myself useful by becoming a therapist, I made a commitment to being guided by science and to somehow integrate my meditation experience into my work. I naturally gravitated toward behavioural therapies, due to the strong empirical support they enjoyed and their commitment to a scientific approach to the alleviation of human suffering. I just as naturally became interested in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy which, was then gathering its first research data supporting its possible effectiveness for depressive relapse. However, try as I might I simply could not build a daily mindfulness practice. I felt uneasy recommending it to my clients. I suspected many would, like me, not be able to engage in daily mindfulness practice.

In February 2007, I came across Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an emerging mindfulness and acceptance-based approach that seeks to help people develop their psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is the ability, in contact with everything that shows up in the moment, to choose and do actions to move toward one’s values, who and what matters most.

In dozens of studies, psychological flexibility has been linked both to positive life functioning and life satisfaction and to a reduction in suffering associated with depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship difficulties and a host of other disorders. The way ACT seeks to train psychological flexibility is by cultivating mindfulness, distancing from unhelpful thought patterns, acceptance of unwanted feelings, identification of one’s values and moving toward them through deliberate actions. You could say it uses mindfulness skills to get folks to behave like the person they want to be.

And here was the catch for me. The person I want to be builds a regular mindfulness practice, but couldn’t. That fed my interest in ACT which seeks to train mindfulness skills even absent a formal mindfulness practice. ACT sees mindfulness as composed of four main elements: the ability to distance from thoughts (a.k.a cognitive defusion), the willingness to experience whatever is present (a.k.a. acceptance), the ability to be present to whatever arises in the moment (a.k.a. contact with the present moment) and, finally, the ability to contact an experience of self as an observer of all experience and transient thoughts, emotions and behavior (a.k.a. self-as context). In ACT these can be trained as discrete processes that together promote the ability to move toward one’s values. One of the most effective ways to do this is through using the ACT Matrix, a simple diagram with two intersecting lines that create four quadrants. The upper left-hand side represents actions to move away from unwanted inner experience (bottom left) and the right-hand side actions (top right) to move toward whom or what is important (values, bottom left). Sorting our behaviours and experiences in these four quadrants gradually helps build our psychological flexibility.

In my case, it has helped me gradually build a daily mindfulness practice that I have been able to keep up for over four months now. I was greatly helped by joining the Numinus team in the Mindful in May challenges for the past two years. Central to the ACT model and standing as a testament to its flexibility is the fact that ACT processes are based in mindfulness, while ACT can also, as was the case for me, help with engaging in more regular mindfulness practice. This is why I believe that mindfulness-based approaches should continue to dialogue and seek integration.


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