While snorkeling in the ocean, I had the opportunity to remember an invaluable lesson regarding willingness — to take what is offered in the moment. Willingness is an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) principle that, when applied correctly, can help us live more meaningfully, despite unpleasant external and internal events.
My snorkeling story illustrates how easily we forget that we should not try to fight the unfightable. We can learn to accept what is offered to us in the here and now, so we can focus on whom and what matters most in our lives.
While swimming towards the area of a lagoon that had a reef by the open sea, my sister and I found some fish to look at but not as many as we had seen previously in other areas. Nevertheless, I became enthralled with watching them and let the ocean flow take me wherever it went. After a few minutes of enjoying and watching the fish, I decided to lift my head to see where I was. I discovered the sea current had taken me out of the lagoon and I was now in the open ocean — fortunately, not too far from the lagoon.
The second I realized I was not in the lagoon, my protector (my mind) quickly alerted me, “Oh no! This is dangerous. I’ve got to get back in.” I proceeded to swim back towards the lagoon. After what it seemed like a long time, though it probably had been just one minute, I realized that I was not making any headway. It may have been because I’m not the best swimmer. But I remembered, “I cannot get tired,” so I floated and rested.
When I began to swim again, I spotted my sister about 30 feet away and yelled, “I can’t get back in!”
She calmly responded, “You can do it.”
I yelled back, “I’m trying to, but the current is too strong!”
I then tried to do backstrokes and went the wrong way.
She swam a little closer and reminded me to stay present and to slow down. There was no rush.
I frustratingly answered, “I know. I’m trying!”
I became totally entangled with my thoughts, feelings, sensations, and especially with the urge to swim fast and get out of the current taking me away from the lagoon. My advisor inside my head was saying so to keep me safe. I got caught up with the content of the thoughts: “I am out of the lagoon. I passed the safety ropes. I’m in danger. There is no lifeguard. No one had noticed me drifting away. What would’ve happened if my sister had not seen me? The fish were nice, but not worth drowning for. This is too hard.” My protector was at work.
There was no storm. The current was strong but not so powerful to make it impossible to get back in if I stayed calm. For a few seconds I felt that icky feeling in my stomach indicating my body was in a fight-or-flight response.
The minute I got caught up with the meaning of the thoughts, that was the very moment I began to fight. I was not willing to be outside of the lagoon, though it was no deeper than the farther areas inside the lagoon. When I recognized the unhelpful thoughts, I was able to connect and embrace actuality — being outside of the lagoon.
No matter what I did in a frantic mode, my reality could not change right then. When I embraced it, and allowed my thoughts, feelings, sensations, bodily sensations, and urges to be there, I was able to think more clearly instead of panicking and trying to get rid of them.
To be clear, “accepting your thoughts and feelings now” does not mean staying stuck where you are with a victim stance or white-knuckling the situation. Learning to become disentangled from your thoughts and accepting what is given will enable you to have an open mind to adjust accordingly.
When I was desperately trying to remove myself from the situation, I didn’t get anywhere. Once I let go of the fight with my internal events (i.e., thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges), I was able to let them be so they could run their course naturally.
Act while focusing on the process.
Instead of reacting frantically and just having the end goal in mind — getting back inside of the lagoon to feel safe, my focus became one slow breaststroke (my own version of a breaststroke) at a time. In your case, when anxiety and other unpleasant external or internal events occur, you can learn to be willing to take what is being offered in that instant and let emotions and sensations run their course. The effort and time you spend fighting them can be channeled towards cultivating and acting on your values and living a richer and more meaningful life.
What will you be willing to do today or this week that has been difficult in the past? Will you be willing to accept what is offered in the moment of a difficult situation? Will you be willing to let go of the fight with the unfightable? It’s never too late to learn to embrace those internal events so you can move in the direction that you want.