What matters to us

Emotion-focused mindfulness therapy encourages us to explore navigating meditation and life oriented to our values and what works. Carl Rogers taught that if we respond to people with empathy, prizing, and genuineness, people have deep capacities for orienting to their own growth and direction in life. People benefit from a sense of safety and encouragement that enables them to turn inward to the implicit feel of their embodied experiencing and to make sense of what they encounter there, integrating feeling, reflection and sensory experiencing. We are then better able to sort out what we really feel about situations and what really matters to us in a way that feels empowering and we can carry into the rest of our life.

I love the way Steve Hayes (2012), who developed acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT, pronounced like the word “act”) talks about values. He says values are not goals, because you can achieve goals, but you cannot achieve values. Values are what matter most to us, what we seek to cultivate every day, and reflect the kind of life we want to live. For example, if we value lifelong learning or being a loving parent or friend, these are not something we can cross off our to-do list, these are processes we aspire to show up for and cultivate our whole life. 

Goals are things we can achieve. If we develop goals oriented to our values, achieving them confirms we are moving in the direction of our values. For example, if you value lifelong learning, you could plan to check out your local university’s continuing education website to see if there is a course you might like to take and, if there is, register for it. Achieving these goals would indicate you are moving in the direction you want to go. 

Hayes uses the metaphor of a compass to illustrate this, that values are like wanting to head east. You could set up goals of driving past cities east of you and this would confirm you are heading east. But east itself in this metaphor is not a destination you arrive at, it is the direction you want to go in: you can never “get east.” He adds that if you find yourself heading south, there is no need to punish yourself for having taken a wrong turn, all you need to do is turn left and you will be heading as east as you possibly can.

The problem with the repetitive types of emotions we discussed in last week’s blog, such as secondary, defensive emotions that obscure primary emotions, primary maladaptive emotions loaded with information about toxic situations in our past, or instrumental emotions that are not what we really feel but which we express to send a message to get our way with others, is not that they cause suffering, although they may well, it is that they interfere with developing a more authentic relationship with suffering, our existential condition, knowing what really matters to us, and showing up for the life we want to live. Knowing how to let go of or transform repetitive emotions and tuning into adaptive primary emotions helps us develop a more authentic relationship with suffering, our existential condition and cultivating a more fulfilling life. Many traditions emphasize the deep connection between confronting our existential situation including aloneness, vulnerability, suffering and mortality and living a fulfilling life.

This brings us to an ACT exercise I use in my EFMT groups to help participants acknowledge what really matters to them, the kind of lives they want to live, and what will bring them life and energy, helping them come fully alive: I invite you the reader to imagine many years from today, you are deep in your old age and you are about to die. As you remember your life from today until then, tears spring to your eyes, and you realize you feel so grateful, you can’t believe you got to live that life! What kind of life did you live that would make you feel so grateful, and what were the values that oriented and empowered you to show up for such a fulfilling life? You could contemplate this for a while and jot down some notes.

No one can tell us what our values are, we have to acknowledge, feel and make sense of this for ourselves. This can be an uplifting experience as if our whole heart and being were singing.

However, sometimes people have difficulty identifying their values. This may be because we have been disappointed in life and feel scared that acknowledging values will only lead to more disappointment. This can backfire and become a self-fulfilling process where, not daring to imagine the life we long to live, our lives become smaller and more and more disappointing.

If you are having difficulty acknowledging what your values are, look to see where the pain in your life is, and you may find on the other side of the pain are your values and the life you are not living. Perhaps it hurts so much because it matters so deeply to you. A deep benefit of developing a more authentic relationship with suffering and our existential situation is we discover what matters most to us and the life we want to live.

As Mary Oliver wrote:

When it’s all over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, 
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Excerpted from Mary Oliver (1992), “When Death Comes,” from New & Selected Poems: Vol 1. Beacon Press, Boston.

Click here to read the full poem.