Living with a compass, living with the absence of one

In this sketch I want to invoke the compass, as a metaphor I will often introduce in work with my clients, and as personally meaningful. The compass as described here is a symbol for what might be described as directionality (Cooper, 2019) or in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), as our values (Hayes, 2019).

Wherever we stand literally or figuratively on this Earth, in whatever situation or company, when we hold a compass in our hands we may pivot again towards our own magnetic North, and take steps – literally or figuratively – to continue on our journey. Without it we get lost, or stuck, or stagnate; we may not be able to see which way to turn.

What is it that you really want?

We might consider our compass points to be our highest purposes or meaning in life: What do we most want out of this life? How do we want to live? Why do we value the things that we value? Where is the ultimate source of value located? These questions will be answered differently by each of us. Founder of ACT Steven C Hayes himself offered:

‘Suppose no-one would ever find out. There’s not going to be any applause. Nobody else is going to weigh in on this. It’s just between you and you. What do you really want in your life?’

(Hayes and Lillis, 2012)

As a therapist I’ve found this attitude helpful. Very often when any of us are asked what our highest sense of meaning or purpose is we will default to the most socially desirable answers: family is my most important purpose in life, or living life to the fullest, or making the world a better place for others. Whilst these initial answers might hold truth in them, there may also be richer, more detailed and personal visions of that highest purpose still to be uncovered. But nobody ever asked us; nobody ever gave us permission to think about this before.

How about the more childlike or fantastical dreams and visions we also still hold onto? How about the meaning we perceived in those most perfect moments in our life’s story? What about those meanings or purposes we might feel a little bit vulnerable or silly to admit to others? If you were to sit down deliberately and try to tease some of these out of your own imagination, e.g. with a pen and pad, what would emerge? (And there is an invitation).

Whilst some of us may have very explicit and developed ideas about what our compass points are in life, others simply don’t know. Some of us, perhaps most of us, have some deeper seated, implicit sense of our compass points but have never attempted to put these into words. We continue to work hard, we continue to get out of bed in the morning, we push on through setbacks and disappointments because we have an implicit sense of what direction we are heading in. Likewise when we lose that implicit sense then we lose our motivation to keep working hard, to get out of bed in the morning, or to keep going when we meet with setbacks.

I think as such we might feel the presence or absence of that implicit sense of direction in an embodied way. With it we raise our chins, we stand taller, our feet feel lighter, we understand what needs to be done, and are more confident around others. Without it heads go down, our posture becomes more closed, our feet feel heavier, we’re not sure what needs to be done, and we seem to withdraw.

In sorrow, pain, anger or unwellness

When life is good: when we are healthy, happy, hopeful, and creative, and when we have good relationships, it is perhaps an easier thing to say “I’m moving in the right direction”. However it is perhaps much harder to perceive any sense of direction in times of sorrow, pain, anger or unwellness. Those moments, which may be the ones in which we feel the most acute need for a compass, may be precisely those moments when we feel to have lost ours. Which is why in ACT we seek to make our compass points explicit: through words, images, symbols and stories.

In ACT it is said that ‘In your pain you find your values, and in your values you find your pain.’ In other words: why do you care about this? The answer to that question may shed some light onto what implicit sense of directionality is being frustrated or denied. I think about the way the compass needles for North and South travel round the face together.

One of the ideas at the heart of ACT, and it is quite a radical promise, is that however deep your sorrow, your pain, your anger, or your unwellness, that as conscious and intentional beings we may always pivot back towards our highest directions; there are always steps we may take in those directions. I think here about Londoners during the Blitz, and how their homes were destroyed in the nightly raids, reduced to piles of rubble around them. How might they have moved forward? One thought at a time, one step at a time, one brick at a time.

A magnetic field?

One big philosophical question that remains unanswered is whether, as we each as individuals discover our compass points, our highest directions in life, whether these are someway harmonised between us: e.g. across families, communities, across species or in our ecology? If we extend the compass metaphor further, all compasses are aligned within a single magnetic field and towards a magnetic North. In a similar way, perhaps as we human beings stand together on this Earth, with our own internalised senses of direction – however explicit or implicit they are to us, and whatever we call them – that they are aligned in some way we do not yet understand.

We might advance some theories about this – such as that we are all ultimately driven by Darwinian evolution and natural selection, or by a Freudian Nirvana or Death principle, or even by a physicalist notion of entropy as continuously increasing through biological processes. The problem with these God’s-eye views of human nature is that they seem so far removed from personal, subjective experience as to fail to articulate in any meaningful or compelling way the contents of that experience. Which is why I’m interested in the view ‘from the inside looking out’, and what we might discover from this vantage point.

Mick Cooper (2019) has given this question some thought and advances his idea of social synergy. For Cooper, it is not just individuals but groups and societies which are continually discovering their higher directions, and this discovery process is without end – there is no final, stable direction that we may land upon.

What if I don’t have a compass, how can I discover my compass points?

A piece of advice I would give is not to wait for the perfect answer or the perfect vision, but to start with something that feels meaningful to you, pivot towards it, and as you go along you will find that it will naturally evolve into a richer, more clearly defined vision. I would also invite you to enter into personal therapy, or to share your feelings with a wise friend, or teacher, or mentor; particularly where they may have discovered in themselves some understanding of their own directionality. In sharing our feelings and visions, or even the lack of them, with another and in receiving their reflections, more crystalline thoughts and ideas can emerge.

A helpful guiding principle in ACT is that we focus not on goals but on values; or put another way to focus not on having but on doing. For example, if what we think that we most want in life is to be rich, to have a dream job, or the perfect marriage, or to become famous for our good works, then we may be waiting a very long time with no rewards along the way; or that ‘life happens’ along the way and illness or misfortune prevents us from ever attaining these ideals. Alternatively we may attain those goals eventually but are left wondering: ‘well now what’? However if we can focus on values: such as creativity, or kindness, or social justice, or love, then minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day there are steps we can take to realign with those values. We don’t have to wait, and whatever life throws there is always something we can do to take a step into our highest directions in whatever small way, right here and now.

Cooper. M. (2019). Integrating Counselling & Psychotherapy: Directionality, Synergy and Social Change. London: Sage Publishing

Hayes, S.C. (2019). A Liberated Mind. London : Vermillion

Hayes, S.C. & Lillis, J. (2012). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Washington DC : American Psychological Association


​© 2020 by John Hills

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