In my last post, I suggested that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) provides a mindfulness-based approach to enhance what Bernard Lonergan’s student Frederick Crowe identifies as the two types of love — complacency and concern — what I called gratitude and generosity. Mindfulness helps one practice grateful acceptance of the good that already is, while clarifying one’s values and living a valued life helps one generously contribute more goodness to that world. Here I’d like to suggest that this life of adding value to existence is enhanced by the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness becomes a way to practice living virtuously.

Being virtuous means creating one’s character through good choices. In ACT terminology, it means repeatedly engaging in actions “aligned” with one’s values. For example, one lives the value/virtue of “being courageous” by engaging in courageous actions. Of course, discerning what values are worth committing to and how best to live out those values is not easy, but ACT encourages confidence in the possibility of self-correction in conversation with others such as a therapist, spiritual director, or friend.

Saying “yes” to valued action means saying “no” to everything that competes with that. Nonetheless, temptations arise. We have impulses, urges, and desires for other goods besides the values we really care about. Perhaps we are tempted to pure self-interest instead of the common good. Maybe we are distracted by money, possessions, comfort, pleasure, power, honors, or status. These aren’t bad things, but they are only choiceworthy if they are means to the end of the the good life, as when one pursues political power for the sake of promoting social justice, pleasure for the sake of bodily health, or money and possessions for the sake of living one’s vocation. But when such things compete with living virtuously, we must be ready to give them up. For example, running into a burning building to save a crying baby means sacrificing my present comfort in order to courageously promote the good of another.

Vice, the opposite of virtue, happens when we let the temptation to choose lower goods get the best of us. Take three classic vices: lust, gluttony, and greed. In each case, one fails to do what is right because of disordered attachments to goods such as sex, substances, and money/possessions. Again, these are not bad things and have their rightful place in the life of value, but there may come a time when the excessive desire for them might keep one from doing what is right, as when an excessive desire for money keeps one from spending enough time with one’s family.

How does mindfulness help? Through mindfulness, we learn to overcome our urges to do what we know isn’t right. The meditator practices the skill of non-impulsive behavior by committing to paying attention to the breath, noticing temptations and other discomforts that arise, and returning to the commitment. Someone who practices this skill of sticking to one’s commitments amidst distractions, fear of missing out, fear of discomfort, and drives to do something else will perhaps be more likely to stick to one’s commitments in “real life.” Such a person has learned to pay attention to themselves and instead of getting caught up in the temptations that arise, accepts their presence and lets them pass just as they do with distractions during meditation. This self-awareness can also be helpful in noticing whether one’s values are in order — whether we value courage over comfort in the above example — and whether one really is living a life aligned with these values. In this way, I create a life in which my various desires are guided and integrated by my desire to live virtuously.

To return to love as gratitude and generosity, mindfulness helps us let go of our attachments to anything other than the good that is and should be. Against gratitude, there is the temptation to wish things were otherwise than they are. Against generosity, there is the temptation to pursue something other than the change I should bring about in the world. The mindful person notices being tempted by these other goods, lets go of them, and accepts any other difficult emotions, uncomfortable experiences, and whatever else happens in the course of choosing a life of value. This notion of accepting suffering raises the question of the role of happiness in the good life that ACT promotes, which I will explore in my next post.

The views expressed in this essay belong entirely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lonergan Institute staff or the values of Boston College.