Life is hard for everyone. That’s why it helps to have an assortment of tools to navigate life’s inevitable lows.
And that’s exactly what you’ll find in Russ Harris’s book The Reality Slap: Finding Peace and Fulfillment When Life Hurts. Harris is a psychotherapist and renowned expert in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). The book is based on ACT’s principles.
The reality slap is a term that Harris uses to refer to life’s various lows, which include everything from losing a loved one to experiencing failure or envy.
According to Harris, after a reality slap strikes, we face another problem: “the reality gap.” The reality gap consists of two sides. One side is the reality we have; the other side is the reality we want.
The bigger the gap between these realities, the more painful our emotions.
This gap can last anywhere from days to even decades. And, unfortunately, he says that our society doesn’t prepare us to deal effectively with a big reality gap.
What can prepare us is finding inner fulfillment — a fulfillment that doesn’t break or bend based on external factors.
Harris defines inner fulfillment as “a deep sense of peacefulness, well-being, and vitality, which you can experience even in the face of a large reality gap — even when your dreams don’t come true, your goals aren’t achieved, and your life is harsh, cruel or unfair.”
In other words, when we experience loss or pain, we can still find peace within. According to Harris, there are three ingredients for inner fulfillment: presence, purpose and privilege.
Finding fulfillment lies in living fully in the present moment. Unfortunately, our minds make that tricky. Harris says that when we face a particularly big reality gap, our minds produce a slew of painful thoughts, which prevents us from enjoying life and effectively mastering activities.
We get lost in these negative thoughts and spend our days on autopilot, missing the true richness of life, he says. But we can learn to open our eyes and pay full attention.
Harris features an excellent exercise in the book to help readers feel more present with the people in their lives.
Each day, pick one person, and notice that person’s face as if you’ve never seen it before: the color of his eyes, teeth and hair; the pattern of the wrinkles in his skin; and the manner in which he moves, walks and talks. Notice his facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. See if you can read his emotions and tune in to what he is feeling. When he talks to you, pay attention as if he is the most fascinating speaker you’ve ever heard and you’ve paid a million dollars for the privilege of listening. (Tip: Choose the person the night before, and then remind yourself who it is first thing in the morning. This way, you’re more likely to remember to do the exercise.) And, most important, notice what happens as a result of this more mindful interaction.
Harris includes another valuable exercise to be present while engaging in pleasurable activities.
Every day, pick a simple, pleasurable activity — ideally one that you tend to take for granted or do on autopilot — and see if you can extract every last sensation of pleasure out of it. This might include hugging a loved one, stroking your cat, walking your dog, playing with your kids, drinking a cool glass of water or a warm cup of tea, eating your lunch or dinner, listening to your favorite music, having a hot bath or shower, walking in the park — you name it. (Note: Don’t try this with activities that require you to get lost in your thoughts, such as reading, Sudoku, chess or crossword puzzles.) As you do this activity, use your fives senses to be fully present: notice what you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell and savor every aspect of it.
According to Harris, “The more we can connect with a purpose that guides our actions now and in the future, the more we will experience a sense of fulfillment; we will feel that we are making the most of our time on this earth.”
While he admits that this is easier said than done, with some thoughtful reflection, you can identify your purpose. Harris has clients consider the below questions, which is part of a process in ACT called clarifying your values. This is key, because “it’s our values that infuse our life with purpose.”
- What truly matters to me, deep in my heart?
- What do I want to stand for as I use my time on this planet?
- What sort of human being do I want to be?
- How do I want to behave toward myself, others and the world around me?
- What personal qualities do I want to cultivate?
This refers to experiencing life as a privilege. According to Harris, simply being alive “gives you a valuable opportunity to connect, care and contribute; to love and learn and grow. To treat life as a privilege means to seize that opportunity — to appreciate it, embrace it and savor it.”
Harris says that the reality gap is only one part of an entire stage show. Appreciating life doesn’t mean pretending that this part isn’t present. Rather, it means not only seeing the gap clearly but also seeing the other parts of the stage and finding something in the show that you can treasure.
The below exercise helps to cultivate appreciation, and incorporates being present — paying attention with openness and curiosity — and having purpose — connecting with our eyes and realizing the impact they have on our lives.
As you read this sentence, notice how your eyes are scanning the page; notice how they move from word to word without any conscious effort on your part, how they go at just the right speed for you to take in the information.
Now imagine how difficult life would be if you lost your eyesight. How much would you miss out on? Imagine if you could no longer read books, watch movies, discern the facial expressions of your loved ones, check out your reflection in a mirror, watch a sunset or drive a car.
When you reach the end of the paragraph, stop reading for a few seconds, look around and notice — and I mean really notice — five things you can see. Linger on each item for several seconds, noticing its shape, color and texture, as if you are a curious child who has never seen anything like it. Notice any patterns or markings on the surface of these objects. Notice how the light reflects off them, or the shadows they cast. Notice their contours, their outlines, and whether they are moving or still. Be open to the experience of discovering something new, even if your mind insists it will be boring.
Then, once you have finished, take a moment to consider just how much your eyes add to your life; consider what the gift of vision affords you.
You can take the time to notice and appreciate your life every day. As Harris clarifies, doing so isn’t a panacea for your problems or a way to pretend that life is perfect. Rather, instead of focusing on what you lack, this kind of mindset helps you feel more fulfilled.