S1 Bonus Existentialism and Behaviorism with Robyn Walser, Ph.D.

In this special extra episode, our first guest Dr. Robyn Walser joined Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete for a conversation on existentialism within behaviorism. Dr. Walser is a scholar and practitioner in the field of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and has authored many books and research articles. Her books are titled: The Heart of ACT: Developing a Flexible and Process-Based Practice Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Learning ACT-2nd Edition, ACT for Moral Injury, The Mindful Couple, ACT for Clergy and Pastoral Counselors: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Bridge Psychological and Spiritual Care, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress disorder.

Listen to learn about the work of existentialism within the practice and science of behaviorism.

You can learn more about Dr. Walser here:




Nikki: Pete, I'm so excited because we have our first guest today.

Pete: Yayy

Nikki: We've been waiting for this. So we're starting off with our first guest, Dr. Robyn Walser, because we're going to be talking about existentialism and behaviorism, specifically acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which we've obviously talked a lot about on this podcast. So just to give our listeners some info about the wonderful Dr. Walser here. Dr. Walser is the director of TL consultation services. She staff at the National Center for PTSD. And she's an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Berkeley. And as a licensed psychologist, she also maintains an international training, consulting and therapy practice. So she's a very busy woman here.

Pete: Wait until you get to this part.

Nikki: Yeah, wait until I get to this part. Dr. Walter is also an expert in acceptance and Commitment Therapy, known as ACT. And she's authored and co-authored six books.

Pete: That's the part.

Nikki: Yeah, that's the part... On ACT, her most recent book is 'The Heart of ACT, developing a flexible and process based practice using acceptance and Commitment Therapy. And the other books, we're actually going to put in our episode description if you guys want to check those out. And then Dr. Walters has also authored a number of research articles and chapters on top of that, on acceptance based interventions. And she's invested in developing innovative ways to translate science into practice, which, obviously Pete and I are very into.

Pete: Yayy,

Nikki: Robyn, welcome. It's so good to see you.

Robyn: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Nice to meet you, Peter. And to see you again, Nikki. It's been a while but it's really nice to be on your vlog, on your show.

Pete: Yeah, it's our honor.

Nikki: Yes, it's our honor.

Robyn: Thank you.

Nikki: And I have to say, in this being 'When East Meets West', Pete's on the East Coast here, Robyn's on the West Coast team here,

Pete: Yeah.

Robyn: I'm on the west coast team.

Nikki: Up in the Bay area.

Pete: So scheduling was fun, because the time zones always mess all of us up.

Robyn: I know.

Pete: Especially in today's world. And that Nikki and Robyn go back, and that this is our first time meeting. So it's really a pleasure, honestly. Thank you.

Robyn:  Yeah, I know. Thank you.

Nikki: Yeah. Robyn and I met when I was in grad school. It's been like, I think I met...

Pete: It hasn't been that long. Don't worry about it.

Nikki: Yes, it has been over 13 years.

Pete: Grad school hasn't been that long, Nikki.

Nikki: It was a while ago, now I can say it. Well, so let's dive into existentialism, and behaviorism and ACT. And I'm really excited to talk about this, because Robyn had asked if that would be something we'd be interested in discussing. And I was like, "Yes",

Pete: Yes.

Nikki: Because this is something actually, and I've never shared this with you, Robyn. But I've always explained to people that are not in psychology, ACT as an existential behavior therapy. That's how I describe it. Because that's how it really resonates with me. And so I'm just really curious to hear how, just starting off, how do you see these two on the surface, very different wings of psychology, and lenses overlapping?

Robyn:  I know it's a great start question. And there's some pieces about existentialism, and depending on which philosophers you're reading, that don't match up with what ACT is asking of individuals, in terms of how they want to approach their lives, their emotions, their thoughts, their sensations, that kind of thing. But there's a whole piece of it that is quite fascinating. And I think lines up well, and it has to do with this idea of being conscious and alive, which both existentialism and ACT pay attention to. We're alive and we're aware. And inside of that space, what meaning are you going to create in your life, given that from this existential position, we're going to die and you can land in these places where there is no meaning, and what is it all about, and what is existence? And Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT asks the same thing of you. And I actually have a chapter in The Heart of ACT on acceptance and ACT and existentialism, and I think about it in terms of, we have such a short period of time here. And we get caught up in 'I'll do this when' or 'I'm going to live better when' or 'when I don't feel this anymore, I will that', and time just slips by and we live unconsciously. And then we show up at a certain point and are like, 'Oh, I don't have that much time left what I'm doing?'

Nikki: Right.

Robyn: And I want to help bring people into that much more quickly. If you're conscious and alive now, what will you create? What will your meaning be? And both existentialism and ACT ask those questions of us?

Pete: How did you arrive at that for yourself? Because I think, one of the ways I teach this as a professor is that you have to practice this to preach it.

Nikki: Yeah.

Pete: I think other types of therapies you don't necessarily have to. So I'm curious what you could share about your own awakening, because I think that's so enlightening to say, life is short, and then how do I really get the best out of it?

Robyn: Yeah, I probably had hints of it for a very long time; I can't even recall when I first started thinking about things, these things. I read some books on existentialism, in graduate school, but it also thought about these ideas of death. I grew up inside of a fairly religious family, at least when I was young, none of them are actually practicing religion anymore. But that sort of idea of what's beyond life. And so, I always sort of thinking about these questions of, 'is there something beyond life? Is there not?', and just in terms of what is existence, and what it's about has, I think been filtered throughout my life and sprinkled here and sprinkled there. And then when I attended my first ACT workshop, and Steve Hayes, the developer of ACT,

Pete: That's right.

Robyn: Started talking about meaning, these two pieces just sort of came together. And I actually did a, although I have to tell you, it wasn't very good. You know the exams that you had to take in graduate school to...?

Nikki: Oh, yeah.

Pete: The comprehensive,

Robyn: The comprehensive. Thank you. I took a comprehensive exam on a behavioral interpretation of existentialism, which was...

Pete: That's so cool.

Robyn: Oh, it was a lot of fun to read, and do.

Pete: Yeah.

Robyn: And, although I wish I would have understand relational frame theory better at the time,

Nikki: Right,

Robyn: Because I think I would have done a much better product. I don't even want to talk to Steve about how I did. He was probably, "Oh, well,"

Pete: That was in the past though. See, that's the good thing. Don't worry about it.

Nikki: That's not happening anymore. And again, for our listeners, relational frame theory, which we've touched on here. Wonderful wing of behaviorism extremely complicated.

Pete: But I broke it down for us before, you liked it.

Nikki: You did, I did.

Pete: We'll get back to it, yeah.

Robyn: And so if I had understood that better, I think I would have had a much more sophisticated interpretation, but have loved the way these two sort of weave together. And how ACT is about living consciously, living a value based life and creating meaning. And for those two things, they line right up together. I think there's personal ways in which I've thought about this as well. I write about this as well, that and Nikki, you've heard me talk about this as the passing of my mother.

Nikki: Yes.

Robyn: Which was an incredible experience, in terms of the pain that was present inside of that, and sort of thinking that when she passed, the world should stop?

Nikki: Of course,

Robyn: Like it shouldn't take another turn, it shouldn't spin another day. And then when it did, I remember the first couple of nights after she had passed away, waking up and being like, "What's going on here?"

Nikki: Yeah,

Robyn: The world keeps spinning, what's happening? And this sort of recognition of, I'm still alive, and it's going to keep turning, and what am I going to do? And how will this be? And what will I create? So everything from the academic to the more maybe spiritual, or connected to people that I've known, passing people that I care about, passing and seeing that finitude and, 'oh, boy, it's happening fast. Let's get something going here.'

Nikki: Yeah,

Robyn: Yeah.

Nikki: Well, and also, it comes to mind when you're saying that, too, and obviously, we talked about this and ACT a lot that, in that moment, waking up in middle of the night, a few days after your mother had passed, that when the intensity of the grief hits you that level of pain and the sort of surprise around, 'I'm still surviving that', because that's something, I think that just obviously shows up over and over again. And in our clinical work, obviously, we're talking about, even if you're not in therapy, you're a practicing therapist, that we're afraid of those feelings.

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: And also, I was thinking this a moment ago as well, I think we can also be afraid of finding meanings. It's like that's something that crosses in my mind too. There's a lot of people that get anxious around existential thoughts. And I've had a lot of patients that will get that kind of like, "what does it all mean? And like all the stars, and everything feels anxious and scary". And I think that there's also discomfort there, too. I don't know, what you guys think about that?

Robyn: I absolutely think there can be discomfort there. Because if you're discovering meaning, and you're not doing anything about it, you could sort of put you in an angst so to speak, or you can get paralyzed by some of those ideas. And when we think about our own death, you can approach it in a number of ways, you can get scared and get busy, and do everything you can to avoid ideas around it, and actually shut down or turn away from it in such a way that it lead you to more problems, even more anxieties and fears, that kind of thing. If you turn toward it and see it, and approach it as another curiosity, another thing that I'm going to experience, it can change things, but there's a freedom in it, and there's a terrifying thing in it.

Nikki: Oh, yeah.

Pete: Oh, yeah.

Robyn: There's both of those places of, 'I see this, and I see it'.

Pete: Yeah. And as we know, people want to avoid it. So I think, for me, part of the 'East Meets West' title is also bringing the eastern principles from Buddhism. So I studied under Robert Kennedy, who's in the Buddhist Zen traditions. And I remember loss after studying that the first time. Wasn't my mother yet, my mother is still with me. But even the close person, you think you're supposed to be able to detach? Because that's even part of the inevitability of death. And you learn that in Buddhism, that's part of this existentialism, and yet, then you lose someone and feel it. And you're like, "wait, oh, I'm human".

Nikki: You literally ripped the word out of my mouth. I was going to say it. It's like, "Oh, right. I'm still a person; there is no tool that's going to..."

Pete: Eliminate suffering.

Nikki: Yeah, "that's going to get me out of this feeling."

Pete: Nothing does.

Robyn: It makes me think of my favorite title, I hope I'm going to get this right, 'First, the Ecstasy and then the Laundry'.

Nikki: That's fantastic, yeah

Robyn: Where you arrive, and then you got to go do the laundry, and so there's a process, not an outcome. We're in a process of consciousness and loss of conscious living, consciousness and loss of conscious living. And, minds are kind of trapped in this funny place where they easily pull us into unconscious living, and we have to actually work to come back out and be present in this kind of Buddhist way.

Pete: Yeah.

Robyn: And to maybe be attached, like you're saying, Peter, to this idea of someone who you loved or cared about deeply, but not in such a way that you then stop living yourself?

Pete: That's right.

Robyn: That's where people get into trouble, as they get into grief, which I think can last a lifetime. You can absolutely arrest, yes.

Pete: Oh my god, yeah. Totally.

Nikki: Yes.

Robyn: But, where the place is a problem. We even have a diagnosis chronic grief.

Nikki: Yeah.

Pete: Yeah

Robyn: Which, by the way, I find irritating.

Pete: Well, if you want we could do a DSM episode.

Nikki: Yeah, we could do a DSM episode, no problem. Yeah.

Pete: So we're with you on that. Yeah.

Robyn: Yeah. It's like, of course, I'm going to have grief over my mother for the rest of my life. I love her deeply.

Pete: Sure.

Robyn: If she's not here, I miss her, that kind of thing.

Pete: That's right.

Robyn: And so when I think about these things, like attachment to somebody or something. It's almost kind of a light attachment. It's an attachment light; I guess, is the way to think about it,

Pete: Yes.

Nikki: Yes.

Robyn: Where it's not holding you back in some way, but you can still feel the emotional experience. And I think the place where people get stuck with it is when they're denying of what happened, or they don't see a future for themselves based on the loss of someone or the death of someone they care about. It's like, 'my life is over'. When indeed it's not, just pinch yourself, you're still there, and notice that you're still breathing, your life isn't over. And so it's just caught up in those ideas, Peter that I think you're pointing to that...

Pete: Yeah,

Robyn: causes struggle.

Pete: So I have a question just as we're talking about this, and the idea of feeling, and then six books, that's so impressive. And I wonder, because that's suffering, too.

Robyn: Let me just put an exclamation point behind that.

Pete: Yeah, maybe talk about your process of writing or your motivation of writing? I think that would be pretty cool to hear too.

Robyn: So writing has been a very interesting process for me. And I've wanted to share the way I think about things, and people have asked me to share it, "talk more about what you're doing in therapy, let us hear about it and read about it". And I've been invited to share, by writing co-author books and that kind of thing. But the writing process for me is not easy. I don't like the build up to the writing. But then once I start writing, and I'm doing the writing, and I'm engaging in the writing, I'm having fun and kind of thinking about ideas and pulling things in. And I'm one of those writers that writes for 12 hours straight.

Nikki: Oh, wow.

Pete: Oh, wow.

Robyn: And I bail, and I leave it for a little bit, and then I come back and I do it again. And then then I'm in pain right up to the writing. That's sort of my process for writing. I don't know if that's the best way to do it. But I just find myself doing it that way.

Pete: Well there's certainly no right or wrong way. But obviously, it's working; all of them have been great. So thank you for that. Thank you for that process.

Nikki: Yes, thank you. And just to sort of bring us back, as Pete likes to tease me; I love to do "back to existentialism and behaviorism here".

Pete: She does

Nikki: Yes, I do.

Pete: She's the smart one in the group.

Nikki: That's not true.

Robyn: The focused one in the group.

Pete: Yeah, she's focused.

Robyn: Keeping us on tack

Nikki: Just turning my mind back.

Pete: She does.

Nikki: Yeah, I think that hearing you talk about even the writing process, and you're saying, when you're in it, when you're in that moment, and it's something, even to sit down and do it for 12 hours. So that, to me speaks that this is something meaningful to you, this is something that you connect with, even though we're also saying it's really hard, and it's a lot of work. And that's the place that I think when people are struggling, they have a hard time understanding how they can cultivate this willingness to take those steps in these directions. That they might want to go, obviously in ACT, we define that as, the values, language, values clarification, and existentialism, talking more just about what is life, what is meaning. So I'm really curious, Robyn, how do you help someone that, maybe somebody's like, "I want to write a book, it makes me excited, and it feels fulfilling, the idea of it. But I can't do that". What do you do when somebody is not able to really understand that it is their connection to their values that can help them choose to move forward?

Robyn: Well, if we sort of keep this linked up to existentialism? If I'm understanding your question correctly, I think that I want to turn it over to them. You do not have to write a book.

Pete: That's right.

Nikki: Yeah, right.

Robyn: You have the freedom here to write it or not write it. And the question is for you to answer. And if it's something that you care about, and find meaningful, will you do the first thing, which is write a title, or write an abstract, or write of sentence. It might be at that pace or that level, but I want to really stick with that space of, 'you get to pick'. And there's all kinds of ways to live a life. You can live a life as somebody who's always wanted to write a book. You can live a life as somebody who's sort of written a book.

Pete: I love that.

Robyn: Yeah, you can live a life as somebody who has written 10 books, or 45 books, or whatever the case might be. There's all kinds of ways to do it. And I want you to feel free to move into whichever way. The only thing I would maybe, to get to your question a little bit, will you be okay with the choice that you make? Maybe there's one more. How long will you wait to make it? Because not making it is a choice itself. If the choice is something different than this way of life, it's this way of life.

Nikki: Yeah. So I think that's really interesting, that second part you're saying about the 'not making the choice is a choice in and of itself'. Because I definitely find, and I'm curious if you guys have this too, I've asking somebody, "will you be okay with it", sometimes, I find that people get stuck there, because they want to own the outcome, they want to know. 'I want to know, if I take this step, it's going to turn out okay'. And I'll say, "We don't have that information. We only have what you know in this moment". That's the values based living, is taking healthy risks. But that idea of, if you choose not to you're also making a choice, that's very interesting to me. And I think that's something maybe a lot of people don't think about.

Robyn: Yeah. Well, something that you said to kind of reminded me of this is like, 'I'm not making that choice, and will I get the outcome I want?' And who knows?

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: Right, we don't know.

Robyn: You could write a whole book and nobody wants to publish it, you could publish it yourself. And the outcomes are like many, we do know one thing, we do know one outcome, you are going to die.

Pete: That's right.

Nikki: Right,

Robyn: Let's come back to that.

Nikki: Yeah.

Robyn: We are going to die.

Nikki: Death and taxes, only certain thing.

Robyn: Yeah, so if you're conscious and alive, what life will you create, and we should be asking ourselves that routinely? And we tend to ask it, when we've experienced something painful, or when somebody, or some critter that we care about passes, or falls ill, or gets cancer or something like that, we get sort of pushed up against mortality. Maybe there's something good about not being pushed against mortality routinely. But if you can take that spark, like, 'I'm going to connect with my kids', or 'I'm going to connect and do these things', if you could bring that into your every day,

Pete: Yeah,

Robyn: Just a little bit more things will start to unfold for you in a different way. And you could look back and say, "Yeah, I did it, I did this thing".

Pete: Well, sort of like asking, 'will you regret if you don't?' And I think that that's value directed living. So for me, existentialism is synonymous with values. And I like that you brought about growing up in a really religious house, because I think these are one of these multicultural things that we don't want to talk about. We can't talk about it at dinner. And I find myself; I talk a lot about spirituality and religion. And so I work primarily with high performers and athletes, and they bring spirituality and religion in their work. And so we'll talk about what does the word mean for you? What text did you read this morning? And really bringing that into the works. I wonder if you find space for that also, like in the supervision. I know you write about a lot about that, but just the role of having grown up in a super religious, or highly religious place, and then how that translates into the clinical work. And it does align really well with ACT. I wonder, what do you say about that?

Robyn: Yeah. I this is a very interesting place that I think that we, as clinical psychologists have abandoned because we're afraid.

Pete:  Yeah.

Nikki: Yeah

Robyn: We've been so focused on, 'if we don't make ourselves out to be a science', and 'spirituality and science don't line up', then somehow we're not scientists, which is, if I can be so bold,

Pete: Please do.

Robyn: Bullshit.

Pete: Thank you. I was reading your mind.

Nikki: Yeah. Just say it.

Robyn: Yeah, you can completely be a scientist and nurture spirituality, and I talked to your clients about those things. I do work at the VA, as you well know,

Pete: Yeah.

Robyn: And many of the clients that I work with there, are quite spiritual, and have religions, and should I just ignore that?

Pete: No.

Robyn: When it's part of what I know, is impacting their behavior and the way they go? I need to be prepared and want folks to be able to talk about spirituality, in a way that...

Pete: Well, that's why.

Robyn: Yeah.

Pete: I'm sorry. That's why I love third wave and just any CBT, because I was trained with mostly psychodynamic professors, and so they would be like, "well leave yourself at the door". And now, knowing what I know today, especially around this, because honestly, I encourage conversations around religion in clinical work. I think it's beautiful,

Robyn: Yeah,

Pete: And to say that's not science I think is avoidance. Because it's a lot more challenging to talk about that than it is to talk about, that two plus two equals four.

Robyn: Yeah, I want to know how you leave yourself at the door, Peter.

Pete: Good luck with that. Just meet me, and so hard to say,

Nikki: Yeah, I was just going to say,

Pete: I never understood that.

Nikki: Get to know him a little better and you'll see. Well, I was thinking too, it's like this idea of being afraid of spirituality, too. I honestly, and I'm sure there's people that disagree with me when I say this, but to me, values and spirituality are intertwined. And I personally came to being more connected to spirituality through my training to become a psychologist, I was sort of somebody that, and I've talked about this on this podcast before, I was more like science, science, science, that I'm going to be a behaviorist. And that's still true, I still love data, facts and behaviorism. And yet, it was actually through my training, in mindfulness practices and ACT specifically, that brought me to [inaudible 26:10] spirituality and an openness to that, I actually just wrote about it for this little online magazine, civil practice does. And to me, those things are one in the same, I'm sure it's not that way for everybody. But I also describe it to patients as, values or your insights. And when I say like, 'I feel spiritual', I don't know, they're synonyms to me.

Robyn: Yeah. Well, you can see in our world today, what has happened by making this clear division between science and spirituality. It has led some to think that these guys are not right, and they're wrong. And it's led this side to believe they're right and were wrong. Like science versus spirituality. And you see it unfolding in our politics; you see it unfolding in the way people relate to each other. And I have to sort of think, like, what have we done here, by separating them out and categorizing them in such a deep way. There is a place here, where we can understand spirituality, and look at how it influences and impacts our life. It's through spirituality that many of our values arise.

Nikki: Yes.

Robyn: That we're thinking about how to treat each other and what's important.

Nikki: Yes,

Robyn: And so let's examine that we, let's bring science to that, and the behavior of spirituality and how it helps us, and that kind of thing. And maybe not be so afraid of each other, and so limiting in some way. I worry about what this split has to offer us as we, as people, grow further and further apart in these ways. And we in our country are seeing this,

Nikki: We are.

Robyn: It's a, I think, a very unfortunate place where, somehow we can't talk to each other now.

Pete: I had a student just this week, so I'm teaching one of the courses, LGBTQ psychology, science, and he is from the Middle East, of a predominantly Muslim country. And we had this conversation about multiculturalism, and just within the queer theory of psychology, he said the same exact thing you just said, of like, “I wish they created space so that they both could exist together, because I was always told that they couldn't, and it deepen the faith of Islam". And so for him, he was trying to find a place of both that faith of Islam, but also the faith of just other spirituality and otherness, or even just psychology, or certainly LGBTQ, because it's condemned. So I feel like we're trying to help, I think ACT tries to help find, certainly in Buddhism, we talk about the middle path. I feel like we're always trying to do that, and so that's beautiful, how you just put that.

Robyn: You can hear it, right? You can hear in here, there's a middle path in here,

Nikki: Yes.

Pete: Yeah.

Robyn: We don't have to be caught up in right and wrong, we can be maybe caught up in understanding, and compassion, and listening, and hearing and what does science say, and what is spirituality say, where do we meet, and all those things that are about instead of division, unity and coming together.

Nikki: I'm going to use a word that used early on in our talk here, Robyn, is freedom. That the openness and the expansiveness, that this idea when we get really curious and make room for all of the perspectives, as many perspectives as possible, that then this idea of this existential question, like 'what's the meaning of life?' Like you said, like, I love what you said; you ask a patient, "Well, what does it mean to you?" There's infinite possibilities here.

Robyn:  Yeah, agreed. And of course, we can't choose to be rich; we understand those things that the context matters. But then, when you look at individuals like Viktor Frankl who made the choice to stay in the concentration camp, because that's where his meaning was. That's the kind of thing we're talking about here.

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: Yeah.

Robyn: It's not that you can say I want to be rich, and then be rich; it's that you've got a context, and what are you going to do inside that context, I think, is very important. So when I think about what I'm trying to convey in some parts of The Heart of ACT, and the work inside of that, and existentialism is creating something that is meaningful, vital, connected as you move through your life, and I talked about it in terms of like, 'are you going to look at the menu or eat everything on it?' 'Are you going to just...?

Pete: We're so good at metaphor.

Robyn: Yeah, you can't taste the menu; you got to order the stuff. And maybe you don't like some of what you eat but tasted anyway. Like that kind of process. And I guess when I was about 20, I had been struggling a little bit and my mom was just getting into email and she sent me this little saying that has just stuck with me forever. And I want to read it for you guys as a way to wrap up. This is by Hunter S. Thompson and quote is, "life should not be a journey to the grave, with the intention of arriving safely, in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke thoroughly used up totally worn out and loudly proclaiming, Wow? What a ride".

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin,

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.