Zen and the Art of Home Improvement

shutterstock_83671597When you catch yourself slipping into a pool of negativity, notice how it derives from nothing other than resistance to the current situation.

Donna Quesada, Buddha in the Classroom: Zen Wisdom to Inspire Teachers

I recently took on several home improvement projects. Contractor hired, for two weeks my home became a construction site.

Those of you who have ever engaged in home improvements of any type know that there are rules that govern the process.

These fundamental rules are:

1)  Rarely are things as simple as they look.

2) It typically takes longer than planned.

3) It typically costs more than planned.

My simple project held no exception to these universal rules.

All I had wanted to do was craft a quick little facelift for my guest bathroom.  Now I was going to have to set aside time to plan the project, identify and collect the tools and actually do the work!  Taking a deep breath I accepted the situation, committed to the project and began.the work!

Acceptance and Commitment

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) created by Steve Hayes in 1986, is a mindfulness-based behavior therapy that assumes that the normal human experience includes destructive patterns that results in psychological suffering. ACT, based on empirical study, emphasizes “values, forgiveness, acceptance, compassion, living in the present moment and accessing a transcendent sense of self” (Harris, 2006).

According to Russell Harris in his article, “Embracing Your Demons: an Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,” the goal of ACT is to “create a rich and meaningful life while accepting the pain that inevitably goes with it.”

Suffering and symptoms are not labeled and targeted for reduction. Often it is our pathologizing of thoughts, behaviors and experiences that leads to attempts at symptom reduction or elimination.  This pattern often results in disordered behavior (and the cycle continues).   Instead, the aim of ACT is to transform our relationship with our difficult thoughts, feelings and experiences in such a way that normalizes the experience.

The byproduct of acceptance appears to be (wait for it) symptom reduction. For example, I recall working with a young patient who had been experiencing some malcontent in her relatively new marriage.  She described her husband as ‘immature and a hermit.” She further went on to discuss how excited she was about a new work project that was challenging and social and …attached to a handsome, charismatic project lead who “commanded the attention of everyone in the room.”

This patient initially denied her attraction to this co-worker and the role it played when viewing her less-than-perfect spouse.

Once she was able to lean into her feelings for the co-worker and assess the deeper meaning around her attraction, she was able to recognize that she resented her younger husband who had always relinquished his power to her.  He liked being taken care of and she resented not having an equal partner.

Armed with this revelation, the client was able to focus on her marital dissatisfaction in couple’s counseling rather than avoid it with the studly distraction at work.

Do the Work

ACT interventions emphasize two main processes. The first is to develop acceptance of situations which are out of our control. Engaging energy and time in that which we have no control is futile. The second is to make a commitment to and engage in activities that cultivate living a valued and meaningful life. Again, there is emphasis on identifying that which is worthy of our efforts and energy.

Further, there are six core principles that guide the processes. These include:

1.Cognitive defusion– the ability to view thoughts, images and memories as simply bits of language, words and pictures. This view is different than perceiving them as threatening events, rules that must be obeyed or objective truths and facts. For example, my thoughts around the bathroom project rested in the “I don’t have time” category. I have struggled often with this myth that there is never enough time. When I stopped obsessing over these thoughts I was able to actually take action.

2. Acceptance – the process of making room for uncomfortable feelings, sensations, urges and experiences and allowing them to come and go without struggling with them,, avoiding them or giving them undue attention. Once I accepted the feelings of inconvenience and discomfort that originally paralyzed me, I was better able to begin the steps toward completing the project.

3.Contact with the present moment– focusing on and engaging fulling in whatever you are doing. Being able to watch my progress from holes in walls to finished product was satisfying. Each step provided me with a new sense of accomplishment.

4. The Observing Self– From this perspective it is possible to note that you are not your thoughts, feelings, memories, urges, sensations, images, roles or physical body. While these are aspects of you, they are not the essence of you. I knew this project would stretch me out of my professor-clinician-author comfort zone…and I possibly may not succeed. However, the project did not define me or my worth. I realized that I am part of something bigger that transcends my spackling abilities.

5. Values-clarifying what is most important, significant and meaningful to you. I like to think of myself as open and always ready for a new challenge. My “can do “attitude has taken me to (and through) some amazing (and challenging) experiences. Completing this project would validate my belief that I am capable of any endeavor with a little effort.

6. Committed Action– setting goals, guided by your values, and taking effective action to achieve them. Breaking down the project into smaller, more manageable steps proved effective. Step by step, I completed each task experiencing success in a way that propelled me to the next step. Ultimately, I experienced the sense of accomplishment in tackling this small but meaningful project.


Patients present with an earnest desire to be pain-free.  We can assist them in reframing their understanding that the discomfort they are experiencing (which may be paralyzing) are participants in their journey.  It is the fear of this discomfort (anger, sadness, depression) and the desire to avoid it that creates greater angst.

When we lean into the situation, accept that it may be difficult and some parts even unpleasant, we allow emotional space to engage in getting the work done! In other words, one can feel uncomfortable and still survive…even thrive and accomplish goals.

Therefore, taking a bit of my own advice, I rolled up my sleeves, grabbed a drill and proceeded to hang my new towel bars. Once I was able to accept the temporary discomfort of engaging in this project, I was able to commit to efforts required to complete it. The mess, previously underneath the shiny new mounts, had been carefully and completely tended to allowing my new towel racks to hang solid and sturdy ready to take on their purpose…to hang my new bath towels.

Dr. Fisher is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is Visiting Fulltime Faculty at Loyola University Maryland in the Pastoral Counseling Department. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer.  She is currently working on a book titled, “Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically-Based Organic Practices” of which this article is an excerpt.  She may be contacted at [email protected]


Zen and the Art of Home Improvement

Cheryl Fisher, PhD.,NCC, LCPC

Dr. Fisher is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is a visiting full-time faculty member at Loyola University Maryland in the Pastoral Counseling Department. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is currently working on a book titled, “Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically-Based Organic Practices” of which this article is an excerpt. She may be contacted at [email protected]


APA Reference
Fisher, C. (2016). Zen and the Art of Home Improvement. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 3 Oct 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 3 Oct 2016
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