Fostering connection, one meetup at a time: How The Awareness, Courage and Love Global Project is deepening relationship worldwide

In a world that seems more isolated than ever, The Awareness, Courage and Love (ACL) Global Project is working to unite people in meaningful communication that not only brings people together but also promotes self-actualization. More than just having conversations with other people, ACL is guided by scientific research and purposeful discussion that allows for participants to open up in ways they may have never thought possible before.

A nonprofit organization, ACL was created in 2015 in the form of meetups. The organization began with just one group based in Seattle, Washington, and after years of growth, it is now a worldwide phenomenon that consists of chapters in 29 countries and 6 continents cities and continues to grow.

Mavis Tsai, the Founder and Executive Director of the ACL Global Project, is a clinical psychologist who has made it her mission to ameliorate the widespread public health issue of loneliness. Out of research that she was conducting, she developed the idea of an organization that would allow people all across the world to learn more about themselves and strengthen their connections with other people. Thus, ACL was born and began to foster deep communication and listening among people everywhere.

Origins of ACL

ACL originated when Tsai and her spouse started Functional Analytic Psychotherapy (FAP), which led to five books and a following around the world. Tsai wanted to create a way for people across the globe to have access to the powerful principles of FAP, without having to be in therapy, and so ACL came to be.

“ACL’s mission is to grow a worldwide network of open-hearted change seekers who strive to meet life’s challenges through deepening interpersonal connection and rising to live more true to ourselves,” Tsai said. “We’re looking to alleviate the major public health crisis of loneliness and isolation and reach any person who desires richer relationships.”

At its core, ACL works to deepen interpersonal connection and truth for its members. The organization bases its work on the fact that connection with others is absolutely crucial for physical and mental health.

What ACL does and how it works

At ACL, Tsai and her team make a space for people to come together, connect and create more meaningful and passionate lives. This is done through chapter meetups, with each chapter guided by its own leader. During the meetings, participants practice open-hearted presence, deep listening, embrace vulnerability and respond to contemplation questions that focus on different themes. Themes range from unlived lives and dying without regrets to cultivating resilience and living with intention.

“We help people delve into what’s meaningful,” Tsai said. “This can include addressing unfinished business or the courage to face the unknown.”

In addition to exploring these themes, group members also participate in a guided meditation to acknowledge times when the themes were present in their lives, as well as promote being truly present in the moment.

“If you’re not true to yourself, you can’t connect with others from a genuine place,” Tsai said.

During the pandemic, which has brought a heightened sense of isolation, the meetups have been especially important for people. Currently, they’re conducted through video meetings. As far as connection tips in the time of COVID-19, Tsai said it helps to increase eye contact, to ask meaningful questions, to self-disclose with vulnerability and to reflect with warmth and acceptance.

“Loneliness is as rampant as ever but many people aren’t talking about it,” she said.

In these current times of isolation, Tsai said she has seen that social media can have different effects. During the pandemic, some people find it life-saving and a good way to connect with others.

“Interacting on social media for some people can be like making warm contact at the drinking fountain when people were working at the office,” she said. “We need to be researching and harnessing the positive aspects and decreasing the negative effects.”

At ACL, it’s all about awareness, courage and love. There, awareness is defined as taking notice of one’s internal feelings as well as the feelings of others, and not passing judgment while doing so. When it comes to courage, it’s about taking steps outside of one’s comfort zone in order to live more true to one’s self, for instance verbalizing a vulnerable thought or feeling that may otherwise go unexpressed. Finally, love in this sense is defined as treating one’s own and others’ experiences with compassion and being open to receiving that same compassion back.

Taking these principles, chapter leaders facilitate exercises to help participants practice and experience awareness, courage and love in real time, as well as take learning to the real world and implement them in daily life.

Creating a phenomenal effect worldwide

With each meetup, ACL is making a significant difference and impact in the lives of its members with a grassroots approach to spreading the message and practice. This is a different kind of wellness center.

“I see people changing right in front of my eyes,” Tsai said.  “They become bigger versions of themselves.”

Now present on six continents, ACL currently has 68 active chapters in 29 countries. While there is no official data, Tsai said she has seen more of a sense of isolation in first-world countries as opposed to other countries that have community-focused cultures.

Tsai said they’ve been able to scale ACL by training people to be deeply present and caring. She emphasized that powerful moments of connection are created through the practice of vulnerable self-disclosure and listening responsively with acceptance.

Some of the plans and goals of ACL are to develop hundreds of groups and have one lead coordinator on each continent, furthering the ultimate vision of reaching tens of thousands of people. As part of this process, ACL is also soon launching an app that will make its reach significantly broader.

Grounded in psychology and science

At its core, ACL is rooted in psychology and scientific research. Tsai said during the meetups, research suggests that when deep connections are made, the brain generates higher levels of oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine. Oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone,” can increase due to positive reactions.

During the sessions, serotonin, or the mood stabilizer, can increase, which is a result of being present in the moment. Dopamine, the reward chemical, also sees an uptick in participants as they partake in self-care activities.

“We’re really social creatures,” she said. “Our work is grounded in psychological science, and studies have shown that people who lack social connection suffer from impairment in physical systems, immune systems and cardiovascular systems. It’s more harmful than excessive drinking, obesity or excessive smoking. People’s physical health is actually endangered.”

Tsai said her research team evaluates the effectiveness of ACL interventions and the impact of creating close connections through randomized controlled trials and also survey questions.

“We’re collecting feedback data from leaders and groups and using it to improve the work,” she said.

Reaching more people through an easy-to-use app

Soon, people will be able to extend their connections beyond just the ACL meetups. The organization is planning to launch an app that will offer an array of community and connection features that will be available for both iPhones and Android phones.

Anne Gulyas, Chief Operating Officer at ACL, said members have had such powerful experiences in meetups that they want to experience the feeling more. With the focus on mobile applications in society today, the natural next step was to create an app.

“The app comprises itself of all the core elements of the meetings, with a link to weekly ACL meetings and a meditation area,” she said.

Gulyas, who started as a member herself in meetups five years ago, said the experience was life-changing and spoke to how she believed life was supposed to be.

“It was a breath of fresh air,” she said.

To start, the app will be in English, but they have plans to expand to other languages. There will also be exercises, which will ask users meaningful questions regarding awareness, courage and love.

The app will also include a “Thought Garden,” where people can post to a stylized posting board and see other people’s responses and input. The prompt would ask a closeness-generating question and cut past all the superficial, small-talk style questions.

Gulyas also emphasized that privacy and security are top priorities when it comes to the app.

“We want to make sure the people who use the app are secure, and there’s account-level security but also a deeper level of privacy,” she said. “Because there’s a journal feature in the app, nobody except the user will have access to that content, and their privacy is honored.”

She said the app will be paid but will be a small fee, which will help support the enhanced security features and decrease the number of spam or bot activities. She said their team has insisted on an ethical approach to the app’s build, backend, data and metrics that are examined. She said the only information they’ll look at is feedback from users, popular features, the language and guidance.

“We built this app to answer a commonly asked question about how you can take ACL into the real world as well as provide the ACL experience more often whether there is a live group near you or not.” she said. “Mavis’s dream is to make sure ACL is available to everyone, in every city, so we’re working on making that happen.”