Acceptance has a bad rap.
In cultures where progress and improvement are a constant quest, accepting what is seems passive. Those of us who grew up in fix-it, more-is-better cultures still bristle at the idea of “letting go.”
For a long time I justified “arguing with reality” because I told myself I was a passionate, strong-willed person who was driven to make changes for the better. I still am a strong-willed person with many passions, but one who is practicing loosening my grip. The more I work on the art of acceptance, the more pockets of peace I find opening within.
When we think about acceptance, we’re often thinking about the circumstances in our lives. What we “accept” and what we don’t is usually based on the stories we tell ourselves,especially about who we are and why we are the way we are. These stories can sometimes be excuses for behaviors that may not serve our needs or ultimate outcomes.
Our non-acceptance can be as simple as whining about bad weather on a vacation, griping about a co-worker’s habits or to the inevitable personal challenges everyone must face at some point in life. We can usually tell when we’re resisting what is by the way we feel. Irritation, annoyance, anger, resentment, regret and, of course, anxiety. Because so much of our behavior is reactive and not intentional, it is easy to resist what is.
Despite reason, we can continue to persist in trying to control what is outside of our control and create more suffering in the process. Little escapes our desire for control – sometimes it’s as subtle as trying to control a conversation or someone else’s preferences.
Not understanding the needs that drive our desire for control can leave us in a state of dissatisfaction and frustration. This is compounded when your needs and the behaviors they drive are outside of your conscious awareness. Often this is the source of conflict – external and internal – as we wrestle with what we want and what is.
Buddhist teacher and author Tara Brach has described acceptance as “opening to the actual feelings you have about a situation and being willing to feel that. It is out of this presence that you can respond.” A great deal of our resistance to what is stems from our mostly unconscious attempts to avoid certain uncomfortable feelings.
While Buddhist principles can sometimes seem to encourage disengagement, learning to change our thinking is hardly acquiescing. In fact, it is often a daunting challenge, especially when the emotional stakes are high. Coming to terms with what is – accepting that which we cannot control – takes great clarity and will.
Brach points out,” Instead of reacting unconsciously through conditioned patters of behavior acceptance gives us an alternative. We can pause in the midst of our reactivity and make the intention to soften our resistance to opening to our emotions.”
Think of the last time you felt stuck in some form of non-acceptance – whatever the circumstances. Chances are your thinking was mired in the past or imagining the future. Your willingness to let go in the moment – to accept what is – is happening in the present. Training our minds to bring our thinking back to the present moment can be a powerful tool to allow ourselves to feel whatever is hard for us to accept.
Author Eckhart Tolle focuses on the elements of thought that block our ability to stay present to what we are feeling. Tolle believes that “Unease, anxiety, tensions, stress, worry- all forms of fear – are caused by too much future and not enough present. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused, Tolle says, by too much past, and not enough presence.”
Our arguments with reality are rooted in how much time we spend in past and future thinking. And those thoughts are usually driven by what we don’t want. Tolle points out the paradox we face in these situations,” Certain things in the past didn’t go the way you wanted them to go. You are still resisting what happened in the past, and now you are resisting what is. Hope is what keeps you going, but hope keeps you focused on the future.”
While there is nothing wrong with past reflection and future planning – the cognitive skill comes from knowing where you are and why. Habituated thinking patterns typically move into past and future comparisons and block being present to what is happening now.
Maitri, a Buddhist concept, is loosely translated to mean self-love, or what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche calls an “unconditional friendliness to one’s self.”
As much as we struggle with accepting what is out there in the world, we’re often far more intolerant with ourselves. In my experience, harsh self-critics judge others with equal severity. Naturally, there are exceptions, people who perceive and treat others with empathy and consideration but can’t extend those feelings to themselves. But more often, I think there is a higher correlation between the harsh outer critic and the inner self-oppressor.
Kristin Neff, a pioneer in research on self-compassion says, “I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”
Acceptance begins within. It’s an active process that involves widening the range of our choices and emotional repertoire. The more we “practice” the more mentally and emotionally agile we become. The very nature of practicing acceptance expands our ability to be more mindful. This mindfulness includes our internal and external life. We become more aware of how easily we react to external events and other people’s behaviors. Contrary to common misunderstanding about mindfulness, the “goal” is not to control our reactive minds (thinking and feelings) but to become less slavish to it.
Less reactivity means less drama in our lives. Peace naturally flows from that. Decisions and actions flow more smoothly from an accepting mind. When we accept what is and stop putting all of our resistance into what isn’t working and what we don’t want – we clear the field for greater intuition and choice.
There’s a grace to being more accepting. As author Pema Chodron writes, “The essence of life is that it’s challenging. Sometimes, it’s sweet and sometimes it’s bitter. Sometimes your body tenses and sometimes it relaxes or opens. Sometimes you have a headache and sometimes you feel 100% healthy. There’s something aggressive about trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.”
There’s a wonderful teaching story that illustrates the power of acceptance…
There once was a man who wanted to become the finest swordsman in Japan, so he sought out a hermit reputed to be the best teacher. After a long search, he found the hermit and asked, “How long will it take me to be a great sword master?” The hermit replied, “Maybe 5 years.” The seeker thought that sounded like a long time and asked, “What if I worked really hard?” Stroking his beard the hermit responded, “Maybe ten years.”
Ending our endless arguments with reality opens up a space that allows calm and peace to take their place.
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Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants