Acceptance is a term that is used a lot in yoga and Buddhist circles but often causes a lot of confusion. The confusion stems from (a) a misunderstanding of what it does and does not mean and (b) how difficult it can be to change our habitual resistance to the unpleasant moments in our lives.
First of all, many people are afraid of acceptance because they think that it means passive resignation. But, acceptance does not mean that we give up or that we become doormats to all of the things in our lives that we don’t like. Acceptance simply means that we operate in congruence with reality. We accept reality, as it is, as the first step toward understanding what to do next.
With a little reflection, you might see that resistance to unpleasant circumstances is a form of insanity. In essence, through your resistance or saying “no” to the experience, you are refusing to concede that something which already happened has happened. That approach to the difficulties in your life creates a lot of extra suffering. A famous teaching in Buddhism is that “Suffering = Pain x Resistance.”
But, it’s understandable that our first response to pain would be to push it away. Who wants to have painful problems to deal with? However, the truth is that it’s not possible to push something away if it’s already here. The “push” is the resistance that sets up a fight with reality that can’t be won.
And, our resistance to painful things in our lives can result in behavior we hope will help us feel better (and may do in the short term) but leads to even more pain than what we started with. For instance, we may turn to food as a way of avoiding or numbing the pain. We may turn to alcohol to feel better. We may start searching for things to buy to distract from the pain. Or we may act out in anger and frustration in ways that exacerbate the problem even more.
On the other hand, if we open and accept what has occurred then we don’t spend our energy fighting a war that can’t be won. We turn our energy toward the pain itself and the messages that it has for us. The first thing is to acknowledge that what happened hurts. Through mindful compassion, we learn to acknowledge and accept the hurt that comes along with difficult circumstances. You might even place your hand on your heart and say nice things to yourself like “Ouch, that hurts.” “This is hard.” “This is painful.” For more self-compassion exercises, check out Dr. Kristen Neff’s website and book. Mindful self-compassion is a skill that we can develop to help us hold the pain that will inevitably arise in our lives.
After we fully meet our pain with openness and kindness, then we can do a few more things that lead us down a path to greater freedom and ease. Dr. Neff suggests that, after acknowledging the pain, we then acknowledge that we are not alone in experiencing pain and loss. No matter what you are feeling, someone else (many others, in fact) has felt the same thing that you are. This is called recognizing “our common humanity.”
The Buddha taught this truth of common humanity to a woman, Kisa Gotami, whose son had died. Kisa refused to accept that her son was dead and walked through the village asking if there was anyone who could bring her son back to life. The villagers knew that there was nothing that could be done and advised her to make funeral arrangements. But she kept trying to deny the truth. Finally, it was suggested that she go to the Buddha to see what he could offer her.
She immediately went to the Buddha and pleaded for him to bring her son back to life. He told her that he could bring her son back to life if she could bring him a mustard seed from a house where no one has ever lost a family member. Kisa Gomata went from house to house asking if they had lost a family member to death and each time the answer was the same. Yes, my husband died. Yes, my uncle died. Yes, my father died. And so on it went until she realized that no one in the world escaped loss through death. She came to understand that this pain she was feeling had been felt by so many others. At last, she was finally able to bury her son and accept her loss.
This story demonstrates that acceptance is the first step to freedom. She still felt the loss of her son, but it didn’t disable her from doing what she needed to do. The same goes for the difficulties we experience. Through acceptance, we are then able to turn our energy and attention toward what we might do to help us feel better and/or address the problem in front of us. Sometimes there is nothing we can do to make the problem different, like in the case of Kisa and her son. But sometimes there can be actions that will help correct and realign a situation to make it better. But, in both cases, acceptance is the first step to freedom.
Acceptance is inherent in the definition of mindfulness—attention to the present moment without judgment. When we aren’t judging the moment, we have more clarity about how to be with anything that might arise. So, we can open to (or accept) the difficulty. Acknowledge our common humanity. And, bring self-care to ourselves and a discerning mind to the situation at hand. Mindfulness helps us to not under or overstate the challenges that we face, but bring balance to our perspective of things. These are the steps to finding freedom amid our everchanging and often surprising lives.
These are also the steps to finding more freedom and ease with ourselves. Too often I work with people who find it very difficult to accept themselves, just as they are, as the first step toward any other changes they might want to make. Instead, they try to make changes first and it often doesn’t work. If you don’t love yourself, why would you feel inspired to partner in your own best interests? Over and over I see that when people soften their judgments about themselves (i.e., accept themselves as they are), they are more likely to engage in life-enhancing behaviors.
While not always easy, learning to accept yourself and things as they are is the first step to freedom.