“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).” James Baraz
As we continue our reflections on the attitudinal foundations it’s important to remind ourselves that these are qualities that mindfulness nurtures, and that support mindfulness, rather than to judge ourselves by. All too easily we can misunderstand these attitudes as ‘shoulds’ and so we berate ourselves and feel inadequate as if there’s some perfection we should be reaching.
Particularly when it comes to acceptance, it can be heard as a commandment – if that’s the case then inevitably all of us mere mortals are falling short all the time! Actually mindful acceptance, which for me is at the very heart of this path of reducing suffering and increasing joy, is far more radical. Living more mindfully is not about attaining some fantasy ‘perfect’ virtuous existence where one is constantly accepting and in bliss. It’s rather about accepting ourselves fully for the messy, complex yet amazing human beings we all are.
Can we believe that?? For most of us the hardest, yet most important journey is the one of self-acceptance. On the mindful self-compassion course I teach we describe the stage of true acceptance as becoming a ‘compassionate mess’, recognising that a feature of our common humanity is that we’re all imperfect, we all make mistakes, say things we regret, we all fail sometimes according to others or more likely our own standards. The paradox is that we feel so separate in our sense of inadequacy, unworthiness and isolation when we are in physical, emotional or mental pain that we miss this is how every other human feels sometimes too. Acceptance is the compassionate realisation that we are human, that there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with us.
“When we give ourselves compassion, the tight knot of negative self-judgement starts to dissolve, replaced by a peaceful, connected acceptance – a sparkling diamond that emerges from the coal”
When we observe our human being-ness with gentle curiosity and courage we see clearly that our own inner landscape is constantly changing: we get stressed one minute, another minute we feel happy, the next moment we’re disappointed, the sun comes out, then the sun goes in. This is what we can come to accept, a little, and a little more of the time.
One of the hardest of times to be accepting is of course when we’re in pain. At these times mindfulness supports us by increasing the capacity to distinguish between the actual pain and the suffering it causes, and focuses on achieving relief from that suffering. We learn to make a crucial distinction between the pain of pain, and the pain we create by our thoughts about the pain. Put simply the equation goes pain is unavoidable; suffering is not. It occurs in response to thoughts such as: “Why me?!” “It isn’t fair!” “This is horrible!” “I can’t stand it!” which compounds our misery.
“Pain is not wrong. Reacting to pain as wrong initiates the trance of unworthiness. The moment we believe something is wrong, our world shrinks and we lose ourselves in the effort to combat the pain.”
The question then becomes where am I resisting in a way that is simply causing me more suffering? Where can I soften, to further my sense of ease, inner peace and balance? As ever coming back to here and now is key – it’s not necessarily about accepting a particular set of circumstances or conditions. It’s ‘softening in to the stretch’ (to use a lovely yoga expression) that we are experiencing right now, to acknowledge a strong emotion, allow it to be felt in the body and to meet it with an opening hand, or even the ‘welcome mat’ as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it. It’s not that this is easy, and so we are infinitely patient and accepting as best we can be of our struggles.
Acceptance is a constantly evolving movement of opening, yielding and softening into and around all the areas where we are bracing – which means softening around our resistance too. Sometimes it means allowing ourselves to close, to pause, hesitate, resist. It’s a very profound and liberating practice ; acknowledge and soften, again and again, in ever deepening spirals. It’s an invitation to work with rather than struggle against experience. It’s making the choice to respond wisely rather than react automatically. I’ve heard first hand from a surfer who survived being in the ‘washing machine’ of a huge wave – by allowing herself to drop down beneath the wave, in this way freeing herself from the struggle that was making her drown. The image is terrifying and yet taught her so much about the wisdom of letting go – captured simply in the classic serenity prayer:
Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference
From the point of view of Buddhist psychology it’s the clinging to wanting things to be a particular way that causes so much of our suffering. With awareness we can come to recognise a choice point – we can recognise where our power lies:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Even in the most extreme of circumstances, such as the concentration camps that Frankl survived, this capacity to choose a response can be our life saver, our truest and sometimes only refuge.
So acceptance is not resignation, it’s much more courageous that that. And it’s unconditional – it’s a moment of accepting this is how I feel, this is what’s here right now, and what may well emerge from that clarity could be stating a boundary, the willingness to say ‘this is not OK for me’. As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out in the clip below acceptance is an active process. Acceptance enables change. By contrast forcing change generally causes a level of agitation. In our meditation practice this is like interfering, it hampers the stability and calm that stillness enables. In that stillness we can perceive more clearly the ways in which our habits of mind are producing more struggle, and the way we can be free. Wisdom emerges in the stillness. So acceptance really is the gateway to freedom.
The paradox is that of course change is happening anyway, so what we are accepting is also always changing – the situation may not be but our relationship to it can and does. And it can only be experienced right now, in this moment…try it, opening your hands a little more, whether you’re sitting, walking or lying down. It seems to help in opening your heart a little more. Or simply take a few deep breaths and relax…its like saying a little yes, yes to yourself, to the life that’s flowing through you. And so we take another step towards expanding the range of conditions in which we are free. Which is what mindfulness and self-compassion training is all about.