Acceptance is a tricky word. If you meditate, you know that you are exhorted to practice acceptance, typically beginning with your awareness of breath, body sensations, perceptions. In effect, you’re asked to observe all mental phenomena without judgment, simply to work with the contents of your mind in the moment.
The problem I’ve run into, both as a meditator and as a meditation teacher, is the idea that acceptance is equal to resignation. To intend to accept everything sounds like giving up. Or worse yet, it can sound like going along with anything, whether good, bad or ugly.
As most of my students know, I spent years in sales both as a sales representative and as a manager running sales organizations. It was working in sales that first introduced me to the idea of acceptance, as it is intended to be used in meditation. Over the 17 years I spent in sales I don’t think I ever made one sale that was 100% along the terms that were originally offered by myself and the company I represented. Nobody wanted to pay list price! Nobody wanted products delivered exactly the way the companies I worked for wanted to deliver them. It was maddening, at times. People love to haggle for a bargain, and it was very rare that customers would want to put effort into shifting their systems to accommodate the needs of my products. So we would negotiate around our needs, and in the final analysis we (myself and my employer) would have to decide whether or not to ACCEPT the offer that was made. We were always free to reject it, but usually making some money was better than making none. Acceptance, in this context, was the willingness to work with what was offered, even though it wasn’t exactly what you would have chosen.
I think that acceptance in meditation is similar. The life we have may or may not be exactly the life we’ve chosen. The Buddha’s First Noble Truth speaks to this, with its insight that Life is Dukkha. Typically the First Noble Truth is translated as “Life is suffering,” but my understanding of the Sanskrit word “dukkha” is that it is getting at the unsatisfactoriness of life. We easily feel discontented, just not satisfied with the way things are. The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth, The cause of Dukkha is Tanha, reveals his insight that our sense of unsatisfactoriness is the result of Tanha, selfish craving. We seem to always want things to be OTHER than they are, which is the suffering of life. It’s odd, we think of the things that have gone wrong in our life as the cause of our suffering, but the Buddha thought differently. He believed that suffering is caused by rejecting the way things are, no matter how painful they might be. In a word, he was telling us that if we practice acceptance of the way things are we will still have pain (when things are unpleasant), but we won’t suffer.
In my life I have found this to be true. I’ve been blessed to have a very satisfying life, but like all lives it has had its share of pain. I’ve learned that things go wrong in a host of ways unimaginable until the events actually happen. Illness, aging, and death come at you pretty quickly! The anguish you feel when someone you love is hurt or dying feels unbearable at times. The only way through it, I’ve found, is acceptance. It’s not the deal I wanted, but it’s the one life handed to me. Like a good salesman I could reject the deal and live in a fantasy world of denial and projection and all the other crazy defenses that Freud named for us, but the evidence strongly indicates that the pain of living in an illusion is even worse.
There’s more I’d like to post on Acceptance but for now I’m going to head for out to the trails and accept that this 56+ year old body can’t run as fast as it used to. I can deny that and selfishly crave that it run long and fast, but the collapse somewhere in the middle of White Clay Creek State Park would be most unpleasant! Later on I’d like to talk about Acceptance the way it was explained to me by one of my students, who, it turns out, understood it much better than me.