Active Acceptance, Part I

I’ve posted on Acceptance on three occasions (twice in June, 2011, and once in October of 2011); I think it’s an important topic, and an integral part of mindfulness practice.  Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness captures this perfectly: “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”  In summary, mindfulness is attentional, intentional, immediate, and accepting.  The first three can be learned through practice; the fourth, the acceptance, is more difficult.

Acceptance can only occur if we can perceive present moment reality with clarity.  Our meditation practice allows us to notice all aspects of mental activity, both the immediate phenomena that occur (i.e. sense perceptions, body sensations, thoughts and emotions) and our tendency to interpret those phenomena.  Our acceptance work begins with those interpretations; we have to notice them and realize which are distortions of the actual phenomena and which are not.  Once we’ve worked through the interpretation layer, we can then simply be in a state of attentional control, noticing the immediate arising of perceptions and sensations, not judging, just aware.

The work we do in our meditation practice enables our minds to become quite strong in their capacity to pay attention with intention in the moment without judging.  But what use is this capacity unless the internal process is manifest in some way externally?  Allow me to explain by example.

A person (we’ll call him Fred) feels anger toward a colleague who lashed out at him, unprovoked, while Fred was telling a story about a game of basketball he played a few days ago.  When Fred sits in meditation later that day he calms himself with a clearing breath, and begins some simple breath counting to focus his mind.  Within a short period he finds his attention to be sharp, and breath-centered.  He then begins to practice open awareness, allowing sensations and perceptions to be noticed, with breath awareness continuing as a backdrop.  So far, a pleasant meditation.  As his mind is relaxed his feelings of anger return, and he notices those feelings, both as angry thoughts and angry body sensations (tightened chest, increased breathing rate…).  He makes meditative space for these thoughts and sensations, not judging them, breathing and noticing.  Then a thought comes into Fred’s mind: “that guy is a jerk.  He had no business talking to me that way.”  Fred immediately recognizes his interpretation (“that guy is a jerk”) and his own hurt reaction (“He had no business talking to me that way.”).  Having had good meditation instruction, Fred refrains from judging his own judgmental thought, makes space for it, breathes with it, and notices its strength diminish in the process.

As his meditation proceeds Fred notices that the image of his colleague arises, and a memory flashes through his mind: his colleague had once confided in him that he was bullied by the “jocks” in his high school.  Suddenly Fred has the insight that his colleague views him as a jock, and hearing him talk about playing basketball might have triggered some old memories and some thoughts and feelings that really weren’t about Fred at all.  Fred feels compassion for his colleague, and practices metta (lovingkindness meditation) for his colleague.

Wow, what a great meditation!  I wish all of mine were so fruitful!  But when I contemplate this scenario I realize it’s not enough.  Fred has used acceptance during his meditation as a way to allow his mind to make sense of the events of the day and to let go of his interpretations.  As a result of his acceptance he experiences compassion, which is good for him but not really helping his colleague very much.  Fred has experienced mindful acceptance; but he must take that further, with the practice of active acceptance.  More on that in my next post.

Peace,

Jim

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