Acceptance Part I
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.
Acceptance Part II
What a week! Sometimes life gives you a lot to do, and sometimes life piles a lot more to do on top of that! I have to admit I’m a bit tired tonight, but I want to return to the topic of Acceptance.
I’ve had the blessing to be a part of two MBSR groups lately. Both groups combined for a total of about 35 people, and, as always, there was much wisdom in the room. Perhaps the wisest of the wise was a young man, who shall remain anonymous, who explained acceptance to me. He’s going through a bit of a rough stretch and there’s not much you can do with that except persevere and cultivate your capacity to be resilient in the face of difficulty. Realizing that neither he nor I would come up with any particular solutions to his difficulties, other than working with them as well as possible seeking the best outcome available, I suggested to him that he might try practicing acceptance. Now, one must be careful when making such a recommendation, because it can sound like resignation, as mentioned in my previous post. But it isn’t surrender in the dishonorable sense of the word, but rather retreat, an honorable and time tested strategy in any war, whether combative or spiritual. After much verbosity on my part, the idea clicked. Here is what he told me:
“It’s like riding your motorcycle. There’s nothing like riding your bike on a beautiful, sunny, dry day. Seventy five degrees, no humidity, light breeze. On a country road. Lots of turns, all banked in the right direction, good pavement. Best experience in the world. You can ride it fast, letting the wind rush against your face. But you can’t ride the road that way when it’s rainy. If you do you’ll end up in a tree, which is what happens to some people. They ride the road they wish they were on instead of the road they’re actually on. That’s acceptance. To ride the road you’re actually on. You may not get the thrill you want but you won’t end up in a tree, and you’ll get where you need to go. The opposite of acceptance is denial; trying to ride the road you wish it was, making believe you can handle something that nobody can handle. Ride the road you’re on; that’s what you’re telling me to do. I can do that.”
It’s really that simple, but it’s not easy to do of course. Those rain-slicked roads require tremendous concentration; one might even say that one must be very mindful on a treacherous road. But with perseverance and determination those roads can be traversed and the sunny, dry days and thrilling rides can return. Not always the way we’d like them to, of course; sometimes those old storms leave behind a lot of damage. But when we accept the challenge of living life as it’s coming at us, riding the roads we’re on, then the living of it can be a thrill unto itself. But a bit tiring, as I’ve found out this week!
Thanks for reading. Would love to hear more ideas about Acceptance. Blessings and peace to you on this summer afternoon.
Acceptance and Depression
This is a hard one. How can someone use those two words together? It seems antithetical to our purpose: to eliminate depression. Yet those who suffer from this illness know that elimination is tricky business. Depression lingers in the background. Even when it’s absent it seems to lurk. The dread of a relapse into a depressive episode often precipitates the next event. It’s a conundrum, a terribly difficult problem, one steeped in paradox and nuance.
This is a bit of a tangent, but it will come back to the topic at hand. I love baseball. I love the slow pace of play. I love a pitching battle. I love a slugfest. Watching a pitcher like Roy Halladay work a batter, baffle him with the way his ball moves first one way, then another, at different speeds, different angles. Never knowing what will come next. It’s an art form. At its best baseball provides ample opportunity to find metaphors for the way we live. And baseball, all of sports for that matter, provides a metaphor in the simple expression “playing hurt.”
Playing hurt means that the injury is painful but does not fully prevent the athlete from competing, if not up to the usual high standard s/he sets, then up to an acceptable standard. When an athlete “plays hurt” s/he can still play well, still contribute, still offer help to the team. But it’s not easy, and may be downright painful. At the end of the game there’s icing down to do, analgesics to take, perhaps a massage or a heating pad. Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (RICE) tonight; play hurt again tomorrow and more RICE. The athlete who can play hurt is an exemplar of tenacity; s/he perseveres.
Acceptance is an attribute of the spiritual warrior. To accept that the “noonday demon,” Andrew Solomon’s pithy depression metaphor, has arrived, has caused injury, and is the source of great hurt, is an act of courage. One must clear out all traces of denial, look with clarity at the situation of living, and live radically. To state with willingness, perhaps even with some measure of alacrity, that this disruptive guest has arrived once again, and I am ready to “play hurt,” willing to be a part of humanity in the midst of my suffering, is an act that is deeply paradoxical to the way this illness makes us feel. But it may be the only way out of the suffering. Playing hurt, playing as well as I can and accepting that I will play more poorly than I would like, and that it is acceptable to play at this moment in this condition. Playing as part of my team, part of my cadre of friends, family, co-workers. Playing for the sake of playing. Playing without preconceived notions of success or failure. Playing because it is my birthright to play. And playing each day to the full, even when that “full” feels empty. But knowing that I must play, even when playing hurt.
When I play hurt I win, even when I lose. When I play hurt I conquer my self, my needs, my desire for things to be other than they are. Each one of us knows what it means to play hurt; we’ve all been there in the deep pit of physical injury and emotional despair. But when we’re willing to play hurt we accept that this deep pit may hold me but it cannot contain me and it certainly cannot define me. And then even in our imprisonment we are free. And being free, we are fully human, fully ourselves.
Believe me, I have no illusions about how difficult it is to play hurt. I have failed to rise to those occasions many times throughout my life. But when I’ve practiced acceptance and been willing to play hurt, I’ve always had the experience of transcendence, knowing that I’m part of something more important than myself. It doesn’t come at once, it may take weeks or months, even years, to realize, but it’s there.
If you struggle with depression consider the possibility of playing hurt. A few years ago a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, Curt Schilling, did just that. Remarkably, with blood streaming from his injured ankle, he led the Sox to their first World Series win since 1918 when their #1 starting pitcher was Babe Ruth. His courage and perseverance were inspirational. I invite you to learn more about Schilling’s courage by watching this link to YouTube:
Listen for two statements he makes: “It wasn’t gratifying until it was over” and “I can be a very good pitcher regardless of my velocity.” I think there’s wisdom for us all, if only we’re willing to “play hurt.”
Active Acceptance 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 attention 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.
Skillful Means; Right Action springs from compassion, allows us to be in harmony with other aspects of the path; ethical conduct aspects of the 8fold path (right speech and right livelihood)
Active Acceptance Part II: Embracing and Forgiving
Acceptance. Seeing phenomenal reality, as it emerges, with great clarity. Acceptance. Letting go of our mental interpretations about emerging phenomena and choosing, intentionally, to experience each moment directly. Acceptance requires self-knowing; we must be able to recognize the workings of the mind, understand which of those workings are based on true experience and which result from whatever residue of clinging remains after the hard work of our sitting meditation. Acceptance. Am I able to perceive the moment as it unfolds, know my own mental baggage, let go of that baggage and respond to the moment with the greatest of skill, based on my insight into what is happening and the degree of compassion that accompanies that insight. Acceptance.
With the practice of acceptance comes great equanimity. The emotional roller coaster ride begins to smooth out and slow down. With acceptance we find ourselves becoming quite steady, at times rather unflappable. Like a great mountain we endure when we practice acceptance. Acceptance becomes the fertile soil that sustains my life.
Acceptance is a state of mind that we can cultivate with our sitting meditation, and it is a trait of mind when it is practiced persistently with intention. In becoming a trait, our acceptance permeates all of our days and all of our affairs. It becomes a vital aspect of our identity, and is experienced by others as empathy and compassion. It is the foundation of love.
I prefer to think of trait acceptance as active acceptance. Too often I have heard acceptance described as a passive state, but it is quite the opposite. To live in acceptance is to embrace life with great vigor, working unceasingly, but always working “with” life rather than “against” life. For example, when in the midst of evil the person practicing acceptance can see clearly what s/he is facing, without denial or defensiveness, maintaining inner calm. In this state of mind the right view about the nature of the evil emerges, and from that right view emerges right actions.
In the example I used in my previous essay a gentleman I called Fred encountered an unpleasant situation with a colleague who has lashed out verbally, seemingly unprovoked. Fred recognized, in meditation, that his colleague’s outburst was evidence of suffering, suffering with deep roots emerging from his colleague’s experiences as a bullied child. Fred let go of his own anger and recognized compassion emerging, and allowed himself to abide in this wave of compassion by practicing metta for his colleague.
The challenge for Fred, as it is for each of us, is what happens next. What happens when Fred sees his colleague again? How does he operationalize his compassion, make compassion an emerging phenomenon in his relationship with his colleague? This is the work of active acceptance, since it is quite possible that Fred’s acts of kindness toward his offended colleague will be rebuffed or, worse, seen as patronizing. Yet it is essential that Fred form the intention in his mind and heart to act with kindness toward his colleague, allowing himself to be vulnerable as if he had, indeed, offended this person.
This work is the work of Forgiveness, a form of lovingkindness that is powerful, perhaps the most powerful force within any relationship. Active acceptance means we turn toward the difficult person or difficult situation with kindness, perhaps being careful to maintain needed boundaries in the case where the person or situation presents a threat to our welfare or another’s, but the firmness of the boundary is surrounded by the softness of our compassion. The act of forgiving, which I see as the active part of acceptance, requires great insight, mindful acceptance, willingness to let go of retribution (to which we may have a right), and, in time, acts of kindness, if appropriate and safe to do.
More on that in my next post.