And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be
at this moment.
– The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
If I could have a superpower, I would choose acceptance.
Whether you call it surrender, alignment, The Power of Now (Eckhart Tolle), “loving what is” (Byron Katie), Radical Acceptance (Tara Brach), non-resistance or getting in the Vortex (Abraham-Hicks), all the teachings I’ve encountered point to the same bedrock principle: Accept what is in this moment, exactly as it is.
I interpret Eckhart Tolle’s insight, “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place” as an observation of acceptance, or alignment with the present moment. This statement has become my mantra.
It’s simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Jon Kabat-Zinn gave a talk about how meditation teachers often say, “Just accept,” and he quips, “Just accept. As if that isn’t the hardest thing in the world to do.”
Acceptance is expansive. It feels so deeply peaceful, and it alone has the power to move mountains… yet I still only feel it deeply when certain things are “okay.” Left to my own devices, my mind – like those of most humans – will gravitate towards pondering how I’d be happier if only… If only I had retirement savings. If only I knew what I was doing with this blog. If only I were caught up in my Financial Situation.
When situations, events and relationships in our lives are the way we want, we perceive them as “good,” and it’s easy to accept. And while it’s absolutely possible to grow through joy, it’s more common for we humans to grow spiritually through challenges.
You’d think, after two years of struggling with survival issues, I’d be fully accepting of everything in my life, now that I can pay my rent and eat. I’m less fazed by mild-to-moderate challenges, but it still takes a lot of work for me to accept certain situations – mostly when old, unresolved pain is triggered.
Often, we try to figure out why things are happening, as a way to avoid feeling pain (and as a means to acceptance) but that’s a dead-end detour. Honestly, we’re just humans in this vast universe. We have no idea why certain things happen; we just make up stories that help us make sense of events. The why is irrelevant. The fact is that whatever is happening…is happening, and it’s up to us how to respond.
From that human perspective, it’s natural to want to “get rid of” challenges, but from a spiritual perspective, trying to force our way out of it, through resistance or denial, creates two things: 1) more pain and 2) a more persistent challenge. That old saying is true: What you resist, persists. It makes sense: if you focus on something negative, you strengthening your negative neural pathways.
Even if your mind thinks you accept what is, there may be subconscious resistance lingering. The mind saying, “Ok, I accept” is only the tip of the resistance iceberg. This is one of the many places meditation comes in handy, because subconscious negativity and resistance often show themselves only when the mind is quiet.
There’s a difference between intellectual acceptance and deep acceptance, and it’s a difference that can be felt in the body. Intellectual acceptance leaves a residue of resistant energy in the body, almost like a grudging, “Well, okayyyyy. Le sigh.” That’s not acceptance. It’s martyrdom. Put-upon-ness. Hard-done-by-ness. Deep acceptance says, “I am at peace with this situation in this moment.”
The throwaway statement “It is what it is” is often misused, spoken with resignation rather than acceptance. Yet there’s a profound wisdom within those words. What is, is. Arguing with that, as Byron Katie points out, is the root of all our suffering.
Deep acceptance feels calm, peaceful. There isn’t a trace of tension in the body or mind, even if a difficult situation still exists. There’s a really easy way to tell the two apart: When I’m in alignment with the what is of the moment, I feel great. When I’m in resistance, I don’t.
Think of a time when you were really worried about something – and then it worked out. Remember that “weight off my shoulders” feeling? That immense relief and feeling of lightness? That’s what true acceptance feels like, except it’s not dependent on “things working out the way I want.”
Acceptance isn’t the same as liking a situation, nor does it imply an absence of action. There are many situations that are unpleasant, and in which we can take action – but first we have to accept the facts as they are, fully and unconditionally. Then, from that place, we can take action, and because we’re not pushing against a situation or person, the action is more effective.
Alcoholics say they can’t afford to be angry, because it will lead them back to drinking. As someone committed to inner peace, I can’t afford resistance (the opposite of acceptance), because it will strengthen negative neural pathways and lead me back to depression.
Acceptance is part of my practice nearly every day. I haven’t figured out some magic teleportation way to get to surrender yet. I’m at a point now where I know when there’s lingering resistance, yet I don’t always know how to clear it. It took me a full year to realize that’s what “living the mess” is about. Getting to acceptance.
Just the Facts
Tolle, in his talk The Journey Into Yourself, describes the difference between accepting the fact, “I have 50 cents in my bank account” and the story “I am ruined.” That one resonated deeply with me, having been down to fifty cents several times, with no work, no other income, no way of knowing when more money would come in. It was super-easy for my mind to start creating all kinds of stories of imminent disaster, but every time I brought myself back to the razor’s edge of this very moment, I experienced a brief respite.
The facts of a moment are generally easy to accept, if we can let go of the stories. When I need to release resistance, I often start by focusing on physical sensations – the tangible “what is.” There’s a breeze, or rain, or sun. There are cars, or people, or nature. I’m sitting or standing or walking or lying down. These are pretty simple things to acknowledge. And that’s all we have to accept.
The challenge is to delete the extraneous information, the story that – in my case – said this will never get better, and I’m going to wind up on the street, and nobody will ever hire me again.
I created a lot of suffering for myself by living in the future, by thinking about “When things get better” and “When my life gets back to normal.” (I had a very, very, very hard time visualizing and staying present when I was worried about survival. I felt like I was supposed to accept the possibility of being homeless, and I couldn’t. Chronic hunger made staying present even more difficult. The thing is, “the possibility of being homeless” is a story; the reality was that, even though I was far behind on rent, there was never a day when I didn’t have a roof over my head.)
It was a scene from Orange is the New Black on YouTube that finally shifted my perspective. Piper’s mother, on the phone with her incarcerated daughter, says something along the lines of, “When you get back to your life—” and Piper cuts her off. “This is my life right now.”
Then it hit me: This, right now, is my life. Shortly thereafter, things began to turn around.
(For more, see From Resistance to Acceptance)