Maybe it’s raining and you have to go to work and this makes you cranky. Maybe it’s something bigger in life, such as an illness that you have found out you have got. This will, expectedly, probably provoke feelings of fear, anguish, and worry. Nobody likes when life doesn’t go as it planned or as it was our idea how it should go. How can acceptance help?
Fighting reality causes us suffering. This is the idea originating from ancient zen practice. It was zen and Buddhist traditions that first came to see how fighting the reality creates more pain and how acceptance can free us. Extreme acceptance is not a destination or a goal, but a constant process of exercising the mind to be more flexible and tolerant of everything that life throws at us. In dialectical-behavioral therapy, this is also called radical acceptance. It is about the constant turning of the mind, in the face of things that happen we cannot control.
The use of “extreme” or “radical acceptance” requires us to dig deep within ourselves and accept even what seems outrageous to accept, such as having an illness as described above. This does not mean that one should blindly accept injustice or existential pain, nor conform to unjust circumstacnes. One thing has to be clear, and that is, that acceptance is not indifference, inaction or resignation. It does not mean one should fall into the abyss of despair or do no action. It is, actually, precisely the opposite.
It is turning off the mind in order to free the capacity for action. It starts from the assumption that it is by refusing to accept what is that we create more pain in our lives. It doesn’t matter if this is the rain falling on Monday morning or the illness which will require healing or fighting for our life. It is done so that we don’t suffer more than we have to. Mental chaos ensues when we fight reality. It drains us and lessens our capacity for action. Usually, this is our natural human tendency. We want to control things the way we see them fit, not let them go as they are. Thus it is useful to learn how to accept reality, instead of fighting it.
How to accept things in practice
We accept things as they are over and over again. Whatever goes in our direction, we refrain from over-analyzing and possibly condemning. It is what it is. This, however, might be easier said than done. It is only human to fight against circumstances that seem unfavorable for us. Thus we create more suffering on the top of the situation which is already as it is.
So when we see this happening, we might pause and reflect. We might look at what we’re fighting against. How we are adding more pain with our thoughts that don’t accept reality. We then turn the mind. We ask ourselves over and over again what it is that we’re fighting against and make inner commitment to accept it. And we do this over and over again.
The acceptance can go towards situations or towards people. Accepting other people as being different from us seems to be very hard for many of us. But acceptance in this sense has its benefits – we can see how their difference can enrich us, and we can become thankful, thankful for the diversion of thoughts, personal values, sexual orientations, race, religion and so on. Radical acceptance means not trying to change the other or presuppose what he or she is, but seeing him or her like that what she or he really is. It is about becoming more tolerant.
Also, we start to understand slowly that it is not in our power to change other people. It is one thing to grasp this intellectually, but totally another to understand it emotionally, in the body. The latter is no easy task and requires years of practice. As human beings, we are usually chronically used to thinking we can change other people. Understanding that this is an illusion is actually the beginning of the new phase of emotional life, the healthier and more mature.
Extreme acceptance also requires that we accept things that have ended. That we accept the death of our loved one, the departure of a friend, the break-up of the relationship we thought was gonna last for a lifetime. We feel an immense amount of pain and suffering if this does not turn out to be so. And this is only human. We are, after all, social beings. The process of grieving is a process we must go through.
However, acceptance can help here also. When my dog died, whom we loved as a member of our family with love which will never die, I was blinded by pain. I walked around searching for answers. I scanned books and texts, existential and Buddhist, hoping to find a sentence, a paragraph that would console me and make some sense out of this fleeting existence. The only sentence that somewhat calmed this pain I felt inside and thoughts that were going wild was the one from the Buddhist teacher Tara Brach proposing saying a simple “I consent” when faced with what is unimaginable for us in terms of feelings. As banal as it might feel, try it. I walked around saying “I consent” and it was as if the accepting reality made it clearer for me and removed my denial or fighting against it at the moment. And this gave me the space needed to really grieve.
In the similar manner, extreme acceptance helps with another kind of life circumstances which are not favorable. Life is usually a series of challenges. By learning to accept them, as opposed to fighting them, we give ourselves the additional space and mental calmness to be able to deal with them. So extreme acceptance does not even closely mean to lie down and to give up. It means being better at seeing reality so we can deal with it more constructively.