Much of life’s pain comes from the disappointment of having your unceasing desires unmet. Truth be told, over the arc of your life, you will have breathtakingly wonderful experiences, but you will also have losses and failures. Your general well-being will be determined less by the number of great moments, and more by the way you manage the difficult ones.
The key to dealing with those bad things when they happen is acceptance. If grasping and aversion are about always wanting this moment to be better or different, acceptance is about making the best of each moment, just as it is.
When unwanted things happen, it’s painful. When we resist our pain, we multiply our suffering. Consider it as a formula:
Pain x Resistance = Suffering
Pain is what you feel when something difficult, unpleasant, sad, or scary happens. It is inevitable that we will all feel pain. Resistance is all the things you do to escape pain. Think aversion on steroids. Complaining is also a form of resistance. The soundtrack of resistance might go like this: It’s not fair. Why does this always happen to me? It’s not my fault. You should not have said that!
Acceptance Decreases Suffering
You can’t avoid pain, but you can avoid amplifying it into higher levels of suffering by cultivating acceptance. Acceptance is the state of mind that sees the present moment just as it is. It allows you to feel pain or sadness or anger without making it worse.
To be clear, the kind of acceptance I am talking about does not require you to give up or be passive in the face of disappointments. There is nothing passive at all about acceptance. It is a highly active state of awareness that points you toward wise actions. Acceptance is not what keeps you stuck; acceptance is what carries you through.
It is important that you have a clear understanding about what acceptance is and is not. Acceptance is not the same as liking, agreeing with, or passively resigning yourself to anything, or making a decision about what you choose. Let’s dig a little deeper into these differences.
ACCEPTANCE IS NOT LIKING
Santiago said, “My roommate keeps coming in late, making all sorts of noise. He wakes me up, never says he is sorry, and it really pisses me off. I’ve been trying to accept it, but honestly, I don’t like it.” Santiago was struggling with the common confusion between acceptance and approval. He doesn’t need to like or approve of his roommate disrupting his sleep in order to accept it.
Accepting the behavior means recognizing reality. It means seeing clearly that it does indeed happen and what specific problems it causes for him. Once he is fully aware of this, he can be thoughtful about what, if anything, he wants to do about it.
Does his roommate know it bothers him? Does he want to talk to his roommate? If so, what is the best way to approach him about this? Would it make more sense to just buy earplugs? Or ignore it for a while and see if it goes away? Would just ignoring the problem create resentment that would damage the friendship?
Any of these explorations and options could produce a helpful resolution to Santiago’s problem; none of them involve his liking it.
ACCEPTANCE IS NOT AGREEING
Harathi told us, “My mom and I argue all the time about dating. She believes I should only date Indian guys. I’m just never going to accept that.”
The kind of acceptance I’m talking about has nothing to do with Harathi agreeing to only date Indian men. What might make Harathi’s situation better, though, would be to stop arguing with her mother about it. The first step in that direction would be for Harathi to accept that her mother is probably not going to change her mind about this. Also, she will have to accept that she doesn’t like how it feels when her mother disapproves of her. Then Harathi can decide: Is she willing to tolerate the discomfort of her mother’s disapproval in order to have the freedom to date whomever she chooses? It’s entirely up to her. Acceptance lets Harathi see that she can best put her energy into managing her own reactions to her mother’s disapproval rather than trying to change her mother’s mind about cross-cultural dating.
Harathi doesn’t have to agree with her mother; she can accept that they have different perspectives. She also doesn’t have to hate her. You can learn to calmly, kindly, and firmly disagree with someone you love if you can accept her for who she is, rather than being mad at her for not being the person you wish she was.
ACCEPTANCE IS NOT PASSIVE RESIGNATION
Clyde was involved in the protests that erupted in 2014 following the deaths of a number of unarmed black men by police officers. He said to us, “If we all just go around accepting that this stuff happens, nothing will ever change. I don’t agree with ‘acceptance.’”
Clyde had acceptance confused with what Eckhart Tolle calls passive resignation, a common point of confusion. Acceptance has nothing to do with giving up. Acceptance is never about going along with or being resigned to brutality or injustice of any kind. Rather, acceptance means that you acknowledge the reality of the injustice and then act with wisdom to effectively promote change. In fact, acceptance, seeing what is true, is essential to effective advocacy. Acceptance may allow you to see reality with greater clarity in order to develop more effective solutions. It might guide you to change your approach to a particular battle by helping you see that it is not the best way to win the war, but it doesn’t mean that you give up on working for social justice.
If you are stuck in the mud, passive resignation leads to Oh no, I’m stuck. Guess I’ll be here forever. Acceptance leads to OK, I don’t like it, but I am stuck. Now what am I going to do about it?
ACCEPTANCE IS NOT A DECISION
You don’t decide to accept a situation. Acceptance is an action. It is the action of bringing your awareness in to the present and acknowledging what is true in this moment. As soon as you pull your attention to the present and are willing to see what is true, you are practicing acceptance. When you acknowledge the reality of any moment, letting go of ideas about how things “should” be or how you wish they were, you are practicing acceptance. Acceptance is the action that lifts you out of being stuck in I don’t like it or It’s not fair and into What is the most sensible move in this moment?
Getting to Acceptance
Maxine told us she finally understood “that whole acceptance-reduces-suffering thing” after her computer crashed just as she was finishing a complicated project that was due the next day. She lost her entire report and could not recover it. She said:
“I panicked and started crying. All I could think about was what a disaster it was.
“Eventually, I started to realize that even though rewriting the report was a total nightmare, it was my only option. I could stay up all night crying about it, or I could accept that I had to start over and get going on it. So that’s what I did. I spent a few minutes watching my breath to help me calm down. Once I calmed down, I remembered there were pieces of the report I could recover from elsewhere, and I just got to work.
Acceptance has nothing to do with giving up. Rather, acceptance means that you acknowledge the reality of the injustice and then act with wisdom to effectively promote change.
“Every now and then I would start feeling sorry for myself and think, Why does this always happen to me? Then I’d say to myself, It is what it is, take a deep breath, and keep typing. It did suck, but I got it done, and in the end I was relatively calm about the whole thing.”
Notice that Maxine never did decide to like her situation, but she didn’t waste precious time and energy cursing her fate, either. She accepted it and kept moving.
I annoy my daughter when I say in response to her complaints, “Sounds like another opportunity to practice acceptance.” That may sound flippant, but actually, anytime you notice something not going your way, it is a great time to practice acceptance. Remember, you practice acceptance simply by acknowledging the truth of the present situation; you don’t have to decide to like, agree with, or resign yourself to anything. You just have to see that it is what it is.
Whether it is a frustration like Maxine’s lost report, something worse like being rejected by your graduate school of choice, or even worse, the death of a beloved parent, there are times when you simply cannot do anything to eliminate your pain. In those moments, you can be compassionately present with your feelings, be they irritation, shame, or great sadness, and try not to make your suffering greater by refusing to accept whatever painful truth you may be facing. Because even the most painful moments are temporary, if you can be kind and patient with yourself, with time your suffering will decline as you become clear about how to best manage your difficulty.
Meditation Builds Acceptance
Acceptance is the antidote to grasping, and it develops as you practice mindfulness meditation. Each time during meditation that you observe yourself wanting something to be different, and then choose to bring your attention back to the feel of your breath, you are practicing acceptance.
While meditating, you may see yourself wanting more of something, such as free time, or less of something, such as work. Maybe you recognize thoughts about how life isn’t fair or something is not your fault. Those thoughts tell you that you are resisting something. When you notice yourself wanting something to be different or resisting something that is real, and you intentionally pivot your attention back to your breath, you are practicing acceptance.
Each time during meditation that you observe yourself wanting something to be different, and then choose to bring your attention back to the feel of your breath, you are practicing acceptance.
If what you are wanting has a powerful emotional pull to it, like wishing your girlfriend hadn’t ended the relationship, you will get the opportunity, over and over, to practice letting go of that particular stream of thought as you sit in meditation. As you practice the skill of acceptance repeatedly in meditation, you will be better able to draw on it at other times, when you need it most.
If during meditation you notice thoughts coming up that are fighting or resisting something difficult, practice saying silently to yourself, It is what it is, and with patience and compassion bring your attention back to your anchor in the present, whether that is your breath while you are sitting or your feet as you are walking.
“Mindfulness meditation doesn’t change life. Life remains as fragile and unpredictable as ever. Meditation changes the heart’s capacity to accept life as it is.” —Sylvia Boorstein
Living with Loss
When a great loss leaves a big hole in our heart, acceptance is still what we need. It just takes time.
The idea that acceptance reduces suffering can be hard to get your head around, especially when it comes to accepting some of life’s most painful and life-altering events. It’s one thing to accept not finding parking and missing a dinner reservation. It’s another thing altogether to accept the death of a deeply loved person or the foreclosure and eviction from your family’s home.
There is no choice but to go through grief when tragedy strikes. But we make it worse when we fight or struggle against it by getting pulled down the rabbit holes of regret (If only I had not done this or had said that) and fear (I’ll never love again. I’ll never be free of this pain.). These regretful and fearful thoughts are normal responses to grief, and yet spending time lost in them amplifies and extends your pain.
Accepting a great grief, seeing the truth of your suffering, also means seeing a critical aspect of the pain: that it is temporary. When you are in the midst of overwhelming sadness, it feels as if the pain will never abate. But that is not the way grief works. That is not the way anything works. Everything changes. Even the pain of loss subsides over time. It can take a long time, but it subsides. Accepting the loss and the pain that comes with it allows the healing to begin.
A friend of mine suffered the worst tragedy that many of us can imagine: Her young child was killed in a tragic accident. Now, five years later, she still has moments of sadness and pain, but they are balanced by fond memories of her lost son as well as her awareness of the moments of love and caring and goodness that have continued to exist in her life since her loss.
Though acceptance of a great loss does not come easily, a regular meditation practice can help build your ability to be with the pain, holding it with patience, understanding, and compassion, rather than struggling with or amplifying it. Here is a practice I find particularly helpful for working with deep loss.
A HEAVY ANCHOR
A short meditative poem can be a great aid to meditation when your mind is tortured by painful, grief-stricken thoughts. Repeat the lines of the poem silently to yourself as you sit in meditation, linking the words to the flow of your breath. They provide a “heavier” anchor for your awareness, holding your attention in the relative calm of the present moment rather than having your mind fall backward into regret or forward into fear.
The following poem (or gatha) is from Thich Nhat Hanh. You can practice with this one, look for others online, or, even better, write your own.
I know I am breathing in.
I know I am breathing out.
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
I dwell in the present moment.
I know this is a precious moment.