Acceptance is a difficult one to work with when you are going through a tough time. When your world is falling apart, you have a painful illness or you just can't see anything positive in life, how does acceptance help?
Well, firstly it's good to understand what we mean by acceptance because it is very often confused with giving up and resigning ourself to our current situation.
Acceptance is nothing to do with giving up, it is much more about seeing it clearly, about facing whatever your current challenge is and just saying "well it's here, I might as well face it". In Mindfulness, we say we turn towards it because it is through this process that we can begin to deal with it.
A Beautiful Mind
It may be useful to look at the story of John Nash, a Nobel Prize winner with a remarkable mathematical mind who has spent a lifetime living with Schizophrenia. The film a Beautiful Mind documents John's story and how he was able to finally find a way to live with his delusional state of mind without medical intervention. To clarify, John Nash had invented three imaginary people who played a major part in his life and that led him to behave irrationally, sometimes dangerously.
It is in this scene that he gives us some insight into how he has come to terms with his condition. After years of working on his confused, irrational thoughts, John Nash finally shares how he was able to transform his life. Let me share this insightful conversation with his old (real) friend Martin:
Martin: "Have they gone?" (referring to his imaginary friends)
John: "No, not gone, maybe they will never be gone. But I've got used to ignoring them, and they've kind of given up on me"
He then goes on "I think that's what it's like with all our dreams and nightmares, you have to keep feeding them to stay alive"
Martin: "John, but they haunt you?"
John: "They're my past, everyone is haunted by their past"
What John's story teaches us is that it was only when he was able to accept his delusions, was he able to help himself.
Acceptance is not giving up
Pema Chodron refers to our constant battle with "what is" like us constantly kicking the wheel. We can't have peace of mind if we keep on kicking the wheel, or if we bite the hook so we get caught. In Tibetian, the word "Shenpa" is used to describe that sticky, uncomfortable feeling we get when we are experiencing something we don't like or want.
Shenpa - An unwillingness of human beings to let go of certain thoughts, particularly those that cause suffering
So what is the difference between acceptance and resigning yourself to your current situation?
In Mindfulness, we practice staying with our current feelings and emotions, even though our instinct may be to run or distract ourselves so that we don't have to feel what we feel. But we can't change the movie if we don't see it, we can't solve a problem until we understand it, we won't know the root cause if we don't explore deeper.
So we learn to stay, even if it is uncomfortable. We bring in loving kindness to the situation, we give ourselves the support we need to sit with the uncomfortable feeling. Until we can develop our inner resilience we are always going to be caught up in life's ups and downs, the slightest thing will upset or agitate us.
By staying and accepting what is happening at this moment you are able to get to the root of the struggle. We do this through meditation or by simply sitting with your breath, becoming fully acquainted with whatever is going on right now.
Taking John Nash's story as an example, we could narrow the process down to three simple steps:
First you must see.
Face your struggling. And recognise the thoughts you have around this uncomfortableness. Question your thoughts, are they real? Do they really reflect the whole situation? In the film Beautiful Mind, at this stage John Nash shouts at his imaginary friends "you are not real" because our thoughts are not a realistic reflection of the whole situation, are they?
At this stage you are curious, you are exploring and you are asking all the questions. If you are suffering from an illness, are your thoughts helpful or are they causing you to suffer more? What are the facts and what are the delusions?
Making Friends with Your Struggle
The next step is to stop fighting, to surrender to the fact that maybe your challenge will never go away. Now that sounds very fatalistic, doesn't it? Well, actually it's not because when you let go of the struggle, suddenly it has less of a hold on you. For those of us who've experienced childbirth, we know that the only way to bear the pain is to stop the struggle. Adding pain to what's already a painful experience doesn't help anyone.
And always remember to be kind, yes I know this is a whole other subject!
Make Peace - Acceptance
Going back to our friend John Nash, he freed himself from the constant involvement with his thoughts. That is what acceptance is, see it for what it is, let go of the struggle and make the changes you need to make to help yourself. The pain may not go away completely, the constant negative thoughts may not disappear overnight but what will happen is that you will make peace with yourself.
If you have a personal struggle, we may be able to help.