Art Of Acceptance

Despite many modern conveniences and labor-saving gadgets, our lives are often not easier or less stressful. In fact, our lives are filled with many demands and distractions competing for our attention including email, texting and a variety of social media.

These demands and distractions influence us to remain constantly connected with others but also cause us to become disconnected from the present moment. This is probably why there is a growing movement in America to train people to navigate the stresses of daily life and why mindfulness programs are used in more than 700 hospitals worldwide.

Mindfulness is essentially paying attention non-judgmentally with a particular attitude of flexibility, openness and curiosity. Mindfulness is about awareness as opposed to being caught up in thoughts. Even if our experience in the present moment is unpleasant, we can practice being open to and curious about a particular situation instead of running from or fighting with it.

Flexibility, an important mindfulness tool, involves consciously directing our attention and focusing on different aspects of our experience.  It also means to witness our thoughts as mental events with less attachment to them.  Just being aware of what we are thinking activates the prefrontal cortex in the brain.  This is the higher decision-making center.  Without that awareness, it is on sleep mode and our brains default to the amygdala, or emotional center. 

Through this practice, we can choose our response to our environment which enhances our psychological resilience and life satisfaction.  We can use mindfulness to break out of “autopilot” modes and connect more deeply with what’s going on in the present moment.  And this improves our skillfulness in activities and ability to fully enjoy those activites.  

One of the most important ways we can improve mindfulness in our everyday life is through acceptance.  Acceptance is part of the open awareness described earlier.  It means allowing experiences to come and allowing them to go – both pleasant and unpleasant. It also involves assenting to the reality of a situation and letting go of what cannot be controlled or changed.

For example, we cannot control the weather, and this sometimes leads to frustration. While weather is neither good nor bad, when we pay closer attention to it, we may see that it constantly changing.  If we can witness that change from a safe space without rejection or attachment, we may even experience a peace about it all or at least a sense of the sublime power of nature.

Similarly, we have internal weather, and I like to refer to this form of mindful-self-awareness as “affective meteorology.”  By paying attention to your thoughts, moods, feelings and sensations like you would the weather, you will see it is sometimes clear and sometimes stormy, but always changing. When we are more self-accepting, we can find our balance and experience challenges in life as if in the eye of a hurricane.  The eye of a hurricane represents centeredness and is calm despite being surrounded by chaos.

Another helpful analogy for acceptance is a “monkey trap.”  In parts of Asia, hunters use a jar with a narrow bottleneck and wider base. It is filled with something desirable like nuts, and the jar is then fastened to a tree branch.  The monkey will reach inside the jar with an open hand, grab the nuts and after making a fist, cannot pull its hand back out through the bottleneck. The monkey will struggle and appear “trapped” but, in reality, the monkey can free itself by letting go. Similarly, we struggle emotionally when our thoughts resist the reality of a situation. This may include thoughts such as “I can’t take this” or “I shouldn’t have to deal with this” or “How could this happen to me?” Instead, we can practice acceptance, and mindfully direct our awareness toward what we can do to positively move forward in the present moment; then choose our response.

We’re all familiar with the saying, “It is what it is.”  This tends to be said or thought only during difficult or unpleasant situations. “It is what it is” has become slang for “this really sucks!”  So, it's important to not only find the right self-talk but also the right energy behind what we say.  If necessary, gently redirect our awareness towards finding meaning in difficulty, opportunity in adversity and choosing responses that will help us in our personal development.

With a little practice, we can expand our awareness and grow from all our experiences.  When we reject, resist and bury our pain, we build a landfill in our heart.  On the other hand, if we are truly present and accepting, we can compost it and make our life more like a garden.  This is the compassionate and mindful integration of our experiences which helps us to grow psychologically, cultivate wisdom and deepen our relationship with all life.

Todd Fink