The 7 pillars of mindfulness – #6 Acceptance
- The 7 pillars of mindfulness – #6 Acceptance
- Acceptance – what is it?
- Acceptance is the opposite of willing.
- Acceptance – the difference between pain and suffering.
- Acceptance does not mean resignation.
- Why acceptance is important
- Learning acceptance: facts that we have to accept
- Exercises for more acceptance
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“…for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” -W. Shakespeare-
Acceptance – what is it?
Acceptance means taking things, people or events the way, they are, even if they do not correspond to our wishes and expectations. For many, acceptance means defeat because we want control over our lives and its events. We want to control our feelings, our health, our physical condition, our job. We find helplessness unbearable. That’s why we struggle with acceptance.
The dream of making the complex world, together with people, catastrophes, crises and natural laws, controllable, or at least predictable, is probably as old as mankind. In any case, documented history already knows heated animal bones from the Longshan culture (2000-1850 BC) with the oldest forerunners of Chinese script. As far as they are decipherable, they are inquiries to the ancestors about the future and the meaning of the present. (The success rate of such inquiries must have been minimal, otherwise they probably would have prevailed today.)
Likewise, Artificial Intelligence currently promises to predict future financial crises and even the behavior of the nearly ten billion people on Earth. A new „Living Earth Simulator“ from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) e.g. is expected to create with its computing power a complete second earth – in digital form. Over a period of ten years with a budget of one billion, the best scientists in Europe should explore human activity on earth and all its consequences. The computing power is said to link an unprecedented amount of data: social graphs from social networks, traffic data, GPS data, satellite data, terrestrial sensors, the stock exchanges, politics, telecommunication data, all of which are supposed to lead to predictions of the likely movements in larger contexts. But the principle behind such an endeavor is no more exciting than the principle behind a dice roll: the expectation value calculates what value a random variable should take on a large number of attempts. (E (X) = x1 * p1 + x2 * p2 + … + xk * pk, where X is a finite random variable which, with the respective probability p, can take the respective value x.) In a dice roll, X is = 1,2, …, 6, and, if it is a fair dice, all events are equally probable, with probability 1: 6. It is not possible to calculate though, which number the dice will show on the next roll.
So even with AI, our individual future will remain shapeable without becoming predictable. And despite all our striving and desires, never will everything always happen the way we want it to. (Perhaps for our own good, if we did not want to end up like the legendary King Midas, who wished that everything he touched, should turn gold, and would have died of hunger, had Dionysos not freed him from the gift afterwards.)
Acceptance is the opposite of willing.
If we just missed a train, we can accept the fact, or we can accept the fact and annoy ourselves terribly until the next train will arrive. Anger about a stain in your new trousers or a perfectly planned barbecue party blown away by torrential rain – accepting what we cannot change, saves us suffering and annoyance. Acceptance enables us to experience what there is right now, including your own reaction to it. Such an attitude is necessary, if we are dealing with the past, that can no longer be changed, because it has already happened, or if we are afraid of a future, of which we do not even know exactly how it will look like.
A serious illness leads to pain and fear. The disease is there, it has to be treated. For the time being, this cannot be changed. That’s it. If we get upset about it, it leads to additional emotional pain. It’s like that.
We will always meet people who are more attractive, smarter, more entertaining or more relaxed than we are. That’s it. We will be disappointed or sad about it. That is just as well.
But something else also becomes clear here: it is not things, people or events that determine our feelings, but what we think about them. Acceptance is therefore a prerequisite for overcoming pain and anger – especially when our reaction damages us.
Acceptance – the difference between pain and suffering.
Pain is part of life, like eating, drinking, breathing and sleeping, and it cannot always be avoided, especially if its causes belong to the past. If we want to avoid and suppress the pain at all costs, we often suffer a lot more and longer. The physical pain comes along with a pain of the soul: suffering. It stems from the refusal to accept pain. It arises when I cling to what I want and refuse to accept, what is (see attachment and desire in the previous post). Suffering can become more powerful than pain itself, e.g. as a post-traumatic stress disorder that inhibits and impairs life long after the catastrophic experience has ceased to exist. Then the acceptance of unpleasant events and feelings and their integration into our biography during treatment becomes the only way out.
Acceptance does not mean resignation.
Rather, it is about avoiding unreasonable absolute demands and the ensuing self-damaging feelings, and thus saving energy, necessary to deal with problems elsewhere. Dealing openly with a situation that we would have wished to be otherwise, can become itself be a solution sometimes. Then acceptance becomes coping.
Otherwise, thoughts come to mind like:
- That must not be.
- That can not be.
We find it unfair to be in an uncomfortable position. We complain, whine or feel sorry for ourselves. We do not want to admit and refuse to accept reality, because we perceive of helplessness as a personal failure. Our ability to act and our self-worth regulation suffer. Everyone knows, that toilet paper does not protect against viruses. But hoarding toilet paper creates the illusion of control and ability to act, in a situation characterized by helplessness, fear and uncertainty, such as the COVID19 epidemic.
Why acceptance is important
If we resist reality, or struggle against the past, or become paralysed by our fear of the future, in addition to the inconvenience of reality, memory or expectations, mental suffering occurs, that does not in the least change the inconvenience: we paralyse, tense and cramp, and further hurt ourselves. Instead of looking for solutions, our strength flows into refusal and defense. And, in the end, we will become embittered and disappointed.
„Only a dollop remains of us, when life really presses the tube.“ -E. Jellinek-
Elfriede Jellinek sums it up nastily but unerringly: life always has unpredictable strokes of fate ready for us. Illness, accidents, unemployment, separation and loss – everything can paralyse us. Acceptance, on the other hand, helps to take the unchangeable as it is, and thus makes life easier.
Learning acceptance: facts that we have to accept
Yes, it’s tough. Acceptance is very difficult. Here are 8 facts that we better accept because we can’t change them:
- We will die, every one of us. We ourselves will die, as will our family members, friends, and our pets. Not only not suppressing this thought, but accepting it, is extremely difficult, but necessary. As crazy as it sounds: finitude of life is part of life. Eternal life is a dream that religions and art have shaped again and again. But one thing is certain: we would enjoy and suffer very differently, if we were not subject to finitude. How exactly, nobody knows, because nobody has lived forever yet. Acceptance of our end means preparing ourselves as well as possible for what will come at some point.
- There is no absolute security, for nothing in the world. The current coronavirus pandemic shows, that even with the best preventive measures, there are risks in our lives, that we cannot control. There are always hazards. Accepting that may sound terrifying, but it also frees us from the debilitating compulsion, to be responsible for absolute control.
- Nobody can change the past, nobody. A bad past can poison and paralyse a whole life. It can be insurmountably difficult to break away from terrible memories or end with past suffering. Then acceptance is the only way to achieve a reasonable degree of happiness. This is the central point of Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy: regaining a life, that is felt to be meaningful and valuable while dealing sensibly with guilt, suffering or unchangeable memories.
- Everyone is different, each of us. Each of us has values, norms, beliefs, desires, feelings, and experiences. Most people’s thinking is very different from ours, especially in areas, that are very important to us. That makes their views neither less true, nor less valuable.
- The world is not fair, never. Reality does not care about anything – neither about guilt, merit, reward, nor punishment. Studies show that we enjoy villains in movies or books getting punished even more, than heroes getting rewarded. We wish reality was the same. Reality does not care. Bad things happen to the lovable and the worst of men. And the most terrible deeds go unpunished. However, this does not speak against standing up for justice and fighting for it, on the contrary. The world is not fair. We can be.
- Other people will always judge us. Mindful and respectful interaction with one another is infinitely pleasant. However, there will always be people, who do not share our values, norms and wishes, who therefore despise our feelings, thoughts and actions and, mostly wrongly, judge us. Healthy self-confidence cannot be thrown off course by judgmental remarks, but remains open to one’s own and other’s mistakes, and stays persistent without slipping into narrow-minded self-righteousness. The prerequisite for this is acceptance of the fact, that nobody will ever please everyone.
- Everyone makes mistakes, everyone. Since there is no absolute certainty, there is no perfection in reality. “You have to break an egg to make an omelet”, the saying goes. We have all made mistakes. And we will make more, despite our greatest care and effort. Accepting our mistakes and their consequences enables us to learn from our mistakes.
- Present circumstances are, as they are, without exception. As stated above, we have the choice at each present moment, to take things as they are, or to take them as they are and to be terribly upset about it. We can only change them in the future. Those who constantly struggle with their circumstances, do not make any progress. The anger over past injustice will not undo it. Acceptance is the first step in making the best of current circumstances.
Exercises for more acceptance
That was probably not a pleasant read. Immutable facts are rarely enjoyable. You may even feel worried or depressed. Then the following exercises should help you to learn acceptance:
- Thinking is an important step towards acceptance. All thoughts are finite, pleasant and uncomfortable ones alike. If we let ourselves deal with difficult issues, they will gradually become less thorny. In formal meditation, thoughts appear in consciousness and sail away. So it is important, not to let negative thoughts rule us: we always have control over when and what we think about. And we are not our thoughts.
- Anger, fear, despair do accompany lack of acceptance. Often these emotions come from thoughts about something that we cannot accept. Use them as guides.
- Focus on the problems, that you can change. Self-efficacy is good and supports acceptance of situations, that we cannot change.
- The other principles of mindfulness support acceptance: take a deep breath and pay attention to what you are seeing right now. What you see, hear and feel right now: this is the present moment.
- Be clear and outspoken about the situation. This eliminates avoidance and creates the conditions for acceptance and solutions.
- Allow yourself to feel. Forbearance with yourself and others is a form of acceptance. What would you say to a friend in your situation?
- In a crisis, ask yourself: „Assuming I could accept the situation, then what could I do?“ The answers will give you a way out of the crisis. You look ahead.
If we accept the reality, that we cannot change, we save ourselves from self-harming negative feelings like anger and despair. Acceptance has been shown to have positive effects on our mental and physical well-being.
The next blog post will continue with #7 Letting go.