22 Jul Radical Acceptance
This morning I was thinking a lot about the idea of “accepting things as they are.” It can be very difficult to conceptualize what this means, or how to do it. For me, it involves becoming more present with how my expectations for how things might go shape my reactions to them as they play out. In general these expectations are not necessarily “a problem.” However, if we have trouble shifting, or pivoting, when things don’t go as we expect, then our reactions can become complicated. For example, if we expect to drink milk, but get orange juice we might react with great force. It’s an understandable response. However, once we realize what has transpired, some of us can laugh it off while others have a hard time letting go of the sense of shock and dislocation. This may be true if it was an absolute accident or an intentional prank. Either way, if we hold onto anger and frustration, those negative emotions have a negative impact on us. Often when we hold onto anger with the belief that it is a way of punishing someone else, we do more damage to ourselves than anyone else.
When we resist things as they are, we put ourselves into a negative situation that can cause unnecessary suffering. This does not mean that it’s unreasonable to set goals, hope that we might win a competition, or expect that people treat us with respect. However, if we become attached to the competition or the goal and it doesn’t turn out as we hoped, our reaction to the result can lead to a great deal of suffering. In our culture, we might see that suffering as a kind of badge of courage, and see value in it, because we believe that this passion leads to positive results in the end. It might be framed that suffering in the pursuit of a goal is useful if it drives us to be even more competitive. With a slight shift of perspective, we can see that struggling or pushing ourselves to be committed to a goal is different than suffering. This is a very subtle shift in awareness, but an important one. The goal of many spiritual practices is to move beyond suffering. Suffering is a part of life; acceptance of that truth paradoxically leads to less suffering. It is resistance to suffering that often leads to more of it.
If we zoom out a bit, we can see how social expectations create frameworks of value, and in society we ascribe value in ways that are often based on competition – so it’s understandable how this unfolds in the way that it does. However, if we’re willing to ask hard questions about the value of competition versus collaboration, or mutual support, we can see that this is a socially constructed framing that we can challenge. In a winner-take-all environment, there is less collaboration and a great deal more suffering overall. While winning a competition might confer benefits on someone, it can also cause many others to suffer in comparison.
It’s easy to see that it’s useful to do some planning: to have some goals. However, being overly attached to those goals in ways that make it difficult for us to pivot or change is not in our best interest. When we are attached to our expectations and things go awry, we often respond with anger, or even rage. For some of us, this manifests in very physical and present ways, wherein we might scream and yell at those around us. This usually doesn’t help us fix the problem. In fact, it often gets in the way of a solution. For others, that rage gets turned inward in ways that we aren’t even fully aware of. Instead of feeling like anger, it might manifest as depression, frustration, or sadness. While we might not be as expressive of those feelings as the person who yells and screams, this reaction still has an impact on us as well as on those around us. In any case, attachment to that expectation leads to a great deal of negative emotions, interactions, and pain.
So, when we think about ideas related to “radical acceptance,” it doesn’t mean that we must accept terrible conditions, behaviors, or governments, but instead that we become more mindful of how profoundly our attachment to expectation keeps us trapped in loops of negative emotional responses. With this awareness, we have more agency to respond to the situations with presence rather than blind reactivity. While we might not always be able to escape these conditions, being present with how we are reacting to them can help us mitigate the suffering. It gives us much more energy and focus, two things that we need in order to muster the resources to get out of the negative situation. When we are in a state of suffering, it’s difficult for us to think clearly enough to escape. For instance, a person who is seemingly trapped in an abusive relationship might be so blinded by emotional attachments that they can’t see any way to escape. With more awareness comes more ability.
Here’s another example. Imagine a family driving to an important event and they get a flat tire. Interestingly, even as I try to think about how to describe the situation I am aware of how easy it is to fall into frameworks that involve expectations (in this case gendered ones), and how even trying to challenge those ideas involves complex awareness of how expectation shapes our response. In this way, we can see how social expectation creates so much suffering for those that don’t fall into expected roles. So, I’m just gonna say, imagine that one of the adults has a tendency to get very angry when things don’t go as expected, and the other adult has learned to react to this by not reacting outwardly, and the kids are keyed in to both parents’ behavior patterns. Perhaps one of the parents tries to calm the rage of the other parent, but that parent feel righteously angry because it’s “unfair” that they got a flat tire when it was so important that they be where they needed to be. The parent reacts angrily to the suggestion that they calm down. We can imagine all the suffering that takes place in the situation, and the pain that the children experience. Here’s where mindful acceptance can play out in very powerful ways. If the adults are primed to be more accepting of what comes, one might calmly call their insurance company or AAA, while the other goes to assess the situation. They might check in with their own feelings and make an effort to be present with them. This might involve letting frustration rise, but also letting it pass just as quickly. Being able to question whether or not that emotion is serving them in the situation and then letting it go, they make room to respond in ways that help resolve the problem rather then letting suffering or discomfort take over. In other words, acceptance also involves accepting that we have feelings, and rather than repress or resist them, we observe and allow them to pass. That which we resist will persist. If we hold ourselves to some expectation, then we unconsciously don’t accept ourselves, and this creates whole other realms of emotional suffering.
It’s easy for us to see that there’s no value in a person screaming at their family when they’re frustrated about a flat tire. If we were to come upon that scene, we might be aghast and feel like we need to step in and correct the person’s behavior to protect the family. Here is where we can examine the key to acceptance: empathy. If we are angered by the way the one adult is screaming, then we will likely not be of much use in deescalating the situation. However if we have empathy for the person who is most upset, we let go of the frame which sees that person as being in the wrong. While it might take time to help that person calm down, if we approach them with empathy and understanding it’s more likely we will face less resistance. If our desire is to help, finding empathy helps us let go of expectation in a way that creates less resistance.
As you read this, you might check in with how it makes you react. Often times, we take suggestions of other ways of being as threats to our own way of being. However, we are all capable of resilience, change, and transformation. Sometimes it feels like change challenges our authenticity. Instead, we might realize that resistance to change is simply our ego trying to protect itself.