Learning that acceptance is key to mindfulness.
A fundamental tenet of mindfulness is acceptance. Many people misunderstand this concept to mean that we are complacent and allow others to roll over us, take advantage of us or that we don’t believe in taking a stand on an issue. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Acceptance is a profound shift in perspective that leads to a more serene way of being. That’s because a lot of anxiety and stress that is completely self-generated dissipates. Last week we talked about internal resistance. Acceptance is the opposite of resistance, but it goes deeper than just mitigating discomfort. As a practice, it is a way of responding to all of life’s events.
Think about something right now that you don’t like or that you’re upset about, where you don’t have control over the situation. Which would be most things in life! Let’s say it’s your job. You were excited when you were hired and thought it would be a great experience for you. Then as you settled in, you began noticing that it wasn’t quite ideal. People weren’t as kind as you expected, there was a lot more bureaucracy than you’re comfortable with, the organizational culture isn’t in alignment with your values. And now you’re upset and considering looking for a new job elsewhere.
I would suggest you hold off on looking for a new job and take advantage of your situation to learn acceptance. We frequently miss these types of opportunities because we’re so focused on escaping discomfort, we don’t recognize that we have a chance to personally grow and learn, which will ultimately prevent this situation from occurring again.
Look around at the situation and identify what you don’t like. As you do this, compare it to your picture of what you thought it would look like. The job itself isn’t really the problem. It’s your picture of what it was “supposed” to look like that creates the problem. If you didn’t have a preconceived notion of what something is supposed to be, you wouldn’t be comparing your situation to that preconceived notion. If you were experiencing the job without that preconceived notion, would it be as bad? Or bad at all?
I’m not saying you would suddenly love your job if you could look at it neutrally. It may not be a good fit for you at all and perhaps it is time to look elsewhere. But if you can first truly look at it neutrally, you might be surprised. And if you can achieve this, you will make much better decisions about the next job because instead of setting up a picture of what it should be, you’ll be making a decision based on your goals and values and what you can contribute, instead of a story you’ve made up in your mind.
Now think about relationships. If you have problems with a significant other, your teenager, extended family, your in-laws, your coworkers, your boss, stop and think about your story. Many of us decide in advance what a family “should” be. What a spouse “should” be. What a child “should” be. What a boss “should” be. Then when those individuals don’t live up to our picture, we’re disappointed in them. They aren’t doing what we expect (or need) them to do. They don’t agree with us on religion or politics or values. They behave in ways we don’t agree with. They are not matching our picture.
I’ve recently had several conversations with friends that are around my age, and I’ve seen a common theme. We’re all grandparents now and struggling with adapting to the fact that our picture of what grandparenthood would look like isn’t materializing. Conversations with our adult children are more often than not via text message. Time with the grandchildren is on Facetime. What happened to having the big family all together, sharing meals, children playing in the backyard, perhaps a warm fire crackling in the fireplace? Some folks may still have that idealized situation, but most of us do not. That’s a picture, a story we hold in our minds, based on a previous period in time or on stories in books or movies that we’ve idealized as how we want our life to look. And then we’re disappointed, frustrated, depressed. Life feels empty because our picture isn’t being fulfilled.
But if we didn’t have that picture of what life “should” look like, would we feel disappointed? Would we then be excited to receive a text from a grandchild, sharing her news that she’s made a team or gotten good grades?
On the flipside, I never had to make an appointment to see my grandparents. Unless they were traveling, they were always home. I could pop in whenever I wished, get a great home-cooked meal, chat with my grandparents, and then go along my merry way. My grandchildren don’t have that luxury. I work full-time, I go out frequently with friends, I have volunteer obligations. They have to schedule time with me. They have to check in advance for sleep-overs. The enormous difference? They don’t have a preconceived idea of what a grandparent should look like. If they’re disappointed that they can’t come over, they get over it quickly because they know I’ll reprioritize everything I can to make time available for them as soon as possible. It’s a temporary blip of disappointment, not anxiety or depression.
An important question to ask yourself is can you accept a situation or others as they are? What needs do you have that you want others to fulfill? How did you develop your picture? Is it realistic? Did it come from someone else’ notion about how things are supposed to be?
Our needs are the heart of the matter. When we have unmet needs, it’s natural to look for an external solution. If only you’d: spend more time with me, love me, be kinder, help more - I’d be happy. Have you ever said or thought something like that? Unfortunately, that’s not a real solution, although sometimes you can achieve a Band-Aid result. As you pressure people to fulfill your needs, they frequently try to, but over the long haul, that just doesn’t work. It’s not sustainable.
We are fully capable of fulfilling our own needs, although most of us have some inner work to do in order to achieve that. But once you’ve identified and are working on that track, you’ll notice that your disappointment in others declines. This doesn’t mean that life is all perfect and happy once you’ve done this. It simply means you’ve eliminated a ton of stress and anxiety that existed in your judgment of other people and events that weren’t matching your picture. You eliminate the picture. You go into situations with an open mind and minimal comparisons to real or made up versions of the situation.
Visualization really works, so you can create whatever type of life you want. For you. You can’t create or visualize what you want from others because you can’t change or control others. Spend some time considering what you want and need. From that list, what’s lacking? What can you do to change that? When you visualize, keep it centered on you and the changes you can make, with no expectation of others to complete your picture. That doesn’t mean others won’t become part of your picture, but that you will stay open to whatever occurs instead of trying to dictate what it will look like. For example, if you want more love in your life, work on loving others. Visualize ways you can do that. You’ll quickly discover that this brings more love into your life! If you want more connection with specific people, visualize your part. Be open to whatever communication methods are available and adapt to what works for that other person. Let go of the picture that it has to be a certain way.
Entertainment platforms and social media still largely portray a way of life that isn’t real for most people. Don’t compare your real life to a made up story on a screen or in a book or in your own head. Practice accepting that situations and people are how they are. It is what it is. But keep in mind that when you change, others around you change as well.
Wayne Dyer said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” That includes people. Try practicing acceptance for a day. Every time you hear judgments, comparisons, or disappointments pop into your head, simply say to yourself, “it is what it is.” At the end of that day, spend a few minutes reflecting on how practicing acceptance changed how you felt about the situations. Think about how those situations compared to the story you already had in your head. Did accepting that they didn’t match your story help loosen up that story? Did other people respond to you differently because you weren’t imposing your story onto them?
Wayne Dyer said "If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change."
Accepting that we can’t change other people frees us from a lot of pressure. It also frees them. People know when they’re being judged, when they’re disappointing someone, when they’re not living up to expectations. Once we release the need to control how things happen, we can live in the moment. This doesn’t mean that we necessarily like it. By accepting life for what it is, we don’t accept or condone inappropriate behavior by others. We base our actions on what is actually occurring instead of basing it on a comparison to how we think things should be. By removing the filter of our story, we may find that we have people or situations or a job that doesn’t match something much more important than our made up story. They may not match our core values and beliefs. But eliminating the story helps us gain clarity and then we take action based on that, not a fairy tale.
Acceptance allows us to see others as they really are, not what we want them to be. It can be a completely delightful experience to suddenly see attributes or traits in someone else that you may not have noticed for years. It can also be profoundly moving to realize that someone else has the exact same needs as you. That they aren’t as different from you as you previously thought. That they respond to you differently as you accept them for who they are.
Acceptance takes practice. A lot of practice. We’re conditioned to judge and compare. We’ve made a habit of creating a picture in our heads and then wanting people to conform. So take it slowly. Just experiment, one day at a time. Or one situation at a time. When you feel aggravated with standing in a long line, pause and consider that it is what it is. Notice that when you do this, you recognize that judging the situation or blaming other people for the delay causes stress, while accepting that it is what it is feels neutral. When you catch yourself wishing someone else would be different, don’t judge yourself. Simply remind yourself that they are who they are. Ask yourself what need isn’t being fulfilled by that person and think about what you can change about yourself that would start fulfilling that need.
Accepting that it is what it is doesn’t mean it can’t change. But first we must accept it as it is so that we can determine why we’re affected by it, what we need that’s missing and whether or not there is anything we can do about it in the moment. And of course, practice letting go of the picture in your head of how things should be. Consider how they could be if you let go of the story and accepted life as it unfolds.