Much of my working life has been dedicated to responding to injustice – different forms of oppression and discrimination. As the disability discrimination solicitor in Western Australia I took action to support clients with a disability to enjoy the same access and opportunities that I had. As a volunteer in Guatemala, I worked on literacy projects, responding to the high levels of illiteracy amongst indigenous populations in particular. As an academic, much of my research focused on the additional challenges students from disadvantaged communities face, both at school and on leaving school. And working with CASE for Refugees I supported the human rights of asylum seekers. It was in part, the intensity of social justice work that led me to meditation and mindfulness. I could see that my reactivity to the injustices of the world was at times an obstacle to an effective response.
Exploring mindfulness, you will find that one of the underlying principles is acceptance. Acceptance is said to be one facet of a skilful response to the challenges that are part of life. But what does acceptance mean? Does acceptance result in non-engagement? Does acceptance mean that we allow injustice and abuse and stay cocooned in our individual meditative experience?
Whether or not you believe in God, the key message of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer may be a helpful pointer here. He writes:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
A useful way to tease out the apparent conflict between acceptance and action is to go back to the bigger purpose of mindfulness. Mindfulness sits in a tradition motivated to reduce suffering – suffering of the individual, other people and all living things. Remembering this, the key question to ask in any situation might be: how does acceptance in this situation reduce my suffering and the suffering of others? In any particular situation, how might acceptance and action be skilfully (and ethically) combined?
Looking at the following situations, it becomes clear that acceptance requires thoughtful application, because challenging situations come in so many shapes and sizes.
- A loved one is at the end stage of life after a long illness.
- A child refuses to go to school.
- A husband/boss/child is abusive.
- Being overweight.
- Environmental destruction.
- Violations of human rights.
Clearly, acceptance is not passive resignation.
Acceptance requires clear recognition of the situation. Seeing a situation clearly is different to repeating the story we tell ourselves about the situation to justify our feelings and reactions. Acceptance based on clear seeing, involves standing back and broadening perspective in order to see the bigger picture as well as the nuance. What are the different needs involved in the situation – mine and others? What conditioned patterns do I see in my reactions? What emotions are present? At its most basic, acceptance is the simple acknowledgement that a situation exists and that there is an internal change connected to it – certain thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations arise.
For example, I am late for an important appointment, my body is tense, my thoughts have started imagining a negative outcome and a sense of anxiety is arising. In pausing to acknowledge the situation (both external and internal) and name what is happening, I have already accepted that this is my present moment reality. We might say to ourselves “Ok, so I’m late and can feel tension rising.” Acknowledging our experience without judgement is a simple form of acceptance. The acceptance helps to down-regulate our emotional reaction and makes space for an appropriate response. Of course, so often we do the opposite. We reject, resist, deny, avoid and get caught up in blame and judgement about what we are experiencing and how we are dealing with it. An aversive reaction or resistance to an unpleasant/unwanted situation creates an additional layer of stress. A major benefit of acceptance in this sense is that we do not cause ourselves additional stress through resistance.
When caught up in resistance and automatic reactivity, the emotional component of our experience (anger, fear, hurt) calls the shots, often resulting in additional harm. Intentionally cultivating a stance of acceptance towards our immediate experience, regardless of whether the experience is pleasant or unpleasant has the effect of decreasing reactivity and supporting clear thinking. It is from this space that a more effective response can be developed. We can explore in a balanced way whether there is action that can be usefully taken. The attitude of acceptance is one component of effective future action – a response which minimises suffering and enhances well-being. And so we are back to the underlying reason why acceptance is a key component to mindfulness. Applied thoughtfully, it is good for us and good for others.
In this short post, I have sought to explore one perceived dilemma that an attitude of acceptance might involve. Cultivating an attitude of acceptance to our moment to moment experience, supports greater balance and non-reactivity. The next One-Day Retreat has as its focus developing acceptance and forgiveness. If you’d like to explore the many dimensions of acceptance, feel free to come and join us.
Kathryn Choules (PhD)