I spend a lot of time and energy wishing things were different. I think this is not uncommon. But it also leads to almost all of the suffering in the world.
When I was first introduced to the idea of acceptance as a spiritual practice, I didn’t understand. I thought that acceptance meant lying down and being a doormat. If I had to accept that something undesirable was happening, didn’t that mean I just had to let it happen? That I would let the world walk all over me?
In fact, accepting in this sense is not the same as condoning. It is merely an acknowledgement of what is. Instead of wishing something were not happening, or trying to change it with my incredibly powerful magical skills, I accept that it is happening. And then I am better able to make choices in the moment, choices based in reality and not my fantasy world.
This practice is especially good for things which have already happened. However much energy we spend trying to will the present to be different, many of us spend even more trying to will or wish the past to be different. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it ain’t gonna happen. I know of no way to change the past. (If you hear of a reliable time travel method, please let me know ;) )
When I stop spending energy trying to change the past, when I can accept the past as it is (was?) then I can go through a grieving process to be able to let go of my attachment.
So, how do I get better at radical acceptance? The first step is to practice seeing where fantasy is overtaking reality. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as, “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Once when I was being particularly hard on myself, a beloved advisor of mine said, “You did the best you could, right?” I said, “Well, I should have tried harder.” She responded, “But you did the best you could, right?” I replied, “If only I had…” And she said, “YOU DID THE BEST YOU COULD, RIGHT?” Finally I understood what she was getting at. In that moment, with the tools and the energy that I had available, I did the best I could. Maybe another day I could do better, but what actually happened is what actually happened.
Dr. Arnie Kozak actually says, “Acceptance is, in many ways, a synonym for mindfulness. When we are mindful, when we give our full attention to whatever is happening now, and can do so without the usual storytelling, pushing, pulling, and judgment then we are here – in acceptance.”
One test I use to see if I have accepted a person or situation for who or what they are is to get quiet and ask if I can think about it without energy, without anger or sadness. If I can say to myself, “This just is,” then I know I have arrived at acceptance.
What do acceptance and mindfulness have to do with our theme of the month? Taking inventory is a tool that helps us discern what is true and what is false. As a regular practice, taking inventory helps us to see what is really happening in all our affairs. In that sense, it is working towards acceptance on a broader basis.
The well-known Serenity Prayer asks for “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Inventory-taking is how we know the difference.