The most significant barrier to the acceptance of reality as it is, comes from the widely held misconception that we should not have to experience physical or emotional pain or discomfort. Pain is a necessary aspect of living that alerts us to the fact that something needs our attention. Our natural tendency to avoid pain leads to resistance and suffering rather than acceptance and healing. Resistance to a situation that already exists is futile and inhibits our ability to take the actions that are necessary to resolve the issue and begin recovery.
Acceptance of what is uncomfortable or painful does not mean being resigned, passive, or giving up. The first line of Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer says "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change". Serenity allows us to assume a peaceful and tranquil acceptance of the fact that we cannot change the reality of what already is. What we can change is our attitude about the pain that we might be experiencing. If we accept that the pain is there rather than resisting or denying it we are in a much better position to take action to begin the healing process.
The second line of the Serenity Prayer “the courage to change the things I can” implies a quality of mind or spirit that enables us to face difficulty, danger, or pain. Courage in facing pain requires that we accept its existence as the first step.
The last line of the prayer “and the wisdom to know the difference” suggests that we need good judgment toward right action to guide us in determining the difference between the things that we cannot change (that which already is) and the things that we can change (the steps that we can take to improve the situation - if possible). If we cannot change the situation, we need to accept that fact and to move forward.
An important element of acceptance is withholding judgment. When we judge something painful as “bad” we reinforce our tendency to resist it. This resistance can express itself in the form of self-criticism that hampers our ability to heal. Leslie Becker-Phelps in an article for Psychology Today suggests the following as a way to overcome self-criticism:
“Choose to be accepting and compassionate to your experiences. No one ever healed from a blow to the head by hitting themselves there again. The same can be said of emotional pain; that is, self-criticism about some difficulty won’t resolve that problem. In both cases, the way to heal and move beyond the hurt is to accept it and find ways to nurture the wound. More specifically with psychological pain, acceptance and compassion are essential to heal and to free yourself to nurture greater personal growth.”
Laying aside our own views and values and entering someone else’s world without pre-judgments requires a level of personal identity and security that is challenging to say the least. It requires a sincere desire to respectfully listen to someone else. But for those who are sufficiently motivated to step into this dark and threatening world of someone else’s feelings, the rewards can be well worth the effort. When we can put ourselves into the shoes of others we create a bridge of understanding and compassion that can begin to heal the wide gulf that separates many segments of our society.
An excellent way to improve your acceptance capability is to practice on common, small irritations and annoyances. A great opportunity to practice acceptance is when you are stuck in traffic. Our resistance might tell us “if this keeps up I’ll be late”, “this traffic is not supposed to be this heavy at this time of day” or “If I had started earlier I could have avoided this mess”. These responses only serve to increase our level of frustration and do absolutely nothing to change the situation.
An effective accepting response would be to say “it is what it is - deal with it”. Dealing with it means to relax, focus on the present moment, and let go of wanting things to be different. Another helpful thought is “this too shall pass”, helping us to realize that no matter how annoying this situation might seem to be at this moment, it will not last forever. We can then relax our mind, take slow deep breaths and before we know it, we are on our way.
Practicing on small irritations builds our confidence in our acceptance capabilities and prepares us to better deal with the more serious and complex situations that are a normal part of living.
“Accept - then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.” Eckhart Tolle.
The Art of Living Completely is building our acceptance capabilities to the point that we no longer turn our pain of resisting what is into the futility of needless suffering.