When I first heard a Buddhist teacher talking about practising acceptance of painful stuff, I was VERY resistant – the whole reason for being at the talk was that I was looking to escape difficult thoughts and feelings, not immerse myself in them, ffs.
However, partly because I was brought up to be polite, and partly because I was curious as to how the hell he was going to spin this, I stayed to hear him out.
What I started to learn on a dark Wednesday evening in exotic Elmers End, was that acceptance is not about long term endurance of feeling sh*t, but rather about facing up to it instead of trying to pretend it's not happening.
When you’re feeling down, do you tell yourself that you shouldn’t feel that way because you have so much to be grateful for, that there are people experiencing far worse than you are?
But no other person on the planet is experiencing exactly what any other person is – we all have different personalities, different histories, different relationships, etc, etc - so it makes no sense to compare your feelings to anyone else’s. Being grateful for the good stuff in your life does not mean that you’re banned from struggling with what’s less good. We are all allowed to feel what we feel – it’s ok to not be ok.
And the more we try to resist feeling a certain way, the more we end up focusing on it. For example, someone who repeats “I’m not hungry” over and over again to try to resist snacking is making themselves think about being hungry over and over again! We devote a shedload of mental and emotional energy to fighting a feeling, only to have our awareness of that feeling loom ever larger in our consciousness.
So, if you’re feeling a bit ‘meh’, admit it to yourself and accept it. Take a deep breath and say “Right now, I feel pretty ‘meh’, and that’s ok.” There’s actually some sense of relief, isn’t there?
Does this apply to difficult people and situations, too? You betcha. If you refuse to acknowledge the reality of what is going on or of how a person is, it becomes difficult to make sensible decisions about how to handle it.
Ever had a friend who complained constantly about someone and found yourself thinking “Why can’t they just accept that this person is selfish and demanding, and either get rid of them or else stop whingeing about them?”? Well, that’s what I mean. If we deny the reality of a situation or persist in believing it will magically transform into something better, then we don’t take action for ourselves – sometimes, of course, we sub-consciously choose this approach specifically to avoid having to make difficult decisions or take uncomfortable action…
Acceptance doesn’t suddenly make everything better, of course (sorry). It may bring some relief – much like when you manage to relax after realising that you’re all tensed up around a physical pain – but the difficult feelings/person/situation is still there.
But when you stop wasting your energy on fighting reality, you’re better placed to start dealing with that reality in a meaningful way – after all, how can you solve a problem if you won’t admit it exists?