May Peace Prevail on Earth
In this multi-part blog post series, we having been exploring afflictive (or disturbing) emotions and more helpful ways we can relate to them. In Part I, we discussed how courage, compassion and wisdom help us respond more skillfully so that suffering is reduced. In Part II we will talk about acceptance, which is allowing (rather than avoiding, pushing away or struggling against) what is.
One of the most powerful and difficult antidotes to the afflictive emotions is acceptance of things as they really are. We often confuse acceptance with resignation, but these are very different concepts. Resignation suggests hopelessness, a passive “giving up”, or quitting. Acceptance is an active and intentional choice of allowing, rather than resisting or struggling against, that which is already here.
Acceptance is the decision to be a feather in the stream of experience, rather than a stone. The stream represents that which is inevitable, uncontrollable, and not optional in life – a feather rides the waves, whereas a stone is stuck in the mud and is gradually worn away by friction and resistance.
Here is a video in which Jon Kabat-Zinn explains acceptance:
Finding acceptance can only happen when we recognize and acknowledge that much less is under our personal control than we believe. One reason personal control is limited is the impermanence of things. Everything – granite, concrete, steel, whole planets and galaxies – arises, transforms, and passes on. Even our own identities are evolving self-constructions made up of ever-changing concepts, beliefs, projections and ideas. The world we see is filtered through our own biology, past experiences, and current emotional states. Each person has their own particular filter which is changing moment by moment. Even the very cells of our bodies are constantly changing. Therefore, there can be no solid, unchanging I, me or mine. It is very difficult to expect to exert consistent control over something that is in constant flux.
Another reason personal control is limited is due to the interdependence of things. Everything happens as a result of or in relation to other things and nothing arises or exists on its own by its own merit. For everything that happens (every action and every situation), certain conditions occurred or a chain of events arose that caused it to be. In other words, everything has consequences and all things arise in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions.
Much of the time we are not privy to all of the complex conditions and causes that lead up to an event or circumstance. Sometimes these things started before we were even born and they can be incredibly knotted and intertwined. The causes and conditions that lead to whatever arises are neither good nor bad – they just are. It is unreasonable to expect that we can personally control things that are part of an incredibly complicated chain of events that may be beyond the limits of our current knowledge and awareness to understand.
When something happens and we judge it to be unpleasant or unwanted, our instinct is to resist it. We may ruminate about it, making all kinds of negative assumptions and attributions about why it happened and what it means. Then we take action in an attempt to deny, avoid, fix or fight against it. We may even condemn ourselves for having these thoughts, feelings, and responses, which only adds to the suffering. Reminding ourselves of “causes and conditions” helps us remain open and curious and makes it less likely for us to make snap judgments and lay blame. Judging and blaming only serve as obscurations that prevent us from being open to broader possibilities.
Being aware of the ever-changing (impermanence), complex interplay (interdependence) of experience and existence allows us be more accepting, less judgmental, more patient, and more compassionate with ourselves and others. We can see that the judging, upset, and struggle we experience around the things that occur arise from an interpretation and a projection that is limited by our concepts, our particular filter, and our current theories about how things work.
We can also see that our relentless urges to “do” (avoid, fix, struggle against) are often unnecessary and may even be harmful to ourselves and others. The stream of uncontrollable circumstances will flow where it will, whether we are stuck in the mud like a stone or floating on the waves like a feather. Realizing this may allow us more space to just “be” with what is in the moment.
In Part III of this blog post series, we will explore curiosity as an antidote for afflictive emotions.