Acceptance (for Regular People)

Sep 25, 2020 | Shared thoughts

You don’t have to like everything and everyone.

The Stoics counsel amor fati or ‘love of fate’, while Zen and other Buddhist paths encourage the related practice of acceptance. A photo sometimes accompanies the text promoting these virtues; it shows us a peaceful person, smiling with unfurrowed brow. The role model pictured in the white toga or orange robe looks not just wise but, well… perfect.

We are regular people, you and I. I smile often, but not always. Your forehead sometimes wrinkles. We’re not ideal beings with equanimity beyond ruffling. Is acceptance possible?

Acceptance is not neutrality

We can greatly increase our acceptance of life. Many are put off, though, thinking the goal either unattractive or unattainable. This is because we too often equate acceptance with approval or indifference.

With this interpretation, we may spurn acceptance, worried it will make us listless drones or leave us prey to more selfish people. Who wants to bob like a cork in the sea, buffeted by the whims of others, refusing to push back?

Alternatively, spurred on by an inspiring article, we spend a day trying to agree with everything and everyone, putting our preferences aside as if they don’t exist. To no one’s surprise, we lose patience and get grumpy.

Humans judge. We try not to but catch ourselves doing it. Then we judge ourselves for judging. Finally, we give up.

Sometimes, it’s okay to dislike others’ actions. Disappointment in poor results is no sin. We naturally prefer pleasant conditions to painful ones. Acceptance can coexist with a passion for change. We’ve been setting ourselves an unnecessarily demanding task.

What, then, needs to change? If we usually accept too little, what alters when we accept more of life? And why does it matter?

Second-guessing the world

Our judgement is a combination of thought and feeling. It is something we experience alongside the ‘thing’ we are judging. As I step out the front door and into heavy rain, I experience the downpour as well as my judgement of it. I would prefer a sunny walk.

The state of the world and my judgement of it seem incompatible. It is raining, but I don’t want it to rain. This state gives birth to a third experience. Usually, I have the thought/feeling: It should not be raining! Less often, the emergent experience is instead: I should not judge the rain!

In either case, the crucial factor — and the one that genuine acceptance aims to acknowledge and let go — is the birth of should not, applied to the present moment. Should not arises when I (unthinkingly) take the rain and my preference for sun as incompatible with each other. This seeming incompatibility discomfits me, so I scramble to resolve it. I rush to conclude that one or other must be illegitimate. But when I step back to examine this comfortable but inaccurate conclusion, I realise that the violation of a preference involves no contradiction.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
-F. Scott Fitzgerald

The universe does not print out ‘does not compute’ when I receive vanilla ice cream and wish I had chocolate. The world can hold the wish and the reality together. So can I, because the wish is not separate from the reality but part of it. Here lies the key. Any should or should not sits within the reality it seems to judge, not outside it. And all of reality is legitimate in the moment it occurs.

Recognising ‘should’ and ‘should not’

Cognition is the process of making sense of experience. Acceptance grows when we recognise (re-cognise) judgement; we give it a different place and meaning in our experience. We consider the possibility that both our judgement and that which we judge are legitimate aspects of the world. Over time, life confirms this. With recognition, we become more comfortable with what used to appear as a contradiction.

The ‘formula’ of acceptance applies to acceptance itself. Sometimes, we will fail to recognise judgement. We will not accept reality but second-guess it. Okay. Our preference is acceptance, but we get non-acceptance. These two experiences are mutually valid, not contradictory. We can, one step later, hold them both in our mind, acknowledge the non-acceptance and continue with our day. Failing that, we may acknowledge the non-acceptance of the non-acceptance, and so on. It is never too late for recognition and acceptance.

We cultivate the ability to look at our judgement instead of through it. At first, we may only find this powerful perspective in retrospect. With persistence, it will arise more often in real time. As this capacity grows, we might relax the certainty of our views, because our new perspective weakens the drive to always be right. The process is not exactly easy, but unlike eliminating judgement from our lives, it rests squarely in the realm of human possibility.

A shift in outlook

Why does acceptance matter? The answer lies in what happens as our acceptance of particular events changes our general engagement with life.

As we repeatedly accept rain, vanilla and other unwanted experiences, our outlook shifts. Preferences, while remaining a valid part of our humanity, lose their veto power over other aspects of our experience. Wish fulfilment fades in importance relative to encountering the whole truth of What Is.

***

Our photos may never sit alongside text extolling acceptance, but our lives might become more peaceful. We may find more energy to enjoy life, having reclaimed it from past efforts to second-guess reality.

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