The Meaning of Acceptance - Part 1

What is Acceptance? 
The concept of acceptance is one that is frequently addressed within the self-help arena and certainly within any discussion of mindfulness.  Many have written about acceptance in its own right within this regard, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha byTara Bach is one such profoundly beautiful example.  

Today, as I was going for a walk I found myself thinking about acceptance and the various meanings it carries.   I talk about this topic with my clients quite frequently and checking in with myself on this meaning every so often is important to maintaining my own therapeutic integrity and personal growth.  As I thought, I realized it would be helpful for me to synthesize what I have learned along the way about acceptance through writing.  This is something I sometimes encourage my clients to do to help integrate things they have learned or gained along the way.

Acceptance does not mean that we agree with what is happening or that we believe it must continue. 

Acceptance means that we are able to gaze into the face of the present and say, “You are in front of me, and I acknowledge you are here.” 

Avoiding the Unpleasant
As we’ve all experienced, ignoring something we do not like, or prefer, does not make it disappear.  Instead, the opposite happens, it gets larger until we have no choice but to acknowledge what we have been avoiding, ignoring, or denying.  By this point, the object of our distress has often gotten bigger and gained momentum away from our conscious awareness.  For example, ignoring anxiety does not make it go away; it can postpone it, but it certainly does not eliminate it and it often increases its affect when it does re-emerge.

The Distractions Around Us
Acceptance of joy and what we consider “pleasant” is certainly easier than acceptance of suffering, pain, hardship, injustice, cruelty, and so on…  Our culture tends to train us that being distracted from unpleasant experiences makes us feel better, and for awhile it does, but eventually we always remember.  We remember because the deep wisdom in all of us won’t let us forget.  Even if we remember for a brief second, we still remember.  And so continues a vicious cycle of trying to forget: the need for a greater distraction from ________X_______.   [Fill in the blank with almost anything.]  It can be a hidden pain, an unpleasant memory, inconceivable realities, self-doubts, fears, painful emotions, anything that we deem “unpleasant.” 

We watch tv, we read, we converse, we drink, we have sex, we text message, we exercise, we listen to music...  By themselves these activities are not harmful and in fact can lead us to be more deeply present, but if we are doing these things to ignore unpleasant experiences (consciously or otherwise), they will hamper our psychological growth. 

What We Ignore and Avoid Always Comes Back
One may argue that we need distraction and avoidance in order to deal with the painful experiences that life presents us with.  This is a tempting way to think about life, however, avoidance does not eliminate suffering and pain, it delays and intensifies it when it re-emerges.  When we choose to deny something’s existence and are forced to face it again, the reality of its presence usually overwhelms or surprises us in such a way that its impact is UN-supportive to our wellness.

Giving Acceptance a Little Help with Hope and Compassion
Accepting something that is painful and unpleasant takes courage and bravery, the outcome of which usually leads to growth.  Acceptance on its own is helpful, but it needs the added energy of compassion, hope, and faith in the Self.  Without these additions, we may look at the world with realism, but there will be a lack of gratitude and honoring of the gifts and lessons life brings.

We Have a Choice
We have a choice to accept or ignore what is before us.  It may not always seem that way because our brains are so quickly able to push something away.  We can regain control when we make the conscious effort to be more mindful and aware of what we are choosing not to see.  Step by step, we will gain more control, and more awareness.  This awareness will permit the wisdom deep inside to welcome another alternative into your consciousness, for instance, that facing what you fear weakens its hold over you. 

So the next time you find yourself feeling unpleasant or catching yourself choosing to ignore something, take a deep breath in and simply acknowledge that it is there.  Do not get caught up in self-criticism if you notice yourself doing it! Choose to simply be aware of the sensation.  You do not have to do anything in that moment. 

Just be with what is present.  Usually the answers begin to show up when we are quiet enough to listen...
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