I used to be allergic to the mere mention of “acceptance” in any kind of psychology or spirituality or self-help book.
It would give me a psychological rash.
Accept traumatic past events? Accept injustice? Accept the state of the world?
Acceptance solves most of your problems
The general theme would be that to gain greater peace of mind, it’s best to accept reality. In fact, in order to take any effective action, it’s necessary to accept reality first. In order to grow emotional resilience, it’s necessary to first accept your feelings. In order to (partly) heal from traumatic events, it’s necessary to first accept that they happened.
(There is a similar theme around the idea of “forgiveness”, which I still think is highly problematic not because it’s wrong, but because it can be misunderstood. A discussion I had with a friend regarding how this can suck especially for people from discriminated-against minority groups is here, in the comments.)
The best of all is radical acceptance.
Accept everything: no fighting, no denial => a much smaller psychological burden.
First misunderstanding: acceptance is agreement
The first misunderstanding I had regarding acceptance is quite quite easily clarified e.g. in Tara Brach‘s “Radical Acceptance” lectures.
Essentially, acceptance isn’t agreement: it just means that I acknowledge that a specific experience I’m having is part of reality.
It doesn’t mean I force myself to like it.
Or that I want it to stay, or last.
So all it means in the self-development context is simply not putting your head in the sand.
Not trying to make things into things they are not.
Not trying to pretend what is isn’t.
Also not trying to pretend that something that isn’t (still) is.
This “something” can be a state of fact, and that state of fact can also be an internal truth: a feeling, emotion, something we (no longer) believe, see, know.
Unspiritual radical acceptance
In Tara Brach’s materials and in other places where acceptance and/or radical acceptance is lauded as a spiritual tool, I sometimes feel like there is some kind of aureola around it – that it’s something noble you may choose to do if you wish to become more spiritual, or such.
And something fishy, something that despite all smells of self-denial, or repressing the vitality of one’s anger and opinions, or some kind of self-amputation; fake holiness, or denial of feelings.
That’s not advocated (mostly), but still … it’s easy to get confused, to slip into it, especially for people who are already gentle in nature and prone to repressing the other (more powerful) side of the full emotional spectrum.
I realise that in the last weeks or months, I have been finding new ways with acceptance.
Some very fundamental acceptances,
such as the acceptance of death, of ageing.
The acceptance of emotion, and of experience and sensation.
The acceptance of factual states of the body and mind, as they are in the moment: sometimes joyous and harmonious, but sometimes disjointed, disturbed, imbalanced, irksome, anxious, furious, in a meltdown, in fear, anger, longing, or physical pain.
This wasn’t through saying to them, from a high horse, “I accept you”.
In fact, I pretty much guarantee that doesn’t work (at least for me).
Feeling safe with experience: emotion and sensation
It wasn’t a verbal or intellectual act.
It was more something like a sinking into the body: a comfortable sinking, a “letting things fall” (into place in part, but mostly just into a clearer, more defined state of existence).
Noticing fear; in fact, I sensed and “talked with” (in empath language) one of these apparitions at night again (seems to have followed me from a ghastly semi-abandoned village all the way home to spook me at night).
I was even more non-phased by the fear that usual.
I sank into it, it whirled and twirled through my body, things transformed, soon they were clean. Much faster than usual and with almost no thought at all.
Acceptance puzzle pieces
I think what did it was in part this article by Kelly Brogan (trigger warning: on suicide, but non-graphic and, I’d say, extremely useful and insightful); in part a comment someone made on how I would survive the longing and emotional pain that would predictably come after a certain experience, how it would just pass and not really harm me (although this comment also made me angry; because yes, emotions can harm me – make me screw up things – if I happen to be in a very triggerable and vulnerable state, as anyone who had a bunch of mental health struggles knows); by the insight I somehow had one night, before falling asleep, for whatever reason, that everything I’ll ever experience in this life will essentially be emotions and sensations – feelings in the soul, feelings in the body.
Any external situation reaches me through these.
If I am comfortable with them (gradually get more comfortable with them), this is perhaps not the most stupid of strategies to get more comfortable with life.
Because it will only consist of these (?).
Comfort with discomfort
Comfort with discomfort, yes.
Not in a self-torturing way, though.
Rather in a very plain, factual way.
Sensations, yes, emotions, yes.
They are here, they are also safe
They are here, they are also safe, on a deeper level. Not because they are (always) painless, but because that is what existence is made of, basically. They are also simply me, they are the fibre living things are made of.
There is, at bottom, a subtle sense of safety in this.
Some kind of rock-bottom, Earth.
This is hard to experience not just for people who repress emotions and sensations, but also for those who tend to get flooded by them – highly sensitive people, empaths, or people who have had very emotionally intense life experiences (e.g. traumatic ones).
Because yes, for most of my life, emotions felt like a deadly danger.
Not just because, like most people, I was taught to repress them in great part (and what’s unknown and untamed is scary); also because they were simply like a torrential river that could sometimes virtually knock me into altered states of consciousness. And nobody had told me how to navigate that river; or even what I’m supposed to do: try to swim? dive? surf? run?
I’ve changed a lot over the years, from that place (in the last 10 years or so).
I’ve done the steps. Of rejection/denial.
Then “trying to accept” – trying to be good.
Trying to be someone I’m not.
“Saying yes” (again in Tara Brach’s sense) – experimenting with acknowledging that some things are simply a reality.
(That didn’t work without a long, long stint of working on self-acceptance and a basic inner foundation of safety with(in) myself – growing a reliable sense that at least I will not attack myself. If you have a lot of painful emotional triggers, whether due to trauma or for other reasons, please don’t try to “accept” anything – do that first.)
Playing with ideas; fathoming and facing (inner) truths.
Perhaps witnessing other people hit walls that I thought were unique to me.
I still don’t like the holy overtones of the word “acceptance”.
But at this point in the journey my understanding is that it points to being able to live with, closely with, on the basis of, the really existing sensations, emotions, the external realities they communicate.
Creating on stable soil
The surprising upshot that seems to emerge is that … living with, on the basis of, becomes creating on the basis of.
Somehow, this Earth is soil.
For some reason … it seems to intrinsically and in a way effortlessly want to grow things, albeit in a new and different manner.
Much smaller things, mostly weeds, and slow-growing things.
Not tall and narrow (and towering and unstable).
But lichens and mosses. First. It seems.
Slow. But they are much harder to scratch off than the things I can grow when, perhaps, I want things to be what they are not, and I fear what is (my own experience).
If this essay resonated with you in any way, you agree, disagree, or are puzzled – I’ll be very happy to read your comments below. I sometimes wonder how many other people walk similar paths or have a need and ear for these reflections.