It may seem paradoxical that change can come most easily to those who first accept “what already is” about themselves, about others, and about life. Acceptance is a choice affecting “right now,” this moment. Acceptance does not imply long-term resignation, settling, giving up or giving in, or anything at all that implies “forever.” Acceptance is only about “what is,” just at this moment, now, today. Acceptance is the step that allows you to move past present pain toward other meaningful activities.
Acceptance is the first step, and perhaps the most misunderstood step, toward making the changes you most want to see in your life. How does acceptance work, and how does it bring about change?
Everyone has unhappiness in life, and some have far more than others. But heartaches and challenges are a natural part of every life, for nature is sometimes cruel, and all human beings are born capable of extremes of both helpfulness and harmfulness.
In addition to life's unavoidable troubles, many people suffer far more than others from the additional problems caused by their own non-acceptance of, or resistance to, what happens in their life. When anyone fights back against the bad things that happen in his or her life, the fighting back itself often causes even greater unhappiness than the original problems did.
Terrible things happen all too often, and many people suffer unbelievably difficult setbacks, heartbreaks, injustice, and tragedy. But in addition to these tragedies, many people suffer additionally a great deal, from their own non-accepting mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical reactions to the sad conditions that naturally occur in every life. Too often, what people find hardest to endure, is not the badness that happens to them from “out there,” but their own unrelenting thoughts and feelings of resistance and struggle and anger about whatever it is that happened to them. This continual internal struggle alone can kill you. It can lead to depression, suicide, high blood pressure, depressed immune system functioning, and it can make you feel like a crazy person.
Another way to understand acceptance is to imagine yourself watching a movie starring yourself. In this movie, you-the-star magically has no negative reactions to any of the long series of bad stuff that happens to you. No matter how awful things get, you-the-star serenely and non-reactively float above everything, smiling an angelic unflappable smile through all of it.
Acceptance is something like that movie. In one sense, nothing is different about an accepting life, because unpleasant things still happen to you. But in another sense, everything changes, because all your reactions–all the reactive mental and emotional stuff you do between the time the bad things happen and the time you move on to other things–are now very different.
Life's unhappiness could be divided into two kinds: the kind of unhappiness that feels like it happens to you from “out there,” or outside you–like a car accident or being kicked in the face or losing a job or a child or a war. Then there's a second kind of unhappiness, all internal. All of this misery happens inside you–it's your inner reaction to all the difficult events and people in your life. This kind of unhappiness includes most of your feelings of sadness, anger, non-acceptance, and every other form of resistance to what-is and to what-has-happened and what-might-be.
Learning about acceptance–learning to skip as much of the reactive/resistant stuff and time, as much as possible, when something bad happens, and move on as quickly as possible to something else, something better–is a good way to begin to make the changes you want most in your life.
Learning acceptance provides an approach to breaking the often-harmful reactive habits that follow along after the many challenging events in our daily lives, the harmful reactions that often create their own set of worse problems. People who are accepting have learned to process the difficult occurrences in their lives differently–more effectively and happily. Instead of pushing away or fighting against the negativity in their lives, they have learned to first accept what is–the bad stuff–and thus to move more quickly from feeling bad and back into productivity again.
Again, remember, that it's not only the bad stuff that happens to you in your life that's making you miserable, although we all get plenty of pretty bad stuff–and some far more than others. A completely secondary source of misery is your own personal struggle against the bad stuff–to push it away, push it out of your mind, out of your heart, to stop it from causing you unrelenting pain. Or sometimes, the struggle to analyze it, change it, avenge it, hit back at it, and other forms of non-acceptance and resistance.
Sometimes, of course, some of these reactions can be useful and appropriate. But many times, resistance is not only futile but persistently damaging. Sometimes bad things happen to you to which you react/respond in ways that make you feel better or that resolve the situation positively.
But too often, too much of life is spent struggling to prevent more bad stuff from happening, or reacting resistantly and defensively to what has happened. To protect ourselves from more pain, we keep pushing the bad stuff away and try to keep it away–from our thoughts, our hearts, our lives.
Unfortunately, resistance/non-acceptance/pushing away rarely works. As a matter of fact, non-acceptance tends to make things worse. People who are often non-accepting of the bad stuff that happens in their lives don't spend very much time feeling good. Sometimes they're so busy they don't notice the good stuff.
No one is perfect. No one will ever be as good or perfect or whatever as they would like to be. Nor will anyone ever get all his/her relationships to work as well as they'd like them to, nor do their jobs as well as they wish they could. No one will ever stop making mistakes, and no one will ever be happy all the time.
On the other hand, what usually does happen, if we keep chipping away at goals we want to achieve, we usually move gradually, step by step, closer and closer to achieving them. But we can't take steps toward a new “present” until we've let the old one go by accepting it.
The first step to making your life work better and to being happier, is to learn how to stop pushing the bad stuff away, to learn to stop resisting it.
What happens when you let down your defenses and accept present pain? Most people think defenselessness would open the floodgates to more pain, but actually the reverse is generally true. When you accept the pain in your life, you can move past it and on to better things. When you resist it, you're stuck.
Acceptance, non-resistance, defenselessness–all these are different words for basically the same thing–and each is very different from what is meant by resigning yourself to something, giving in, giving up, or settling. These are long-term choices having to do with the future. Acceptance is about right now, not about the future. It is something you do right now, during the present moment, so that you can move on to something else, something different–maybe something that will improve a painful situation. Acceptance is about this moment, while resistance is a long-term struggle, and resignation and settling are about forever.
When you learn to accept “what is” in your life, accepting whatever happens just “as is,” you'll get something totally new: real life-without-the-anger, real life-without-the-guilt, real life-without-the-resistance, life as it is without all the stuff you add to it–like over-analysis and negative thinking and upset emotions and high blood pressure. You can do without most of that when you learn to practice acceptance.
What you'll get if you don't learn acceptance–if you choose to keep on resisting pain, pushing it away, and fighting what-is–is just more pain and struggle, with no end ever in sight, and no real-life-just-as-it-is-without-your-big-emotional-reaction-to it, to live in.
Next: What does it mean to accept something?