Sometimes it’s hard to understand why things happen the way that they do. It’s sometimes even harder to understand how people make decisions that hurt others and find ways to justify them. It’s been a trying time for America. A pandemic, a quarantine, racial injustice and civil unrest, among many other issues have left people wondering what’s next. Although I’ve joked with people about what terrible thing could possibly happen next, (zombie apocalypse, perhaps?) the joking is mostly to cover up a lot of concern.
On a more micro level, things have been happening in my workplace that directly affect me and my ability to appropriately care for my patients. Management justifies these decisions because of COVID-19 social distancing and the financial impact of the shutdown. While I understand that these are real concerns, I also find myself in a state of resistance against decisions that I have no control over and can’t change.
In conversations with friends, family and clients, it seems to me that many people are finding this same state of resistance, confusion, and sometimes even outrage over how things are. Outrage can be a trap. It wants to be fed with more outrage. So people watch the news, check social media, and actively look for more things to be outraged about. Feeding the emotion creates an illusion that one is doing something about these problems, but it’s a lie. Without some outward action, feeding the outrage is only stealing your sense of calm and well-being.
There is a beautiful equation about acceptance that I would like to share with you (this is as math-ish as I get):
Emotional Pain + Acceptance = Decreased Suffering
Emotional Pain + Non-Acceptance = Increased Suffering
This is known as the Radical Acceptance equation, and it describes a great truth: being in a state of non-acceptance increases the suffering of a bad situation. You may be asking yourself, what is the difference between emotional pain and suffering. I see it as a question of duration. Emotional pain is something that is simply a part of the human experience. When we have losses, we hurt. However, suffering happens when we feed the emotional pain and keep it around for longer than we have to.
There are many ways to be in a state of non-acceptance. Sometimes people will cycle through different variations of non-acceptance for years after a loss. Non-acceptance includes denial, anger, fighting the truth, outrage, frustration. As we cycle through these emotions, they feed our suffering.
Acceptance, on the other hand, brings a different attitude to a situation: I don’t like what is happening, but I accept that it is true. Acceptance does not mean that you condone awful situations. It doesn’t mean that you like it, or that you are in a state of resignation and won’t do anything to work on the problem. It simply means that you’re facing reality as it is instead of denying it or fighting against it.
Coming to a state of acceptance allows you to take the next step toward working on the problem. It’s impossible to make meaningful change in a situation that you haven’t even accepted as truth.
I’m not saying this is easy. It’s actually quite difficult. I’ve been finding myself in a state of anger and resistance quite a bit lately, and I’ve watched others go through their process of accepting the truth of what is happening in the world with varying levels of success. Radical acceptance is a process and a practice. It may be that you work toward accepting a situation and then something else terrible happens, and you have to start all over. It’s frustrating, but it’s the place to begin.
Here’s an example that most of us can relate to. One day you wake up and look in the mirror and realize that you’re not happy with your body. Perhaps you’ve indulged a bit too much lately. OK. Now you have a choice. You can deny that your body has reached a place where you need to make changes and continue on the path that you’re already on, but how does that help you? That just leads to more discomfort with your body. It is only through accepting the fact that your body has gotten to an uncomfortable weight that you can make a choice to begin a diet or an exercise program, or both.
I’m sure that you have already started thinking of situations in your life that you might apply radical acceptance to. That’s great. Try it out and see how it shifts things for you. I know that coming to a place of acceptance always eases the pain and frustration in my own heart and opens me up to take positive actions for change. I’m sure it can do the same for you.
For more information, I recommend the book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach, Ph.D. Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach Link. There are also some wonderful Radical Acceptance resources, like some meditations, on Tara Brach’s page Tara Brach’s Website.