Acceptance turns out to be one of the most helpful attitudes to bring to mindfulness.
For some people, the word ‘acceptance’ is discouraging. It may mean passive acceptance of life’s difficulties. It doesn’t mean, ‘If you think you can’t do something, accept it’ – that would be giving up rather than accepting. Actually it is not so. In that case the word ‘acknowledgement’ preferred. Acceptance means perceiving your experience and simply acknowledging it rather than judging it as good or bad.
For example, when you feel pain, whether it’s physical, such as a painful shoulder, or mental, such as depression or anxiety, the natural reaction is to try to avoid feeling the pain. You ignore it, distract yourself, or perhaps even go so far as turning to recreational drugs or alcohol to numb the discomfort. This avoidance may work in the immediate short term, but before long, avoidance fails in the mental and emotional realm.
Buddha called this the ‘second arrow’. If a warrior is injured by an arrow and reacts with a series of thoughts like ‘why did this happen to me’ or ‘what if I can never walk again’, that’s a ‘second arrow’. You may inflict this on yourself each time you feel some form of pain or even just a bit of discomfort, rather than accepting what has happened and taking the next step. Avoidance – running away – is an aspect of the ‘second arrow’ and compounds the suffering.
Acceptance means stopping fighting with your moment-to-moment experience. Acceptance removes that second arrow of blame, criticism or denial.
For example, you are meditating. And your mind is crowded with thoughts. Soon, you are criticizing yourself for having these thoughts.
In this example:
- First arrow – lots of thoughts entering your mind during meditation.
- Second arrow – not accepting that thoughts are bound to come up in meditation. Criticising yourself for having too many thoughts.
- Solution – to acknowledge and accept that thoughts are part and parcel of meditation. You can do this by gently saying to yourself ‘thinking is happening’ or ‘it’s natural to think’ or simply labelling it as ‘thinking . . .thinking’.
By acknowledging the feeling, thought or sensation and going into it, the experience changes. Even with physical pain, try experimenting by actually feeling it. Research has found that the pain reduces. But remember, you’re not acknowledging it to get rid of the feeling. That’s not acceptance. You need to try to acknowledge the sensation, feeling or thought without trying to change it at all. Pure acceptance of it, just as it is.