This is a formula developed by Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young to describe how our suffering is not caused by the pain (physical, emotional, or psychological) we experience, but by our resistance of it. In other words, suffering is not caused by the actual events that we experience, but by our reaction to them. When we struggle against our experiences, we suffer for it. The path to eliminating suffering is to fully accept our experiences.
While this concept of suffering has its origins in Buddhism, it is not exclusively Buddhist. Many therapists in the West have embraced the philosophy of acceptance. Indeed, research into acceptance based therapies has shown them to be as effective, or more effective, than traditional therapies for some mental conditions, such as anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, and others.
But you don’t have to be diagnosed with a mental condition to benefit from acceptance. Learning to accept your experiences is also a key part of learning and growing from them.
But how can accepting a bad experience be a good thing?
In order to understand how acceptance works, its important to differentiate between suffering and pain. According to the philosophy, pain itself is not subjective. Its part of the reality of experience. If you hit your thumb with a hammer, it hurts. If you break up with your partner, it hurts. If a loved one dies, it hurts. There is no avoiding that pain. However, you can choose how you relate to that pain. The way you relate to the reality of pain determines how much you suffer because of it.
This may seem like a crazy notion to many, particularly those of us from Western cultures, where we are taught from birth that pain is something to be avoided or limited. But when you consider that pain is almost always accompanied by emotion, it begins to make sense (at least I think it does;) ). If you can think of a time when you were in pain, and allowed your emotions to run wild, versus another time when you were in pain, but were able to keep a cooler head, you may find that your suffering (not your pain) was less when you were in control.
This is an example of how pain and suffering are not the same thing. In fact, martial artists, athletes, and the military train to separate the pain from the suffering to enable them to push beyond normal physical and emotional limits. Marathon runners learn to live with the physical and psychological pain of running 24 miles. There are countless stories of how military members in combat continue to fight on despite horrific wounds. Holocaust victims and prisoners of war report that their ability to accept their situations and remove themselves from the pain they experienced enabled them to survive and even thrive during their captivity.
These are all examples of how changing the way we relate to pain changes the way we experience it. By doing so we not only eliminate suffering, but can also have a great influence the world around us.
The paradox… and how it works
After reading that last sentence, you may have thought, “Hold on! Wait a minute! How can I accept what is going on and change it?” This is the paradox of acceptance.
Think about a time when you were really – and I mean really – attached to an idea or particular way of doing something; e.g. you were being really really stubborn. Maybe somebody you knew or worked with had a different idea than yours. If you were dead set on your own idea, how would you react to the other person’s idea? If you are like most people, you would probably fight for your own point of view even if all evidence showed you were wrong, and maybe even get a bit emotional about it. You may not even realize that the other person’s way of doing the thing – whatever it is – could be a better way. By being unable to consider the other’s point of view, you eliminate the chance of creating a better outcome.
If we become wedded to a particular way of doing something, and continue to try and do it the same way over and over even though it does not work well – or at all – we forfeit the possibility that we can actually change the situation.
Both of these are examples of how not accepting reality – that someone may have a better idea, or that the way we are doing something does not work – causes suffering and prohibits us from being able to change it.
On the other hand, if we could remove emotion and look at reality in an unfiltered way – in other words if we could accept reality for what it is – we put ourselves in a position to expand our awareness, use our creativity, and consciously respond to the situation instead of simply reacting to it emotionally. In this way we have much more ability to influence reality.
Acceptance and personal growth
Acceptance greatly increases your ability to grow as a person. In fact, personal growth is impossible without it. A key element of personal growth is the ability to self reflect, or to see ourselves for who we really are, and who we could become. If we are unable to accept our flaws, weakness, or shortcomings, we cannot hope to ever overcome them.
This is the same paradox discussed above. By not accepting ourselves for who we are, we may be tempted to fight against our flaws, creating greater suffering and actually deepening the flaws by obsessing over them. But, if we can look at ourselves, and acknowledge that we have flaws, and look at these flaws non-judgmentally, and accept them, then we unblock our ability to improve ourselves.
For example, let’s say that I am horrible at math. If I deny that I am horrible at math, and refuse to accept that I am horrible at math, how can I ever hope to improve my math skills? If I don’t accept this flaw, I won’t feel compelled to study more, take a class, or find a tutor. Or, I may decide that math just isn’t important, and avoid the flaw altogether. Both situations are potentially very limiting.
But if I accept that I am horrible at math, and look at the flaw objectively (without judgment), then I open up the possibility of finding ways to improve my math skills. Doing so not only results in improving those skills, but also in self-awareness, which leads to personal growth.
Acceptance can be a difficult concept for many, particularly in Western societies where we are taught to not accept bad situations or imperfections. We are taught (or at least I was) that in order to change we never accept imperfections, and must fight against them. This sometimes works, but more often than not, is the source of great suffering – even if the outcome is eventually good.
Acceptance may also be misunderstood as pacifism. This is not the case. Acceptance really means accepting reality for what it is. In doing so, we are able to view that reality non-judgmentally, without emotion, and open up the possibility of responding to reality consciously, not instinctively. Conscious responses are always more effective than reactive responses, and give us much more flexibility to deal with and change our reality.