July 27, 2017 by School of Medicine Webmaster

Acceptance is one of the foundational attitudes of mindfulness and one of the hardest to learn. Our lives are fast-paced and usually geared to accomplishing goals, which sometimes are as simple as buying a loaf of bread, but often are far more challenging—dealing with illness, coping with problems at work or the disintegration of a relationship—while simultaneously responding to the many other demands in our lives. Competing demands are frequently what initially draw us to mindfulness practice. We want to get rid of the stress they are perceived to create, or at least reduce it to manageable proportions. Acceptance may seem a contradictory, not to say counterproductive, guideline. “Where would I be,” we might ask, “if I just sat back and accepted?”

It is important to understand up front that acceptance doesn’t mean liking what is happening. It simply means recognizing that this is the way things are at present. To struggle against reality is to engage in a losing battle, and the first casualty is oneself. The sympathetic nervous system charges into action. Adrenaline and later cortisol pour into the body, heightening our stress and compromising our health. Another way to express this dynamic is the quasi-mathematical formula: Stress = pain x resistance.  Far from sitting back and doing nothing, acceptance enables us to drop the resistance that clouds our perception and skews our reactions. We are then freed to take effective action based on clear understanding. We accomplish more by accepting.

Acceptance, however, isn’t easy. We must start by being willing, by shifting our attitude from a closed fist to an open hand. This is a major endeavor. It calls on us, for example, to not act out of a reflexive need to control or be the center of attention or fade into the background. It invites us to observe with respect the situation that life presents and respond appropriately. The paradox is that when stress is intense enough or when we see clearly the stakes involved in continued resistance, we become willing to consider real, not just begrudging, acceptance.

 The following practices can help us adopt and maintain an accepting attitude in the face of difficulties:

  • Breathing with acceptance—On the inhale, envision the difficulty; on the exhale, repeat the words, “It’s like this now.” This may be done for several minutes during formal mindfulness practice, or it may be done informally one breath at a time when in the midst of the difficulty.
  • Bringing kindness to acceptance—Kindness isn’t a soft and fuzzy attitude. In MBSR, we learn that kindness is integral to mindfulness. Kindness and acceptance go hand in hand. While acceptance may have a dry quality about it, kindness involves cultivating a friendlier stance toward ourselves and others. It enables us to remain open even during hard-to-accept circumstances, and, going deeper, we realize that happiness and joy in life are more a result of how we perceive our experiences, than a product of the experiences themselves. Like acceptance, kindness must be cultivated. A 10-minute guided kindness meditation is available for free download on the Mindfulness Center’s website under “Resources-Audio Recordings.” This practice may be paired with the breath-with-acceptance exercise described above in order to enhance acceptance.
  • Putting a hand on the heart—When struggling against difficult circumstances, we can remind ourselves to accept them with kindness by placing our hand on the heart. This momentary gesture signals to us our deeper intention.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings