Attitudes of Mindfulness (Part 3) - Accepting & Allowing
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Attitudes of Mindfulness (Part 3) - Accepting & Allowing
One of the more challenging aspects of mindfulness, for a lot of people, particularly for those starting out in their practice, is the encouragement to meet each moment with acceptance.
It is extremely common that the reason someone has turned to mindfulness in the first place is because they’re looking for a way to relieve some kind of anguish they’re dealing with.
That might be stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, or physical pain, to name a few.
The hope is that mindfulness can offer a cure, or at least a way of escaping the discomfort.
And it’s also common that, even if there isn’t a stress-related motivation to give it a go, there’s an expectation that mindfulness is going to provide an express route to inner bliss.
But then, in meditation, we’re asked, “Can you allow this moment to be exactly as it is, without needing to control it or for it to be different in any way?”
When you’re having a particularly lovely time in meditation, fully accepting the moment is the easiest thing in the world. But if that moment is presenting you with discomfort, sadness or frustration, resistance seems like a totally logical and justified response.
Why on earth would anyone want to accept the very thing they’re longing to be rid of?
I well remember the first time I meditated. As someone experiencing anxiety and depression, my response was:
“Are you kidding? I’m here to feel better, not to accept how awful everything is. I thought this was supposed to be relaxing.”
(Or something along those lines, perhaps a little more expletive.)
Like many people, it took me a little while to really connect with WHY acceptance is so fundamental to the practice.
The bad news is mindfulness will not solve all life’s problems.
It won’t stop there being stress in the world.
It won’t remove pain from your body.
And it definitely won’t make you blissfully happy, 24/7 for the rest of your life.
But the good news is it gives us something better; a way of fully engaging with the whole of life, in all its messy glory.
Because life is messy.
Mindfulness teaches us that discomfort is a normal, natural and inevitable part of life. We can’t avoid it and nor should we.
If all we do is accept the pleasant side of life and resist the ugly, at best we’ll only ever be present for half of life.
It shows us that, by not shutting ourselves off from the less comfortable aspects of our experience – if we turn toward them rather than away from them - we can begin to relate to them in a very different way.
We can learn to be with whatever we’re experiencing, without needing to suffer because of it.
The willingness to open up and feel into what’s actually happening - physically, emotionally or mentally - and accepting it without judgment, puts you in the healthy position of being able to simply observe how the body and mind are naturally responding to the culmination of causes and conditions that have led to this very moment.
So, rather than trying to push the stress away, it’s like saying:
“Stress is here. This is what it feels like in the body. Stress is a part of life, and it feels like this.”
No resistance. No explaining it away. No dressing it up as something else. No story about why it’s here or wishing it to be different.
Just the awareness of being in this moment, as it is right now.
The Myths of Acceptance
There is a lot of misunderstanding about what it means to accept things as they are.
If we just accept everything, won’t that make us passive?
Won’t we lose our ambition and drive?
Surely, we’ll retreat into ourselves and just allow bad things to happen?
If we just accept feeling bad, how are we ever going to feel better?
It’s important to know that acceptance is not the same as resignation.
It’s not saying “Well, that’s just the way things are so I guess I’d better lump it!”
It doesn’t mean we aren’t going to take the necessary action to improve our circumstances in the future.
It’s not sitting idly by and letting bad things happen to us or others.
It’s not condoning any injustice we might have been subjected to.
Firstly, acceptance gives us an accurate measure of where we are right now, which is really important.
I once asked someone for directions, and after some careful consideration they looked at me and said,
“To be completely honest, if I were trying to get there I wouldn’t be starting from here!”
It’s the worst advice I’ve ever been given!
If where we want to get to is a place of ease, we have to be real about where we’re starting from.
Not accepting the truth of what’s present in the moment, is like trying to start a journey from someplace other than where you are.
Acceptance is simply a wise first step in working skillfully with what’s already happening.
You don’t have to accept any future moments before they’ve arrived. The only moment that needs accepting is the one you’re in right now because it's already here.
The Importance of Physical Sensation
Secondly, when you accept things as they are, you see them as they are… and by ‘see’ what I really mean is feel.
It allows us to observe how our experience of the moment shows up as physical sensations in the body.
We might experience an emotion as having some tightness, or pressure, warmth or coolness, tingling or vibration, lightness or heaviness, or something else.
By becoming mindful of the physical nature of our experience, and staying with it for a while, we start to see that nothing stays the same. It all exists in a never-ending flow of constant change.
While we may have perceived our discomfort as being a fixed ‘thing’ that has a kind of solidity to it, we begin to observe that, usually, it’s made up of lots of different individual sensations that are constantly shifting and evolving, arising and passing away.
Practising this kind of observing is what helps us, over time, to transform our relationship with discomfort.
Bringing interest to the dynamic flow of sensations, without our usual judgements and stories about them can be extremely liberating and offers a sense of greater ease.
The Art of Allowing
The process starts with acceptance, but it’s followed up with allowing.
It’s entirely possible to accept what’s here in the moment while still holding onto some subtle resistance for allowing it to flow unimpeded.
I’ve certainly had the experience of this in my own practice.
I have a condition called Ankylosing Spondylitis, which is a kind of arthritis that causes inflammation in the spine and the joints.
This can often contribute to a bit of discomfort while meditating, particularly in longer sits, and for a long time, I was convinced that I was doing a pretty good job at accepting there was pain.
But one day it came to my awareness that, while I had accepted there was discomfort, I was, at the same time, subtly resisting feeling that discomfort in the body. It’s as if I were trying to acknowledge it and ignore it simultaneously, by forcing my attention onto the sensations of breathing.
As soon as I realised what I was doing, I loosened my grip and made the sensations of the pain the object of my meditation.
What I found was, by allowing them to be there, and by exploring them with a calm mind, it was possible to experience the sensations without feeling so contracted. They stopped being something I felt I needed to endure.
This was a game-changer, not just in my meditation practice, but also in my day-to-day life. Sometimes there is not a lot I can do about the pain, but I’ve learned that I can happily co-exist with it. It doesn’t have to be something that detracts from my enjoyment of life.
In mindfulness, accepting and allowing are best mates. They go hand in hand.
Allowing is the part of acceptance that lets us be with things as they are, without them needing to change.
Paradoxically, it is by not needing things to change that we are more readily able to see that they are always changing. Nothing is permanent.
And that includes our emotions.
When there isn’t a narrative to keep breathing new life into them and hold them captive, emotions rise up, they get felt and then they fall away.
The more we can witness the simplicity of this for ourselves, the more we are able to trust that it's ok to accept them when they arrive.
We trust that they are only here because the conditions are right for them to arise. But we also trust it’s their nature to pass through. They’ll peak and they’ll fade. They won’t be here forever.
So, while mindfulness isn’t the solution to all our problems, and it isn’t all unicorns and rainbows, it does put us in touch with something pretty amazing - our innate capacity for handling life’s ups AND downs in a more skilful, easeful way.
Please don’t be hard on yourself if you find some things harder to accept than others. Be patient and be kind.
After all, it’s a practice.
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