NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Acceptance” essay in my forthcoming book Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. This essay will likely conclude the book. Responses and comments welcome.
“Acceptance,” Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
ACCEPTANCE: It’s Already There
I see Acceptance as the ability to be present as who we are, in each succession of present moments, without (as the poet John Keats put it) “irritable reaching after fact or reason.” Acceptance is being swayed neither by avoiding what we fear nor clinging to what we believe we can’t live without. It is seeing and embracing the ever-changing now.
Without acceptance, there can be no forward movement. Without acceptance, the hidden patterns that generate clinging attachment and fearful avoidance take over, repeating themselves in our minds, feelings, behaviors, and relationships, like a long-running Broadway play. We get caught in a whirlpool, struggling to get out without understanding that our own struggles with the here and now are only amplifying the currents that entrap us. We grow older, and the external circumstances of our lives change, but inside it’s, in the words of the Talking Heads, “the same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”
If there is one overriding theme in what clients bring to therapy, it is that they are trapped in dysfunctional patterns. And if there is one root that factor divides clients who do not change from those do, it is acceptance: Of who they are, how they got to where they are, and that they – and only they – have the power to begin the process of freeing themselves from suffering.
Acceptance is the starting point for growth. It is the door that closes one life chapter and allows another, more liberating one, to open. Acceptance can be painful, but it is a pain that releases us from carrying our hidden burdens. Acceptance is the final stage in Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of loss and a necessary precursor to moving on from mourning. Acceptance is the first of the 12 steps in addiction recovery programs and a necessary precursor to a sober life. Acceptance of self, and of responsibility for change, is the start of true recovery from trauma, depression, addiction, anxiety, dysfunctional relationships, and the many other unhappinesses that can come our way. It is the thing most of my clients struggle hardest to avoid – and then even harder to achieve.
In its simplest form, acceptance can be saying to yourself, “Although I am suffering, I can be content now. Yes, there are things I would like to change, and when I change them I may be even more content, but I can already be content with the present circumstances, and there is much I can learn from what is occurring now.” Embracing this resilient, accepting attitude can begin the shift from victim – of external circumstances, of thoughts and feelings, of physical challenges, of past injuries – to victor.
My personal pathway to acceptance has been mainly through accepting loss: lost career opportunities, lost relationships, lost health, and 20 years ago nearly the loss of my life. Getting to acceptance has come gradually, with the recognition that each loss has also been an opening. A major turning point occurred in the spring of 2007. At that time I was bleeding internally from unknown causes. By the time my doctors narrowed the source to my gastrointestinal tract, I had already lost two pints of blood. Also for unknown causes, I was rapidly losing weight, about half a pound per day. This situation, though less drastic than my experience at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany in 1992, recalled that earlier time; I was often overcome by fear.
Over a two-week period, I underwent a series of increasingly invasive tests, but no diagnosis emerged and I continued to bleed. I am an able researcher, and I diligently scanned the Internet for information on any maladies that could explain my symptoms. I found nothing. I imagined fatal outcomes, feared the unknown.
And then one day I stopped fretting.
A Buddhist friend gave me a reading on sickness. It read:
I rely on you, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, until I achieve enlightenment. Please grant me enough wisdom and courage to be free from delusion.
If I am supposed to get sick, let me get sick, and I’ll be happy. May this sickness purify my negative karma and the sickness of all sentient beings.
If I am supposed to be healed, let all my sickness and confusion be healed, and I’ll be happy. May all sentient beings be healed and filled with happiness.
If I am supposed to die, let me die, and I’ll be happy. May all the delusion and the causes of suffering beings die.
If I am supposed to live a long life, let me live a long life, and I’ll be happy. May my life be meaningful in service to sentient beings.
If my life is to be cut short, let it be cut short, and I’ll be happy. May I and all others be free from attachment and aversion.
He instructed me to read this several times a day. At first, welcoming disease or death seemed impossible, but with each reading came a little more peace. I stopped looking things up on the Internet. I returned to my work as a therapist. I began to make art again, a practice that has, for years, been soothing and healing. I waited patiently for test results to be analyzed. And I started to have a different relationship with the passing time. Whether I would live or die, whether I would heal by myself, with major interventions, or not at all, was already out there in my future, waiting for me to arrive. I didn’t have to fret. I didn’t have to plan. I just had to move forward in time until my things became clear.
This was not pre-destination. This was not resignation. This was not “que sera, sera.” This was something that, while I still can’t fully explain it, felt like the most liberating moment in my life. It’s all already there. I don’t need to fret. I don’t need to push. I just need to live my life to the best of my ability and, of the infinite possible futures, I will inevitably arrive at the one that is mine.