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Accepting a Reality That Feels Unacceptable

Why acceptance is the hardest and most important practice of them all.

Matthew Rader/Unsplash
Source: Matthew Rader/Unsplash

Right now, there’s something going on that's very difficult, something that we definitely don’t want as part of our life: this pandemic. We don’t want this to be our reality and yet it’s clear that all of our wishing it weren’t so has done nothing to make it not true. As is always the case: Fight with reality, reality wins.

And so it occurred to me (brilliantly) that this might be an auspicious time to practice acceptance, right now when we loathe this particular reality. And also, that it might be a good time to better understand what it means when we say (usually too nonchalantly) just accept what is, be with it, don’t fight it and all the other expressions we have for this very challenging and mysterious process.

When investigating an idea or practice, I like to start with what the thing is not. In this case, what are the myths and misconceptions about acceptance that get in the way of our being able to do it?

Myth #1: We’re OK with what’s happening. We can agree with it.

The biggest misunderstanding about acceptance is that it means that we’re OK with the thing we’re accepting, that we’ve somehow gotten comfortable and on board with this situation we don’t want.

Reality: Acceptance does not require that we’re OK with what we’re accepting. It does not imply that we now want what we don’t want. It does not include feeling good or peaceful about what we’re accepting. It does not mean we now agree with it.

Myth #2: Acceptance means we stop trying to change it.

We believe that accepting what is is synonymous with agreeing to be passive, giving up on change, surrendering all efforts to make things different. Acceptance is saying we agree that this situation will go on forever. It's deciding to pull the covers over our head.

Reality: Acceptance does not mean suspending efforts to change what is. It does not imply that we’re giving up on reality becoming different. Acceptance is all about now and has nothing to do with the future. Furthermore, acceptance is not an act of passivity, but rather an act of wisdom, of agreeing to start our efforts from where we actually are and considering what actually is.

Myth #3: Acceptance is failure.

In our culture, acceptance is for the meek, for losers. It's what we do when we’ve failed at doing everything else. We see acceptance as a choice-less choice, a disempowering and depressing end to a battle lost.

Reality: Acceptance is not an act of failure. It can, with the right understanding, be experienced as an act of courage. It is for those who have the strength to face the truth and stop denying it. It can be, in fact, a first step in a process of genuine success and movement.

So if not the myths, then what is this thing we call acceptance? What does it really mean to accept what is or stop fighting with reality? And, is it ever really possible (I mean really possible) to accept what is when we so don’t want what is?

To begin with, I want to throw out the word acceptance because it carries so much misunderstanding with it. Rather than asking can I accept this? I prefer, Can I relax with this? Or, can I be with this as it is? Or, can I agree that this is the way it is right now? These pointers feel more workable given what we associate with acceptance. Because the fact is, something inside us will never fully accept or get OK with what we don’t want, and that part of us needs to be included in this process too.

To relax with what is means that we also relax with the part of ourselves that’s screaming “no” to the situation. It means that we make space for the not wanting in us. So we accept the situation and also the fierce rejection of it at the same time. We don’t ask ourselves to get rid of the resistance; that resistance is our friend. It's there to protect us from what we don’t want. So we accept and allow the negative situation and also, the hating of it.

Secondly, acceptance is about acknowledging that this particular situation is indeed happening. It’s not saying that we like it, agree with it or will stop trying to change it, it simply means that we’re accepting that it’s actually what’s so. The primary element of acceptance is opening to reality as it is, not how we feel about it, just that it actually is this way.

With the situation now going on, I’m practicing relaxing with the reality that I don’t have an answer to this situation and no one does. I am accepting that this pandemic is what is and I want it to be different. Both are true; the practice of acceptance right now is about letting all of that be, and still being able to breathe...deeply.

What’s comical is that our refusal to accept what is involves a fight against what already is. What we’re fighting against is already here. We refuse to allow what’s already been allowed. Seen in this light, our refusal to accept reality has a kind of insanity to it.

When we practice acceptance, we’re just saying one thing: yes, this is happening. That’s it. And paradoxically, that yes then frees us up to start changing the situation or changing ourselves in relation to it. As a good friend said, the situation will change or you will change, but change will happen. We waste so much energy fighting with the fact that this situation is actually happening that we don’t apply our most useful energy and intention to what we want or can do about it. We’re stuck in an argument with the universe or whomever, that this is not supposed to be happening, all of which is energy down the drain. The fact is, it is this way, and acceptance allows us at least to begin doing whatever we need to do from where we are.

Acceptance of now is a profound and powerful step. It requires immense courage, to be honest about where we are. And, the willingness to feel what’s actually true, which can be excruciating, but is far more useful than denying what we already know or arguing that the truth shouldn’t be the truth. Relaxing with what is puts an end to the futile and draining argument that this is not the way it’s supposed to be, And most importantly, it allows us to get on with the business of living life on life’s terms.

When we accept what is, which includes our guttural “no” to it, we give ourselves permission to join our life, to experience the present moment as it is. We allow ourselves to stop fighting with reality, which is exhausting and useless. It’s counterintuitive and yet supremely wise; when we’re willing to say yes to this thing we don’t want, yes, this is the way it is whether I want it or not, something primal in us deeply relaxes. We can exhale; the hoax we’ve been conducting is last. The funny thing is, we’ve always known what’s true and it’s only us we’ve been trying to trick in our non-acceptance. To accept what is offers us permission to finally be authentic with ourselves, to fully be in our own company. When we can say I accept that this is the way it is—even if I hate it and don’t know what to do about it—then we can at least be in the truth, which ultimately, is the most empowering, brave, and self-loving place from which to create our life.

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