The Ultimate Coping Device

Actualizing the deep wisdom of the Serenity Prayer through mindfulness

Posted Feb 18, 2015

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself. ~Rumi

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 A great many people struggle with self-acceptance, but those afflicted with chronic pain, addiction, or other serious biopsychosocial afflictions incur extraordinary challenges in this area. Hence, recovery from such pernicious, often co-occurring conditions involves progress toward being fundamentally okay with oneself. As paradoxical as it may seem, whatever positive changes you want to make in your life, acceptance of how and where you are in the present moment is one of the keys to moving forward.

Dialectical thinking is based on the view that all things are interconnected and even elements that seem to be the antitheses of one another share a relationship. A dialectic is a dynamic process wherein apparent opposites move toward an integration that brings them into harmony and creates a greater whole. Pain recovery, the Twelve Steps, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) all utilize the dialectic of acceptance and change, recognizing the therapeutic value of accepting one’s current status while moving toward healthy change to generate growth and healing. This dialectic is elegantly encapsulated in the Serenity Prayer.

My first exposure to the Serenity Prayer came at the age of 13, when my maternal grandmother gave me a laminated wallet-sized card, saying, “I want you to have this.” On it, in beautiful calligraphy was inscribed:

 God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

the Courage to change the things I can,

and the Wisdom to know the difference.

The very first time I read those words they had immediate heft and resonance, as well as an inchoate soothing effect. As I looked at the card and read the words again, my breathing became a little deeper and my pulse rate slowed slightly. I may not have been able to grasp the magnitude of their simple and elegant wisdom, but even then I knew the message they carried was important.

Everything we encounter in life ultimately breaks down into two categories: things that we can change or at least have some influence over, and things we cannot change or influence. If we take the time and make the space to consider it consciously, all of our experiences, both internal and external, fit into one of these two basic categories. Simply recognizing which grouping a challenge at hand (be it physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or interactional) belongs to makes our lives more manageable.

If the challenge is something we cannot change—such as the fact of being in pain or the actions or attitude of another person—we need to accept it, and the issue becomes how best to facilitate that acceptance. If, on the other hand, the challenge is something we can change—how we are responding to the pain we have or how we are dealing with that other person—the issue is about what we need to change and how to most effectively make it happen. Importantly, one thing that we can always change (as difficult as it can be at times) is how we respond to that which we cannot change.

But, how do we go about accepting the things we can’t change and changing how we respond to what we can’t change? Both of these involve adjusting our thinking, how we deal with our emotions, and the actions we take—and in both, the practice of mindfulness can be a great asset. Mindfulness helps create the conscious awareness to notice our thoughts, observe them, question &/or dispute their accuracy, and detach from them. Since thoughts often provide such potent fuel for emotions, this shifts much of the wind away from sails of our emotions.

Moreover, mindfulness practices build a space within which we can witness our emotions and give them room to breathe. When we can allow our feelings to simply be, accepting them without reflexively buying into or attaching any particular value to them, their intensity lowers and we experience less pressure to act on them.

In this way, mindfulness shifts the nature of the relationship we have with our thoughts and our emotions—expanding our capacity to respond intentionally rather than react automatically and impulsively. This gives us the opportunity to develop the skills to co-exist more peacefully with what we can’t change, as well as exercise greater conscious choice as how we act (internally and externally) when presented with the need for acceptance strategies.

 Copyright 2015 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain