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Acceptance comes easily when things are going our way, but what about when they are not? How easy is it for you to accept something that isn't in line with your plan for how things should be? When you don't get the job, when your train is cancelled, when you lose someone or something you love - how easy is it to accept things then? And if you don't accept them, what is the result? Eckhart Tolle says that the cause of pain is some form of non-acceptance, "some form of unconscious resistance to what is".
If you google the word 'acceptance', right at the bottom of the list of different meanings you'll find it described as a "willingness to tolerate a difficult situation." That sounds like such a burden. In fact, it's believed to be so challenging, it's a key part of Reinhold Niebur's famous prayer:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Despite our natural resistance to accept things we don't want or like, doing so can make a tremendous impact on our health, wellbeing and day-to-day experience. So how can we work with it? What can we do?
After years of reading different texts and listening to different teachers, I've come to think of acceptance as having two parts. First there is an element of resistance - the thing that you're battling with in some way. Depending on the situation, your particular 'flavour' of resistance might look quite different. For example, you might be pushing against something, refusing to listen to or comply, you could be in denial, or just stubbornly unwilling to accept that the situation is as it is. Take a moment to think about something you're feeling resistant to in your life right now, it might be a situation, a person, or anything else you're in conflict with, what's the flavour of your resistance?
To move beyond that resistance and into a state of acceptance, a second element is necessary. Surrender. The word itself is laden with negative associations including lack of courage, quitting, giving up on your goals, and so on. It sounds quite fatalistic, but that's not necessarily the case. In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle says "if you find your life situation unsatisfactory or even intolerable, it is only by surrendering first that you can break the unconscious resistance pattern that perpetuates the situation". He goes on to explain:
"Surrender is perfectly compatible with taking action, initiating change or achieving goals. But in the surrendered state a totally different energy, a different quality, flows into your doing... Through nonresistance, the quality of your consciousness and, therefore, the quality of whatever you are doing or creating is enhanced immeasurably."
Using surrender to access 'a different energy' and a greater quality of consciousness really stands out for me. As a Reiki practitioner, I spend a lot of time working with clients' energy to help relieve symptoms of tension, stress and illness that can occur following upsets or conflicts between people or even emotional or mental conflicts within themselves. Thinking of surrender as a gateway to accessing enhanced action and creativity - thinking of it as something positive - is probably a shift in perception for many of us.
So this really makes sense, let's apply it to a real life situation. When our (young) dog started having seizures, I felt very upset and anxious. Exposure to pesticides sprayed along the roadside may have caused the initial illness (he wasn't the only local dog affected), and as the fits continued, and the vet started talking about ongoing epilepsy medication, I was very resistant to the idea that this was IT - that he was now Epileptic. During the first week or so I was unable to concentrate on anything else, I didn't leave the house, and I couldn't sleep because I was worried he'd hurt himself - or worse - if I wasn't on guard. I didn't want to believe that he'd have seizures (and tablets) for the rest of his life. I felt sick and unable to relax. My stomach was in knots. Not only did I feel terrible - physically and emotionally - but my stress was spreading, my daughter became quite anxious too.
At this point, I'd already been studying spiritual texts for long enough to know that the 'calm' I needed could be accessed via my breath. Yes, I already knew about meditation, acceptance, and all sorts of techniques to help myself. Despite this, I was taken over by what Buddha called the monkey-mind, proving this is an ongoing practice not a one-time fix or something you simply need to 'know'! So I focussed on my breath long enough to remember that in the present moment (which is all there is) everything was fine. If he needed medicine for the rest of his life, so what? If he had seizures every now and then, so what? I could only take care of him as well as possible from moment to moment. And at that moment, I gave up my resistance and surrendered to the fact that he's epileptic.
The seizures stopped being a big issue (although they are unpleasant to experience). We made a few adjustments to our routine to accommodate the regular medication. He now sleeps upstairs with us so we're there when he has a seizure in the night (they usually happen when he's asleep). While I wouldn't choose for him to have to go through this, the fact that he does is no longer something I'm in conflict with. We just deal with each seizure as it happens.
As I said earlier, acceptance is a regular practice, rather than a one-time fix. It's something you will get better at the more you do it. As you will have seen from my example, even when you think you're able to do it, situations will still arise to challenge your willingness to surrender!
To help you, I've compiled a five-step process you can use to work through any situation you are resistant to right now, and which you can continue to practice in your life. Remember that although the steps are simple, they are not always easy - don't beat yourself up, or give up, if you find it difficult at first.
FIVE SIMPLE STEPS TO 'SURRENDER'
Step 1. Crucially it is necessary to recognise that there is resistance - in other words, you must acknowledge the conflict with what IS. What are you conflicted about?
Step 2. Next, observe the way that that resistance occurs for you. How does it make you feel? How does it filter your perception of yourself, or of others? How does it make you act?
Step 3. Notice where this conflict shows up in your body - do you feel it in the pit of your stomach, or somewhere else? How is that for you? Do you like this feeling? What is the cost to your wellbeing and your experience of life?
Step 4. Breathe and get present. (Yes, really!) Focus your attention on being in the moment. (If this is new to you try this guided meditation.) When you're fully present you'll see that resistance is pointless. It changes nothing and only serves to disempower and make you feel bad. This realisation represents a major shift to your consciousness in relation to your conflict.
Step 5. Congratulations! Once you are conscious of the resistance, it no longer has power over you. Just like that, you can choose to let it go. This is surrender! From this vantage point you can begin to see things from a different perspective and whatever you decide to do (or not do) will, as Tolle says, be 'enhanced immeasurably'.
To really get to grips with this, each day you might like to pick a small issue that is bothering you but that you can't change. Then work though the five steps to let go of your resistance. As you progress through the different issues, note how you feel and what impact acceptance has on your overall wellbeing.