Embracing your life, even the tricky bits
This is the third of three articles heavily indebted to meditation teacher Shinzen Young, whose work you can find at https://www.shinzen.org/.
The problem of language
This is my second attempt to write this article. The first time around I decided to go with the more traditional term 'equanimity', which is the one that Shinzen uses to describe this particular skill. However, it wasn't working for me - the term has too much baggage, and when I found myself two paragraphs into the article still part-way through a definition, I threw in the towel.
So instead we're going to talk about 'acceptance' - which is also a term freighted with a variety of meanings, but I think it's easier to get where I want to go with 'acceptance' than 'equanimity'. Let's see how we get on.
Two ways we create problems for ourselves
Let's say I'm at the office, and a co-worker does something that irritates me a little bit. But I don't want to create a fuss and I don't like acknowledging my own anger, so instead I tell myself it's fine - I'm not really irritated, there's no anger present, it's fine. Then the next day it happens again, and again I squash the impulse. And the next day, and the next. Each time, I simply refuse to allow myself to experience what's going on in my body and mind; I close myself up, turn away from my own experience, and wait for it to go away.
While this might seem effective in the short term, after a while it's pretty likely that my irritation will start to grow. Maybe I start making passive-aggressive remarks, or whinging about my co-worker behind their back. They'll seem seem more and more irritating, and I'll have to squash that impulse more and more often, until one day all the pent-up anger finally explodes volcanically. I don't need to paint you a picture - we know that isn't going to be a pretty sight.
So maybe I decide that suppression isn't the right way to manage my anger. The next time my co-worker irritates me, I take that flicker of anger and run with it - I snarl at them, I demonstrate to everyone around me that I am a scary piece of work and you do not mess with me ever. This maybe even feels pretty good - acting out anger tends to give us a sense of personal power, and my co-worker will get the message pretty quickly that I'm not a fan of their behaviour.
On the other hand, after a while I notice people aren't coming by my desk quite so often, and I'm starting to get a reputation. I'm left off the invitation list for meetings where tact and diplomacy are required, because people know that I can't control my anger. Worse, if I really pay attention to what's going on, I might start to notice the harm that my expressions of anger are causing, but I'm powerless to do anything about it - after all, suppression didn't work, and the anger has to go somewhere, right? I'm an angry person, so what else can I do?
We can talk about these two strategies as 'suppression' - denying our experience, tightening up around it and ignoring what's going on - and 'reactivity' - allowing our experience to push us around, triggering behavioural patterns that play out automatically whenever the corresponding stimulus shows up in our lives.
Neither of these is particularly great. Suppression requires us to deny the truth of our own experience, and in the long term tends to lead to dramatic blow-ups when we get tired of pretending to be something we're not. On the other hand, reactivity leaves us at the mercy of our surroundings - something happens and BOOM, we're straight into playing out that behaviour, regardless of whether that's the most appropriate and useful thing to do in this situation. Every time we become reactive we actually lose control of our lives, at least for the moment.
So what do we do? Is there another approach? (Spoiler alert: yes.)
The third option: embodied acceptance, the attitude of non-resistance
In both of the strategies above, we started by treating the experience of negative emotion as a problem needing to be solved somehow. In the first case, we squashed it down so that we didn't have to feel it. In the second case, we acted it out, so that the emotion could be purged through our reactivity, in a kind of catharsis.
But what if we instead approached this emotion with acceptance? What if we recognised that this emotion is something that we've felt on and off since we were born, and will probably continue to feel on and off for the rest of our lives? What if, instead of treating the emotion as a problem to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible, we instead welcomed it into our bodies and allowed it to be there?
At this point, you might be thinking I'm crazy. Who wants to welcome anger into their body?
But, actually, making this deeply counterintuitive move has a surprising effect. When we turn fully towards the truth of our experience in this moment, allowing it to be exactly as it is, we find that it isn't actually so bad. Yes, it's probably quite unpleasant to feel a negative emotion like anger. But the unpleasant sensations of that anger aren't going to kill us. And, actually, if we allow them to be there, the additional unpleasantness of feeling like we have a problem that needs to be solved urgently simply vanishes. We no longer need to fix ourselves. We can simply be with the emotion, feeling it deeply without suppressing it and without acting it out.
As we start to investigate this pattern more widely, we see something else remarkable. Both suppression and reactivity are based on a kind of resistance - a deep-down sense that 'this shouldn't be happening'. But - to quote spiritual teacher Adyashanti - what you resist persists. In other words, the more we make our emotions (and other difficult experiences) into problems by denying and rejecting them, the worse they appear, and the larger they loom in our lives. Conversely, if we create an attitude of non-resistance, we actually don't experience so many things as problems in the first place.
So you're saying I should just accept everything, including injustice?
No. That would be silly.
'Acceptance' can sound passive, negative, defeatist or fatalist, like we simply lie down in the middle of the road and let life roll over us. To be clear, this is not what I am recommending.
The kind of acceptance I'm describing is present-moment acceptance. If I stub my toe, my foot hurts - that's how it works to have a foot and smash it into a solid object at high speed. Sometimes when I stub my toe, my first thought will be something like 'I wish I hadn't done that!' But that's a silly thought, because I have done it, and no amount of wishing that I hadn't will change that. Actually, wishing I hadn't stubbed my toe makes the whole thing worse, because now I'm putting energy into imagining a parallel reality where I was more careful, and compared to that, the present reality sucks. On the other hand, if I simply acknowledge the consequences of my clumsiness as the facts of the present situation, I don't have to deal with any of that unpleasant mental activity - there's just the physical sensation in my foot to deal with, and that will go away all by itself over time.
However, accepting the reality of the present moment doesn't mean that we can't make choices. Perhaps I notice that, in the present moment, my team's regular social events systematically exclude one member of the team with childcare responsibilities. Having noticed this, I'm perfectly at liberty to suggest that we vary our social calendar so that our colleague can be included in the future.
Creating an attitude of non-resistance
When we meditate, we can practise in a way which helps to set up this stance of non-resistance, and to reinforce it over time, so that we gradually move towards acceptance as our new default.
On the physical level, it helps to have good posture - a stable base, an upright spine - so that we can relax the body as much as possible. Emotional resistance and physical tension are closely linked - to the point that psychological wounds can show up in the body as patterns of 'stuck' tension - so encouraging ourselves to relax can help to move us toward a more open, accepting position.
On the mental level, the practice is primarily one of maintaining this attitude of welcoming our experience, no matter what it is. No matter what comes up in the practice, no matter how big a 'distraction' it might seem to be, it isn't 'wrong' and doesn't need to be pushed away or 'solved' somehow. We can allow whatever comes up to be there, and to be felt fully. This is especially true for difficult feelings - anger, fear, guilt, shame. These are probably never going to be pleasant parts of your experience, but they're valid parts of your experience, and have just as much right to be there as joy, love, peace and so on. So, rather than turning away from them, see if you can adopt an attitude of wanting to get to know them - to experience them fully.
To explore this in meditation, pick any mindfulness practice from the Audio page and just start going. Then, notice what comes up as you attempt to follow the instructions - and notice if you resent and resist the distractions that come up, or if you can allow them to be there, and even welcome them into your experience.
One final point is to notice spontaneous moments of acceptance, throughout the course of your daily life. Whenever you find yourself wrestling with some problem and then finally letting it go, notice the sense of freedom, openness and release that happens at that moment - the relief of no longer having to struggle with it. This moment of relief is present in every moment of true acceptance, and it feels great - so be sure to notice it! This engages what's called 'reward-based learning', which is how the brain creates habits - if you notice that, when you do something, it feels good, you're much more likely to do it again in the future (and conversely, if it feels bad, you're much less likely to do it again).
The path toward total freedom
We're now at a point where we can combine the three key meditative skills that we've discussed over these last few articles, and see how they can dramatically reduce the suffering in our lives. This example is a little tongue-in-cheek, and I wouldn't take the numbers too literally, but it does illustrate the way we can bring our meditative skills to bear on something which would previously have been totally overwhelming and make it much more manageable without going into denial or acting out.
Let's return to the example of dealing with an overwhelming unpleasant experience that we discussed in the article on sensory clarity. Suppose we have an experience which is unpleasant in every possible way (I'll leave it to you to come up with a suitably horrifying example):
Without sensory clarity, we experience this as one giant hairball of nastiness, so the unpleasantnesses multiply together: 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 1,000,000 units of unpleasantness. Argh!
Now we bring sensory clarity to bear on the situation. We disentangle the hairball of horror into six strands of experience, each of which is individually unpleasant. We still have a lot of unpleasantness, but once the hairball is pulled apart into its separate strands, it doesn't look nearly so bad. Now the unpleasantnesses add together instead: 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 = 60 units of unpleasantness.
OK, getting there, but 60 units of badness is still more badness than I'd prefer to deal with. Fortunately, we can bring another skill to bear on the problem: concentration power. We can choose one of the six strands to focus on - let's say physical sensations. Now, instead of dealing with 60 units of unpleasantness, we only have to deal with 10, because our laser-like focus means that we can zoom in on the specific aspect of our experience that we want to work with, and let everything else fade into the background.
(It's important to note here that we're not using concentration to ignore this unpleasant experience. We're still turning toward the experience - we're simply using concentration to focus on part of the experience, to help reduce the risk of being overwhelmed.)
OK, so now we're down from a million units of unpleasantness to 10. Pretty good, right? But maybe we can still do better, using our newest meditative skill - acceptance.
As we've discussed, typically we tend to resist unpleasant experiences, and try to make them go away through suppression or reactivity. That resistance is itself unpleasant, and so makes a bad situation worse. Shinzen Young likes to say that 'suffering = pain x resistance', i.e. how bad we feel about a situation is not just a measure of how objectively bad it is, but also how much we're struggling against it.
So if you can bring deep acceptance to the unpleasant situation at hand, the pain might not decrease, but the resistance drops significantly, or can even vanish entirely.
And if there's no resistance, there's no suffering.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!