Things I've Learned From Mindfulness 2: Acceptance

AcceptanceThings I’ve learned from mindfulness

Number 2: Acceptance

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, I change.” Carl Rogers

I came across two versions of this quote on the internet. The more common version is “When I accept myself just as I am, I can change,” and the less common version is “When I accept myself just as I am, I change”. I’m rather hoping that that second version without the word ‘can’ is the original, because it actually says something slightly different. If Rogers says that when acceptance comes, then I change, it suggests that the acceptance has already created a transformation, whereas if he says “When I accept myself then I can change”, it implies that change has not yet taken place, but rather that acceptance is a foundation for possible changes. Now that is also true, but I like the slant that change has already occurred at the moment of taking an accepting attitude.

Now, I’m going to offer you a brief litany of my possible health diagnoses. These are all things that I wouldn’t have wanted to share with you 20 years ago. Throughout my life I’ve had a number of involuntary tics which would add up to a diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome. Often something that comes with Tourette's is obsessive compulsive tendencies which also continue to visit me mentally, physically, and behaviourally. Also I experience quite a lot of anxiety, particularly when it comes to change –so I tend to prefer routines and regularities, and when I’ve taken the occasional online test for autism I come out somewhere on the borderline of a diagnosis. I’ve also experienced various periods of depression in my life, usually triggered by overwhelm due to things being not how I want them to be. Now the reason I’m saying this is that 25 years ago I wouldn’t have noticed these patterns, and if I had noticed them I would have very strongly avoided any suggestion that there was something not fully perfect about my mental health. This meant that my self image was in considerable discrepancy with my humanity. This combination of not knowing and avoiding who I was led to a lot more depression.

We talk a lot in mindfulness circles about how mindfulness practice changes things – with neuroplasticity, the wires in your brain change and you become different with repeated meditation practice, and that’s true to some degree. But what changes most of all when we practise mindfulness over time is our relationship to who we are, recognising that some things can’t be changed by the force of mind, force of will, or even of practice. Does anyone remember getting a choice about which kind of person you want to be? We’re just thrown into our personalities, and lot of that is not amenable to change through force of will. However, the willingness to accept our traits can free us from a secondary depression which comes from that jarring mismatch between how things are and how we would like them to be. The meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein says that stress comes from the mind’s inability to accommodate reality – that pain that comes from “Yeuch, I don’t want it be to be like this”. Even in mindfulness training we can sometimes get caught in this, like “I’m practising mindfulness in order to be different” but if we struggle for change, we are not practising acceptance. Freedom comes from a willingness and a learning to accommodate reality as it is

So the liberation of mindfulness training for me has come from a big sigh of relief in realising that it’s all right to be me as I am, with my tics, my anxieties, my habits, my automatic reactions. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to work with my stuff or that I’m going to give up or not challenge myself but from the foundation that it’s completely ok to be who I am and for you to be okay just as you are. I don’t know how you are feeling just now –you may be feeling really great or not so much but however you are, is it possible that it’s completely enough?

When we’re not focusing on change by trying to suppress or avoid reality through struggle, the depression that comes from the mismatch between desire and reality can begin to dissolve. Looking at the word acceptance, when a word begins with an ‘A’, it can imply movement (like a-pproach, a-rrive) and then ‘cept’ implies to take or to hold (like a sceptre), so when we a-ccept we move into holding what’s here. It’s very different to the idea of acceptance of “Oh I can’t do anything”, it’s not resignation. It’s a moving towards and holding the experience of the moment with friendliness, humour and playfulness and it’s the way to peace, contentment and creativity.

This is adapted from a video talk given at Ed Halliwell’s monthly mindfulness drop-in session in September 2022. Find out about future sessions at Mindfulness Sussex.

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