In our culture, we often focus on changing our external environment to make us happy. We cling to things we like. We push away or ignore things we don’t like. We try to control the uncontrollable. But this strategy doesn’t always work. We can’t keep all the things that make us happy. And we can’t avoid the unpleasant. We are all going to have unpleasant in our life. External events don’t have to control our attitudes. It is how we react to those external events that impact our well-being. To increase our happiness, we need to learn to savor the pleasant and accept the unpleasant.
We are learning to be mindful, to see what is in the present moment. At the same time, we have to accept it. Acceptance is important because when people accept unpleasant experiences, it allows the experiences to “run its course and dissipate.” We all know that what we resist, persists and gets stronger.
For example, having an itch on the middle of you back that you can’t reach. As you try to scratch the itch that you can’t reach it gets stronger. If you change the focus of your attention, the itch will go away without you having to do anything.
We need to learn how to accept the unpleasant and let it just dissipate. Accepting stress helps us to stop focusing only on what’s wrong and to notice other feelings, sensations, and thoughts that are occurring. When we see the pleasant and the unpleasant together, we to see the big picture. Instead of looking at what is at the end of my nose, I look out into the horizon where my view expands.
Be careful of what connotation you use for the word accept. Some people think it connotes submitting to your fate and not doing anything about it. Others think it is tolerating people treating you disrespectfully or abusively. With those meanings of acceptance, outcomes worsen. Accept means accepting that what is, actually is. Accepting means that I am getting older and I am going to continue to get older. I may not like it, but that is what is. It is simply noticing what is true and intending not to judge, push away, or control anything you find. I need to accept that yes, my body is going to age. I am going to get aches and pains. It will take longer to heal wounds. I have to accept that. Because when I don’t accept it, I tense up against it. When I tense up, my pain gets worse.
I recently twisted my ankle. After walking a little while on it, I didn’t feel the pain. I continued to walk on it for over an hour. When I got home, I could not ignore the pain, so I elevated and iced it. I continued to do the elliptical each morning, it hardly bothered it. And I continued to do yoga, even though some poses were uncomfortable. I wasn’t accepting that my ankle was still injured. Saturday was such a beautiful day that Walt and I decided to walk in Blue Monds State Park. The path back towards our car was uneven, wet, and filled with rocks. I saw this at the start but decided to walk it anyway. By the end of the walk, my ankle was throbbing. I had reinjured it. I iced it that evening. But Sunday morning I got up and did the elliptical. Again, not accepting that my ankle was injured. As I was stretching my feet, I noticed that my ankle was still throbbing. I finally accepted the fact that my ankle was injured, and I had to baby it.
Acceptance is about seeing what is true, whether you like it or not. This allows you to pay attention to your internal experience and thus respond instead of react. If someone triggers me, and I get upset, if I don’t turn around and look at what is going on inside of me, I am likely to blame them and lash out at them. I can accept that my friend wants this, and I am not happy about it. Instead of lashing out, I can stop and say, this is what is, I am not happy about it. Then I can look for the most skillful way I can respond to her, instead of reacting in an unskillful way. Acceptance of reality allows us to view it from a different perspective and create a gap. I can see that my friend wants this because of something else that I had not thought about. That makes sense, now I see where she is coming from. I allowed a gap so that I can see better, I can see a different perspective. When we are shining the light of awareness, we want to accept it so we can have a different perspective, and we can create a gap.
According to Dr. Rick Hanson, there are two modes of perceiving information, allocentric and egocentric. Our culture reinforces egocentric where we look at things close-up and personal. It’s all about me. What we can learn through mindfulness, is to look using the allocentric mode. This allows us to see we are all connected, part of a greater whole. So, instead of looking at what is at the end of our nose, we look out into the horizon. We see the bigger picture. We can consider that there are multiple views of the situation. Therefore, we see more possibilities.
“When we look at our own mind, we can notice the mental states that predominate, as if we were noticing the weather. Just as a storm can bring rain, wind, and cold, we can observe the clusters of unhealthy states that appear on our bad days. We may find resentment, fear, anger, worry, doubt, envy, or agitation. We can notice how often they arise and how attached we are to their point of view. We can also notice the healthy states in our most free and openhearted periods. We can notice how love, generosity, flexibility, ease, and simplicity are natural to us. These states are important to notice. They give us trust in our original goodness, our own Buddha nature.” Jack Kornfield
So how do we see from a different perspective when we are caught in the throes of life? One way it to pause and take a couple of deep breaths. This helps us to step back and see the experience from a slightly different perspective. The key is creating a gap.
We meditate to train our brains to create gaps. Every time we become aware of our thoughts and let them go, we create a gap. Creating these gaps your mind quiet helps you to see more clearly.
“The discursive mind, the busy, worried, caught-up, spaced-out mind, is powerful. That’s all the more reason to do the most important thing — to realize what a strong opportunity every day is, and how easy it is to waste it. If you don’t allow your mind to open and to connect with where you are, with the immediacy of your experience, you could easily become completely submerged. You could be completely caught up and distracted by the details of your life, from the moment you get up in the morning until you fall asleep at night.” Pema Chodron
I have a habit of ignoring anything unpleasant. This habit is strong. It requires discipline to first see that I have a habit I was unconscious of and then change it. I can’t expect it to change overnight. I have honed that habit, strengthened that neural pathway every day for the past so many years. If I get down on myself because I have fallen back into my habit of ignoring the unpleasant, I am just strengthening the neural pathway of self-judgement. And I’d like to stop, some of that self-judgement.
We want to create new neural pathways. And we can do this by realizing that we begin again today. I screwed up on Saturday, not taking care of my ankle because I wanted hike in Blue Mounds. I can start again today. I screwed up Sunday morning, doing the elliptical instead of resting my ankle. I can begin again right now. Every moment is a chance to begin again. And we can take that moment to begin again, instead of beating ourselves up.
Because our habits are so strong, we need discipline and persistence. Suddenly the bad habit rears its ugly head again. We must work with it over and over and over. I have been meditating for more than a decade. Sometimes I think I have processed that; I am beyond that. When that happens, I can say” I will never be whole.” or “I will never be good enough.” Or I can begin again and work with it some more. That is why we need to be persistent. Joining a meditation group, like Mindful Moments, supports you in being disciplined and persistent.
We want to learn to take that pause which allows us to step out of our habit energies. Have you ever driven home and can’t remember driving or what you saw? The pause helps us to stop and create that gap. Then we can see the beauty in the world. We can see the snow on the trees or the clouds in the sky. We can see the beauty in the world around us. But we must slow down our busy mind to create that gap that allows us to see it.
When we don’t shine the light of awareness, we tend to fight against things as they are. We try to fight growing older. We become easily upset with life’s changes, our losses, conflicts, and disappointments. We let them take hold of us as if some external thing has control over who we are and how we feel. We get on our hamster wheel of reactivity. When we do that, we make it worse. We are looking for false security and permanent pleasures. When we are on our hamster wheel trying to get away from the unpleasant, it gets stronger because we are resisting (maybe unconsciously). We do unskillful things as we are not paying attention.
When you are in a dark room, the shapes may look scary. But when you shine a light, all the scary shapes are not so scary anymore. We have emotions we have never dealt with. We have kept them hidden inside. We are shining the light of aware on them to see that is it not so bad as I thought. I am not such a terrible person. I am just a perfectly imperfect human being, like everyone else. We see life as it really is, not how we are afraid it is or hope it is. And we learn to deal with reality rather than our image of reality.
Sometimes we shine the light of awareness like a flashlight, looking at the beautiful sky. But other times we need to step back and get a better perspective. So, we turn off our flashlight and turn on our floodlight. I am grieving and I see the beautiful sky.
By shining the light of awareness through mindfulness and compassion practice, we can cultivate a new way of relating to life in which we let go of our struggles. When we step back from the struggle, we see anew. We see it is our mind creating the conflict. We see our constant judging of things and people. We see our greed and our prejudices. There are times when I wish I didn’t practice mindfulness because it is hard for me to look at my insecurities, my imperfections, and my fears. But then I see how my habitual patterns close-down my heart. And when I see that it gives me the strength to shine the light of awareness on myself and let myself heal.
With slightly unpleasant or uncomfortable feeling and sensations, simply make a habit of pausing and taking three breaths. Create that gap and see what a difference it makes in how you feel and how you act. Continually work with the unpleasant and uncomfortable until you build the strength to deal with the tougher stuff.
Here are some questions from Jonathan Faust to determine whether you are ready to shine the light of awareness on your tougher stuff:
- Is it possible to observe these thoughts and feeling without judging?
- Are I willing to be with the experience?
- If resistance arises, can I stay with the practice?
- Can I find pleasure in the adventure of discovery?
- Is it possible to relax and calm my mind and body even more?
- Can I accept and embrace reality as it is right now?
May you hold your difficulties lightly.