The most valuable part of my post-secondary education happened during the ten hours a week I spent riding the bus between the campus and my suburban home. For a shy, high-strung, claustrophobic young man, these crowded bus rides served as an intensive hands-on program in acceptance.
The older buses were unpleasantly warm in the summer, but much worse in the winter. The driver sits next to the front door, which must open every other block to let in a few more people. Even though it was often thirty below zero, he would always be wearing only a company-issue fleece — his parka would take up too much of his limited workspace. With each opening of the door comes a blast of arctic air, and so in order to stay halfway comfortable the driver keeps the heat dialed up all the way.
This creates, for the passengers in the back of the bus, a microcosm of runaway climate change. As the bus creeps across town, it fills up with Gortexed students until they are bulging against the yellow line at the front, and the temperature inside each parka rises to tropical levels. Nobody dares open a window because it would it would mean the person sitting nearest to it would have his face frozen even as the rest of his body sweltered.
Faring the worst is the person who lets himself get angry at this arrangement, because this sends him down an even steeper spiral — he fumes into his parka and long underwear, cooking his body faster and bringing his mind to a full boil. Then he is defenseless against everything, inside his mind and out. He is physically trapped, and the context of this powerless feeling expands to the rest of his life. Academic worries descend on him. His relationship suddenly seems unsatisfactory. He begins to hate the institutions which torture him like this every day: the transit service, the college, the commercial sector for which he is going to school to please, and all of their unsympathetic expectations.
He may, at this moment, remember a platitude along these lines:
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.
But he finds this does not help him accept his physical state, or the chaotic life situation swirling around it. Acceptance of this sort is not something he tries to do often, because it doesn’t occur to him except in moments where he feels powerless. He has been trained that acceptance is difficult, and is always an act of great willpower.
He may learn, after a few years of crosstown winter bus rides, that acceptance is more of a learned reflex than anything, and shouldn’t be reserved for things that cannot be changed.
The Great Platitude has us believing that whenever something undesirable happens, acceptance is the less useful and less preferable of our two options — it’s the second-place prize you get if you can’t change it.
This has some people confusing acceptance with resignation. In this context let’s keep them separate. Resignation is deciding you cannot or will not change something. Acceptance is an emotional phenomenon. It’s the letting go of the emotional demand for something to be different.
You can simultaneously accept something and change it. Not only that, but coming to any reality already having accepted it emotionally makes it easier to change it. It’s a lot more pleasant (and effective) to just calmly clean up the damn milk instead of prefacing the inevitable mopping with a little tantrum. Rejecting any reality makes it spiteful to you.
This means acceptance is the appropriate response to everything that happens, even before you decide whether you will act on it or not. Since you want to accept the things you don’t want to change, as well as accept the things you do want to change, ideally you will accept everything, as it emerges in real-time. This is the holy grail of peace and equanimity, because then circumstance no longer has the power to make the sky go dark on you. You’re going to allow it all as it arises, then act if you want.
Again, acceptance is not the decision to do nothing. It is only the intention to agree with reality, and I have never found a time where it was better to disagree with reality. Acceptance means allowing present-moment pain to exist, as it sometimes must, but it makes you impervious to suffering. Pain without suffering is still painful and still undesirable, but it is bearable. And you are still able to act, but then the action comes from a place of intention instead of desperation and reactivity.
This was a major revelation to the bus-riding college student I once was. I learned to agree with the heat of the bus, whether or not I unbuttoned my coat, whether or not I said something to the driver about it. This is not the same as agreeing that it ought to be that way, just agreeing that this is reality right now and that I would allow it to be real.
It seems like agreeing to the realness of reality is something we would do automatically. We don’t. I’m not sure why we don’t — I guess mother nature is a fan of the brute force approach to solving problems, and nothing is as forceful as a visceral “No!” from the reptile brain. That part of the brain good at the basic (and extremely important) function of moving you away from danger, but on a human level it is quite dumb. It has a very immature strategy for dealing with undesirable developments. Something happens, and it says “No!”
That’s all it really says. It doesn’t say “No, that is not what I want, so I’ll have to do something else instead.” It just says, “No!” as if it’s being shown upholstery samples. What you’re actually being shown is what your life has become right this instant, and so if you let it do the talking, what you’re saying no to is reality.
I just rear-ended an Infiniti. NO!
My sunglasses just fell in the urinal. NO!
The best this reaction will do is make your insides tighten up, make your face scary and make you want to run from it or hide from it. This is very effective when the new development is a vicious animal, but usually it’s not.
I just dropped a jar of salsa on the kitchen floor. How quickly can I agree that this is reality now?
The reflexive internal discussion about what ought to be happening is usually an unwelcome distraction. It prevents acceptance. We should always be aiming for real-time acceptance of all developments, to the extent that it is possible.
There will be things you will be unable to accept: harm coming to your family, serious medical prognoses, and in these cases the more automatic parts of your brain take over anyway. But that does not change the ideal — accepting everything that happens, as it happens. Whether or not you are able to do it, it always puts you in a stronger position. If there is an exception to this, it’s when there is immediate physical danger and adrenaline will refuse to let you reach real-time acceptance.
How to do it
Essentially, you are retraining the “No!” reaction to an “Okay!” reaction. Not, “Okay I like this,” but “Okay, this is this, and obviously I will work with it, because there’s no other sensible thing to do.”
The most effective way of improving it is simple. You notice the “Ugh” reaction — which is an extremely familiar and uniform feeling once you start to look for it — and use that to trigger conscious agreement. Remind yourself that don’t actually need anything to be different than it is, you just prefer it. You simply agree that it is happening — not that it necessarily ought to be happening, but only that it is indeed a part of reality, and therefore your decisions hereafter will account for this new reality. That’s all.
This amounts to recognizing that your needs are actually preferences, and therefore you should respond to all new events the same way — by acknowledging your preference while allowing for the inescapable reality that you may not get your preference.
There is liberation in this sameness, because you begin to inhabit a world in which there is only one kind of happening: the kind you will deal with in whatever way you are able. This mostly eliminates the heart-wringing cycle of need and hope, which places you at the mercy of circumstance much more than you have to be.
It helps to remember that almost every time you use the verb “need,” the word “prefer” is more accurate. On the topic of reframing your needs as preferences, I highly recommend reading Handbook to Higher Consciousness by Key Keyes. The structure and prose are eccentric at times but his ideas are unutterably useful.
Over time, you find yourself saying to yourself, “That’s okay,” more and more, and you find there are very few situations when it’s inappropriate. Imagine a world where everything is okay. Imagine how worriless it would be, not because everything will go the way you wish, but because you approach favor and adversity the same way. Bit by bit, you’re making your world into that place. The actual circumstances of your world become less and less relevant. Your quality of life comes increasingly from yourself, and so there’s a lot less clinging and a lot less hating.
So there’s no fabled “balance” to be struck between accepting reality and changing it. You ought to be accepting it as a rule. You will be unable to do it sometimes, but you are better at it than you probably think, and you have unlimited chances to practice. Particularly if you take the bus.