Why Acceptance is Required for Change
In “Awareness is Love,” we discussed fully engaging the moment and loving what is. I mentioned that it was not a happiness strategy, but nevertheless a friend asked the question: How do we get rid of the bad if we accept it in ourselves?
The Distinction Between Acceptance and Agreement
In her new book Everything Is Workable: A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution, Zen teacher and conflict mediator Diane Musho Hamilton answers this question perfectly.
“How can we grant legitimacy to a perspective that asserts homosexuals should be exiled from society or a young woman should be stoned to death for a sexual experience? The answer is to learn to make a hard and fast distinction between acknowledging the existence of a perspective and agreeing with or condoning it. We often refuse to listen to a perspective for fear it will be interpreted as agreement.”
As she points out, it is extremely important when to distinguish between acceptance and agreement. These two concepts might be hardwired together in our brains from early days when human survival was constantly threatened, but most of us live in a different context and have the opportunity to separate these out, taking conscious control of our experience.
Acceptance Provides Choice
Acceptance is acknowledging the existence of a perspective instead of denying it. Acceptance allows for choice, opening options that previously were unconscious. For example when you are thirsty, accepting the fact that you are thirsty gives you the choice to drink something, or risk further dehydration. If you ignore the perspective of thirst, you automatically choose dehydration.
Agreement with an action or feeling is different. It starts with acceptance but goes further, allowing the thing to continue. Agreement leads to an action. It limits people to one very specific choice—the choice to do nothing to change what is.
The question “how do we get rid of the bad if we accept it?” assumes that acceptance limits choice by equating it with agreement. This is our default way of operating.
Recognizing that acceptance does not equal agreement, does not require any particular action, and therefore gives us more options of how to respond to what we are accepting, is the first step to undoing the habitual way of thinking that keeps us locked into patterns we want to escape.
How Can You Change Something You Have Not Accepted?
Acceptance of another person’s perspective acknowledges the validity of their point of view regardless of its objective truth or accuracy. This kind of respect for the other person’s experience is a necessary foundation for working with them. Just like ignoring thirst leads to dehydration, ignoring another person’s perspective inevitably leads to misunderstanding and frustration.
Similarly there are perspectives inside of us—parts or voices in our self system—that need to be acknowledged if we want to live peaceful, happy, meaningful lives. We cannot get rid of them without acknowledging them. Ignoring them will lead to emotional dehydration, causing unnecessary stress.
This is why the first step in addiction recovery is admitting that one is powerless over their addiction. Without taking this step, recovery is nearly impossible. How can you stop something you refuse to admit is happening? The same is true of getting rid of anything bad. You, ironically, must accept it first.
Riding the Wave
One way to think of this is that the thing we deem “bad” is simply a wave of energy. If you are stuck in the ocean without a surfboard, without the skills to catch and ride the wave, it is a terrifying force of destructive power.
If instead you acknowledge the wave and have the tools and skills to ride it, you channel that power into something beautiful.
Seeing this way, we can start to play with the small waves, learning how to surf little annoyances, frustrations and temptations instead of being overcome by them. We develop our own style and technique through experience while soaking up advice and tips from the pros—those before and around us who seem to be riding the “bad” waves with ease and delight. Then before we know it we are using the legitimately bad things in our life for good, finding the perfect stance to let their power transform ourselves and others in positive ways.
Summing Up the Process
Back to the original question—how do we get rid of the bad?
(1) We can either ignore or accept what we call “bad,” which determines our internal attitude toward that part of us.
(2a) If we ignore the “bad” we repress it, and have no control over how and when it will rear its ugly head. We live in unconscious conflict with ourselves.
(2b) If we instead accept the “bad,” acknowledging its existence, we get the choice of how to respond to it.
(3) Now we have a variety of options for actions to take, such as indulging the bad, reframing it, investigating it, finding some other outlet for it that contributes to society, meditating on it, asking for help, getting professional help, etc. Acceptance allows us to ride the wave.