How to Practice Acceptance for Mindfulness

Acceptance turns out to be one of the most helpful attitudes to bring to mindfulness. Acceptance means perceiving your experience and simply acknowledging it rather than judging it as good or bad. For some people, the word ‘acceptance’ is off-putting – replace it with the word ‘acknowledgement,’ if you prefer.

Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation. This doesn’t mean, ‘If you think you can’t do something, accept it’ – that would be giving up rather than accepting. Acceptance refers to your experience from moment to moment.

For example, when you feel pain, whether it’s physical, such as a painful shoulder, or mental, such as depression or anxiety, the natural reaction is to try to avoid feeling the pain. This seems very sensible because the sensation of physical or mental pain is unpleasant. You ignore it, distract yourself, or perhaps even go so far as turning to recreational drugs or alcohol to numb the discomfort.

This avoidance may work in the immediate short term, but before long, avoidance fails in the mental and emotional realm.

You still feel the pain, but on top of that, you feel the emotional hurt and struggle with the pain itself. Buddha called this the ‘second arrow.’ If a warrior is injured by an arrow and unleashes A thought like ‘why did this happen to me,’ that’s a ‘second arrow.’

You may inflict this on yourself each time you feel some form of pain or even just a bit of discomfort, rather than accepting what has happened and taking the next step. Avoidance – running away – is an aspect of the ‘second arrow’ and compounds the suffering. Acceptance means stopping fighting with your moment-to-moment experience. Acceptance removes that second arrow of blame, criticism or denial.

Perhaps you sit down to meditate and feel bombarded by thoughts dragging you away again and again. If you don’t accept the fact that your mind likes thinking, you become more and more frustrated, upset and annoyed with yourself. You want to focus on the meditation but just can’t.

In the above example:

  • First arrow – lots of thoughts entering your mind during meditation.

  • Second arrow – not accepting that thoughts are bound to come up in meditation. Criticizing yourself for having too many thoughts.

  • Solution – to acknowledge and accept that thoughts are part and parcel of meditation. You can do this by gently saying to yourself ‘thinking is happening’ or ‘it’s natural to think’ or simply labeling it as ‘thinking…thinking.’

By acknowledging the feeling, thought or sensation and going into it, the experience changes. Even with physical pain, try experimenting by actually feeling it. Research has found that the pain reduces. But remember, you’re not acknowledging it to get rid of the feeling. That’s not acceptance. You need to acknowledge the sensation, feeling or thought without trying to change it at all. Pure acceptance of it, just as it is.

One way to relax into the discomfort is by courageously turning to the sensation of discomfort, and simultaneously feeling the sensation of your own breath. With each out-breath, allow yourself to move closer and soften the tension around the discomfort.

If all this acceptance or acknowledgement of your pain seems impossible, just try getting a sense of it and make the tiniest step towards it. The smallest step towards acceptance can set up a chain of events ultimately leading towards transformation. Any tiny amount of acceptance is better than none at all.

Another aspect of acceptance is to come to terms with your current situation. If you’re lost, even if you have a map of where you want to get to, you have no hope of getting there, if you don’t know where you are to start with.

You need to know and accept where you are before you can begin working out how to get to where you want to be. Paradoxically, acceptance is the first step for any radical change. If you don’t acknowledge where you are and what’s currently happening, you can’t move on appropriately from that point.

Here are some ways you can try to cultivate acceptance:

  • Gently state the label of the experience you aren’t accepting. For example, if you’re not accepting that you’re angry, state in your mind, to yourself, ‘I’m feeling angry at the moment… I’m feeling angry.’ In this way, you begin to acknowledge your feeling.

  • Notice which part of your body feels tense and imagine your breath going into and out of the area of tightness. As you breathe in and out, say to yourself, ‘It’s okay. It’s already here... It’s already here.’

  • Consider how much you accept or acknowledge your current thoughts/feelings/sensation on a scale of 1 to 10. Ask yourself what you need to do to increase your acceptance by 1, and then do it as best you can.

  • Become really curious about your experience. Consider: ‘Where did this feeling come from? Where do I feel it? What’s interesting about it?’ In this way, the curiosity leads you to a little more acceptance.

In the realm of emotions, the quickest way to get from A to B isn’t to try and force yourself to get to B, but to accept A. Wholehearted acceptance leads to change automatically.

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