Penny Fenner is a Buddhist psychologist, and one of my friends from before my retirement. She has just posted this, and has given me permission to share it with you.
This year we’re being constantly challenged to “accept the unacceptable,” don’t you think?
Those of us living in Melbourne or broader Victoria have been hanging out for a break to strict lockdown and are undoubtedly feeling varying degrees of unacceptability with its continuation.
If you’re in other countries where restrictions have either been inadequate or eased too soon and you’re witnessing vast numbers of Covid-19 cases and death tolls, this must also seem totally unacceptable. And it is.
SO, HOW DO WE ACCEPT THE UNACCEPTABLE?
Accepting the unacceptable is no easy ask when there’s a pandemic wreaking havoc on our planet, impacting health, lives, the economy, our lifestyles and freedom of movement and choice.
Of course it is unacceptable that people worldwide are out of work and fearing for their future. Of course it is unacceptable how people of colour continue to be minimised, vilified and treated as less than human; that family violence keeps growing; that children still experience abuse, malnutrition and other horrors; that there are people in positions of tremendous power who in their ignorance or self-centredness, or both, are wreaking havoc. Of course it is unacceptable that people still deny global warming and that we continue to pollute and degrade our precious interconnected ecosystems on this beautiful planet.
All of this and even more things we face daily are in varying degrees totally unacceptable.
However if we resist and fight this, wishing it wasn’t happening, we feel worse. It’s no surprise there are increasing levels of stress and anxiety, fear and anger.
It may be more of a surprise that despite the challenges, plenty of people, spiritual practitioners in particular, are managing to find ways to accept the unacceptable, to stop and appreciate the small things that bring joy and ease, like better quality time with their families, less rushing and mindless activity. Lives have simplified in many ways and there’s something beautiful in the simplicity. However this isn’t the full answer to accepting the unacceptable but it is a helpful aid.
ACCEPTANCE IS OFTEN MISUNDERSTOOD
It is absolutely possible to transform struggle, anger and resistance into acceptance. We know that when we accept things as they are we feel more peace and freedom, so why is it so hard to just accept?
Let’s understand a couple of things first.
In the same way that Buddhist teachings on “non-attachment” are readily misinterpreted so too is the notion of “acceptance” frequently misunderstood.
Acceptance, like non-attachment, does not mean we switch off or stop caring. It does not mean we resign ourselves to how things are. It does not mean we relinquish our higher goals or values. It does not mean we roll over and succumb.
We don’t deny the unacceptable or pretend it is okay when clearly it isn’t. That will only create discordance, disconnecting us from reality. And if we disconnect from reality we don’t ever face or deal with the challenges. We simply delay that.
When we accept the unacceptable we continue to care deeply but our emphasis shifts from constantly recycling negative thoughts and beliefs that fuel anger and frustration.
Try for just a moment to feel angry and frustrated without thinking. It’s not possible, right?
ENGAGE KINDNESS AND RELAX THE STRUGGLE
When we acknowledge what is happening and systematically relax our struggle with the unacceptable, when we take pause, something powerful happens.
By relaxing our struggle, our vista broadens. Instead of being narrowly focussed on whatever is missing or unacceptable, we gain a broader view.
As we relax our struggle, we calm our reactivity and begin to see the unacceptable with less anger and frustration yet more clarity.
However, to get to this point, we need kindness and self-compassion. If being kind and gentle with ourselves came naturally then this would be a no-brainer. When the negative brain bias that developed aeons ago as a way of protecting us against danger kicks in when things are not as we want, it’s very hard to activate self-kindness. Negativity feeds on itself perpetuating and amplifying our frustrations. Suggestions to: “go gently” or: “be kind to yourself” can seem counterintuitive.
Being kind requires focussed practice, and it can feel so good to be angry with how things are when they’re unacceptable, because we feel this gives us power. But this is a false sense of power because it doesn’t change anything. If we put on our realistic lenses right now. there are probably few things from the above list of “unacceptables” that we can directly or immediately influence.
This doesn’t mean we throw in the towel and give up though.
Instead we turn our attention away from our wish list of what should be happening, and bring our attention right down into our very experience, into our very breath. We relax and turn toward that which we can influence directly — our own mind.
THE POWER OF COMPASSION
Compassion practices are always useful, even more so when things are unacceptable. Compassion helps balance unhealthy anger and frustration that generally leaves us feeling like a mouse on a treadmill.
Compassion practices enable us to resonate with others and so broadening our perspective. When we attune to others’ pain, sorrow and struggles, our hearts open, which can help shift our focus from our narrow self-referenced, often closed-in world.
As we expand our hearts and attention, how we see things changes like magic; we soften, open up, realise the good more and focus less on the negative. This helps us accept the unacceptable.
WHEN WE ACCEPT THE UNACCEPTABLE
When our perspective widens we automatically begin to relax as we become less myopic. In this wider space is room for more kindness and warmth. Even when things feel unacceptable, as the inner turmoil softens our mind becomes more easeful.
Somehow through letting go, our mind relaxes. The great Buddhist teachings on impermanence can be so helpful at this time. We know that things don’t stay the same. We know that things will change. As we accept this, a kind of ease replaces our angst and pessimism.
Equally true is the adage “this too shall pass,” and when we allow ourselves to be present to this, we stop focussing on the negative consequences of the now and relax. When our mind relaxes enough it’s as though we can then begin to penetrate the reality of how things are, which is neither good nor bad, other than thinking makes it so.
So, as difficult as things are, as stressful and fear provoking, it’s important to know deep in your heart that “this too shall pass.” We will not always be ravaged by a plague. We will not always be in lockdown, restricted so deeply that our sense of freedom feels forever lost. We will not always be unable to move around and be restricted. We will not always be alone or out of work or feeling whatever is grabbing us at the moment.
FREEDOM IS HERE, RIGHT NOW
Freedom is available to us within every single breath we take. Always begin by consciously and lovingly drawing our attention in, down into the core of our being, and let ourselves relax. As we do so, our mind opens, our heart softens and in the depths of our being we find that intrinsic inner knowing that transcends thought and knowledge. If we can listen to this voice, we will attune to something far greater than whatever is currently so unacceptable. It’s not better or worse, but it will feel vastly different, and be very liberating.
I am NOT saying we do nothing when things are unacceptable. I am not saying we turn a blind eye. However, the very first steps must involve us deeply meeting our inner wisdom with kindness because this is the place from which we can begin to take wise action based on fierce compassion.