This is an edited version of an episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:
Acceptance vs Resignation
I think there's a common misconception around the idea of acceptance and it has to do with semantics. It's common to associate the word acceptance with the word resignation. I want to spend some time discussing what acceptance is but clarifying also what it's not. Buddhism does not encourage resignation, it encourages acceptance. So what is acceptance?
Acceptance is like sitting in a field, looking up at the sky and watching the clouds go by. There is no resistance to the moment-to-moment experience, there is only observation and acceptance. It would be silly to watch the clouds and be upset that they are not forming into the specific shapes we want. And yet that's exactly what we do in life.
I like to compare the experience of being alive to the experience of playing a game of Tetris. If you've played Tetris, you know that the whole point of the game is to wait and see what shape will appear next, and then you have to work with it to position it in the best way possible in order to continue to play the game. Isn't that the very game of life? Imagine for a minute that you're watching someone play Tetris and every time a new shape appears they go into a tantrum and yell and scream at the game and say "THAT IS NOT THE SHAPE I WAS EXPECTING! THAT IS NOT THE SHAPE I WANTED!" How silly would that be? But isn't that exactly how we tend to play the game of life? Acceptance is like playing the game of Tetris and not resisting the shapes as they appear. Life is the same.
Acceptance is being open to the actual feelings we're having in the moment-to-moment experience of life and being willing to just feel that. Whatever it is: anger, happiness, fear, jealousy, anxiety or joy. We can learn to simply be with our experience or we can try to control the experience. But, when we try to control it, that's the opposite of acceptance. Any time we're trying to manipulate our inner experience, we're doing the opposite of accepting it. Think about that image of the person playing Tetris and yelling at the game and you'll see how reactivity restricts our ability to accept. Reactivity prevents us from being able to meaningfully respond.
So how can we learn to break the cycle of habitual reactivity that we experience in this game of life? How do we stop yelling at the game? How do we stop our desire to throw the game console and break it any time a new shape comes up that isn't the shape we wanted or expected? We do it by developing the courage to accept the present moment. You see, this is the very essence of Buddhism: to obtain freedom. Freedom from reactivity. It's our ability to accept whatever shape is going to pop up next in the game that becomes the key to our freedom to just enjoy the game for what it is. It's the same with life! It's our ability to learn to accept whatever life throws at us that's the key to freedom. It's so simple and yet so profound and, yes, so difficult.
When we sit in meditation we learn to observe our thoughts, very much like observing the clouds in the sky. We're not trying to control the experience, we're just accepting and observing. Acceptance is what we become present to in that moment-to-moment experience of observation. It's what happens before you choose to act. Acceptance is what allows you to react wisely versus just reacting. See, we tend to associate the word acceptance with action or with behaviour, but acceptance doesn't have anything to do with behaviour. Acceptance is not resignation or denial or defeat or ignoring something. It's what has to happen before there can be any action; before there can be any behaviour.
Consider the example of an addict. In the twelve-step programme proposed by Alcoholics Anonymous, the very first step is admitting that one cannot control one's addiction. That's acceptance. It's not resignation. It can't be resignation because there is no action yet, and resignation would be an action. Acceptance is what frees us to choose. It's the key to being able to respond to any given situation and to no longer be trapped by reactivity.
Try to recall a specific experience in your own life where you ended up resigning or giving up. We've all felt that at some point. How does it feel? Now try to recall an experience where you accepted a situation and then responded by selecting a specific action. Now how does that feel to accept?
I want to be completely clear about the concept of acceptance and again clarify that the Buddhist understanding of acceptance does not encourage or condone in any way resignation or disengagement. If you're in an abusive relationship, acceptance is not in any way an attitude of saying, "Oh well, I'm not going to do anything about this". Or, "It is what it is". Acceptance is simply recognising that, "OK. This is the situation I'm in. Now what am I going to do with it?" It's seeing the new Tetris piece and immediately thinking, "OK. This is the shape I have. Now what do I do with it?" If you don't want to go through life in a state of constant reactivity then you need to learn to accept what is and then you will have the freedom to respond. So acceptance is the key to having the freedom to respond.
I think a wonderful example of acceptance comes from how we view our own kids. Those of you who are parents will hopefully understand and appreciate this. When you have a child, you accept them without any conditions. I have a sweet little girl who's four months old now and she's my third child. When I was at the hospital holding her for the first time, I couldn't help but notice what I consider to be complete and unconditional acceptance. As I held her in my arms, there were no conditions whatsoever that qualified my unconditional love. In this sense, acceptance is really nothing other than love. It won't matter to me if she turns out to be a lawyer or a doctor or a Republican or a Democrat or whether she prefers ketchup with her scrambled eggs instead of hot sauce like I do. None of that matters because unconditional love requires unconditional acceptance. This idea makes sense to us with our kids but why is it so hard for us to transfer that over when we are with other people? I think even with our spouses our understanding of what acceptance is becomes distorted because we think we're trying to accept others when in reality what we're dealing with is simply what comes up in ourselves in relation to that other person and we don't know how to accept what comes up in ourselves because we've never practised acceptance of ourselves.
When we're experiencing something, whatever it is, and we think it's OK – it's just what it is – but we don't really mean it, that is resignation; that is not acceptance. When we practice meditation we start to experience our resistance to everything that's happening inside of us and by just staying with that experience from moment to moment, regardless of how difficult that experience may be, we start to develop the capacity to pause and respond with something other than our typical conditioned reactivity.
I hope this explanation of acceptance has been helpful as a clarification of the difference between acceptance vs resignation. I sincerely hope you will never feel compelled to simply resign or surrender when life presents you with new circumstances or when the Tetris game throws out a new shape that you weren't expecting. I hope you'll learn that acceptance is the key to freedom, and I'll end with a quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
"For, after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain."
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to this episode here.