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What is Acceptance?

February 5, 2015

radical-acceptance“Acceptance” is a word that is often associated with the practice of meditation. It appears in blogs and talks and even in a best-selling book by Tara Brach. Meditation is often characterized as a practice of acceptance. So what do we mean by “acceptance?” If we’re going to practice acceptance, it would be good to be clear about what we’re practicing.

Here’s how the Oxford Dictionaries  defines the word accept:

 Consent to receive or undertake (a thing offered).

How does this apply to meditation? When we meditate, our environment, our body, and our mind are continually communicating with us, offering us sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts and emotions. We have a choice in how we respond to these offers. We could consent to receive them – that is, we could consent to perceive sights, sounds, perceptions, thoughts and emotions willingly and without manipulation, or we could refuse to consent to receive them — we could attempt to repress, filter or alter our perceptions.

In meditation, we practice an attitude of openness and patience toward our perceptions. We hold our seat, allowing any perception at all to visit us, and to depart again. We accept them all, and allow them to come and go unaltered. We consent to receive our perceptions fully and clearly, just as they are.

So, in our meditation practice, we could understand the word accept as “to consent to perceive clearly.” Notice that “acceptance” in this sense doesn’t include an evaluation of the characteristics of the sound or of the sensation. It doesn’t say whether we think the sound is good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, whether we find it “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” In the practice of meditation, acceptance precedes judgment.

This non-judgmental type of acceptance may be different than the way in which we usually think of accepting. A more  frequently use of the word accept is given in an alternate definition also supplied by the Oxford Dictionaries:

Receive as adequate, valid, or suitable

like and unlike

Thumbs up or down?

In this definition, acceptance is contingent upon our judgment. If we find the offer adequate, valid, or suitable, then we will accept it. If not, then we reject it. Judgment comes first, and acceptance may or may not come afterwards. For instance, we may be offered food, and we will decide whether to accept it – whether it is food that is suitable for us to eat, and whether this is an appropriate time to be eating it. This kind of discriminating acceptance is very useful – it helps us navigate our day-to-day life.

But how can we decide whether something is suitable or not if neither perceive the thing offered clearly nor perceive our own condition clearly? That would be like trying to decide whether to accept food without being able to see it or smell it, and without being able to sense whether we are hungry or not. In order to be able to decide whether something is suitable we must first allow ourselves to perceive clearly what is being offered, and in what context it’s being offered. After we have perceived clearly, we can decide whether something is suitable or not. If we don’t perceive clearly, we are only guessing or relying on habit or prejudice. In meditation, we practice perceiving clearly so that in everyday life, we can more easily determine what is suitable and what is not.

Will You Please Go Now

An unwanted perception.

When we practice non-judgmental acceptance of our perceptions, we will notice that there are some perceptions that we are not at all willing to receive. Old painful memories, and fears of future disasters visit us, and we try not to see them. We look away from them as if they were guests we don’t want to talk to at a party. We will also notice that there are other perceptions that we are trying very hard to receive. We may hope for a certain kind of mental state – open, calm, blissful – and try desperately to perceive that state, even though our current mental state is not like that at all. Our hopes and fears urge us to overlook some perceptions and to fabricate other perceptions. So being willing to perceive clearly means being willing to go beyond our hopes and fears.We consent to receive our perceptions just as they are — even if we fear that they are not at all adequate, suitable or valid; even if we hope that we could have some better perceptions.

Practicing this kind of acceptance builds bravery. We develop the strength of mind to be willing to endure the pain of hopes that don’t come true and fears that do. We develop the patience to be willing to be in contact with things we don’t like and not in contact with things that we do like. This strength and bravery — this willingness to meet anything — is also called compassion.

When our compassion is fully developed we are willing to meet the totality of our experience just as it is. As the Bad Lama says, “compassion is being willing to meet any pain.” Not only does compassion have the strength to meet any object, it also has the willingness to do so. We even develop the willingness to perceive our own weaknesses. The willingness to see our own weakness — even our own lack of compassion — is itself an instance of compassion. Ignoring our own weakness is not strength at all – it is lack of compassion on top of weakness.

Being willing to perceive clearly is one thing; being able to perceive clearly is another. Even if we have developed the compassionate strength of mind that consents to perceive everything in our experience clearly, our ability to perceive clearly in this moment may be compromised. For instance, when we are experiencing strong emotions, those emotions tend to narrow our mind, and therefore distort our perceptions. If we’re feeling angry with someone, we usually can’t see them clearly at all. Instead, we are focused on only one part of that person: the very annoying attribute that is irritating us. Or if we’re feeling very desirous of something, we can’t see that thing clearly. Instead, we are focused on only on the highly attractive characteristic that has us hooked.

prejudiceEven if we’re in a calm and open emotional state, we still may not be able to see clearly because of conditioning that we carry – we may have a bias to perceive things in a certain way because of the prejudices and beliefs that we carry. Instead of perceiving clearly, we perceive what it is that our prejudices lead us to expect.

Being able clearly to perceive is wisdom. The bad news is that there’s usually some distortion in the way we perceive things. The good news is that we can consent to perceive that distortion clearly. For instance, we might be very angry with someone and think to ourselves, “Wow! I’m really angry! I can barely hear what that person is saying!” Or we might  see someone on TV and think, “Wow! I have a very strong cultural bias toward this person! I’m so busy maintaining my stereotype that I can barely notice at all what this person is really like.”

Just as the willingness to meet our own unwillingness is a practice of compassion, so the perception of our own distorted perception is a practice of wisdom. Any state of mind we’re in – even if it’s a highly judgmental mind-state, full of angry emotion – can be a practice of compassion if we’re willing to witness that mind-state fully. Any kind of perception – even a highly distorted perception that is not at all an accurate reflection of its object – can be a practice of wisdom if we’re willing to witness that distortion. So any kind of mind-state can be included in meditation. Any kind of perception can help us develop compassion and wisdom.

We develop our compassion and our wisdom through the simple practice of accepting — consenting to perceive clearly the objects of our experience. We learn not only to accept our perceptions, but ultimately to accept the objects of these perceptions. We even accept ourselves. This self-acceptance partakes of both definitions of “accept.” We consent to perceive ourselves just as we are, without judgment. And when we do that, we can go further and accept ourselves as fundamentally adequate, valid and suitable — and also flawed and frightened. We realize that, on the one hand, we are fundamentally worthy, and, on the other hand, we have layers of painful habits that we can learn to release. To paraphrase Suzuki Roshi, when we accept ourselves, when we see ourselves clearly, we realize “We are all perfect just as we are, and we could all use a little work.”

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