Life does not always turn out the way we would like it to. Relationships, career, health, and life quality may not match the dream we had for ourselves. Leaving us in distress, depression, anxiety, burnout, and a sense of hopelessness for the future, this affects many aspects of our lives and it becomes difficult to move on. When life does not follow our plan, negative emotions take charge, and while this is the brain’s way of priming us for survival, it skews our ability to see the situation through a clear lens, and we have trouble coping with loss and disappointment. Fear about the future, dismay over the past, and negative emotions toward what is happening in the present are ways we resist experience and exacerbate feelings of stress and suffering. Common reactions include wishing things were different, attempting to shut down/escape from the experience, or aggrandizing the experience so that it takes over the emotional landscape. Furthermore, the digital age has created a platform for constant connection, with snapshots of life as perfect, beautiful, and full of achievement and growth. We compare our ourselves with others and forget that the images we see are not a complete picture of reality, and that much of life is about both gain and loss. No life is free from pain and sorrow.
In the stream of thoughts that occupy our minds, it is typical to evaluate experiences through a negative lens. In Buddhist teachings, this is called dukkha, which is translated as suffering, dissatisfaction, or misery and is considered characteristic of being human. Digging deeper into wisdom traditions, religion, and spiritual philosophy, at the root of all of the teachings, lie approaches to alleviate human suffering. For thousands of years it has been recognized that suffering is a part of being human, yet we still do not do well with it. Why? Because we do not like to be uncomfortable or discontent, and we want to fix it, make it go away, and make it stop hurting. The problem here, is that once we strive to make the suffering stop, it seems to get worse and more ingrained. This is because we are meeting the experience with resistance. Suffering is a type of nonacceptance – a resistance to what is happening in the present. Operating from a place of resistance to what life brings is a refusal to accept reality, which ultimately increases the suffering.
Moving Toward Acceptance
It is important to identify patterns of resistance. Questions for self-reflection include: Do I attempt to avoid feeling pain through addiction to substances, work, gambling, checking out, or other destructive activities? Do I fight unpleasantness with negative emotions, aggression, or rage? Do I dwell in distorted thinking about injustices, the way life should be, and evaluations of the fairness of it all? It is important to recognize repetitive reactions to challenge because these patterns become hardwired in the mind and limit the possibility of responding differently when faced with any challenge. Continued resistance towards situations we do not like adds more weight to the experience, where we allow the outer world to determine our inner state of happiness or discontent, thus putting us at the mercy of what happens. This is exhausting. As the old adage says, that which we resist, persists. When we cultivate awareness on the ways we resist suffering, we can start to move toward acceptance.
It is difficult to accept what you do not want to be true. Acceptance does not mean liking or agreeing with the circumstance, rather allowing life to be as it is. It is ok to feel loss and disappointment in the process – in fact, its beneficial to be present with and allow the feelings to flow. The shift happens when we change our minds from a resistance state of pushing away or wanting life to be different to an acceptance state of yielding to what is and not trying to change anything. This does not mean giving up, succumbing to defeat, or failing to rise to the situation. It is developing the capability to bring the mind into a state of acceptance in order to experience a sense of peace around the situation.
Acceptance starts by letting everything in, rather than avoiding how life unfolds. Recognize the transient nature of each situation, as supported by the statement, ‘this too shall pass.’ Accept the moment versus the story created about the moment. Take regular pauses to attend to what is real: the breath, sights, smells, sounds, and the immediate surroundings to find presence with true reality. Find freedom from the story of resistance, by accepting the simplicity of the moment. With practice, acceptance allows us to come to terms with whatever life brings and gives us the capacity to navigate more peacefully through life.