What does it mean to practice acceptance and non-attachment? We stop resisting the way things are. This describes how we engage the present moment with our whole body, mind, and heart. It describes our subjective experience as a human being. It’s a practice, not a moral principle or belief.
If “stop resisting the way things are” was a moral principle, our practice would look like this: We would encounter some difficulty. We would remind ourselves of the principle, “stop resisting the way things are,” and do our very best to follow it. We would do this because we want to overcome our difficulty, and the powers-that-be have told us the best way to do this is to “stop resisting the way things are.” Once we have stopped resisting things as they are, we would know we were “in good” with God, or the Divine, or whatever forces are governing the universe, and things would start to go our way. (Right?)
When we practice in order to control the world, our feelings, or the good will of forces greater than us, the results are usually dissatisfying. Even though we’ve stopped resisting the way things are, they often still suck, and we still feel they suck. The worst thing about practicing this way is that it distracts us from the real practice – the practice that is actually liberating.
Here’s an example of what it feels like to engage the present moment and stop resisting the way things are:
I take a moment to be still, putting aside all activities in order to be aware of my own experience. I turn my attention toward my pervasive (or sometimes acute) feeling of dukkha – that is, the feeling of being dissatisfied with my existence, or the way the world is. If the dukkha is acute, I feel a nauseating tightness in my gut and chest as I strenuously object to whatever frustration, pain, misfortune, loss, or injustice I am facing. If the dukkha is subtle, I feel a pervasive sense of unease, as if something’s not quite right. I may also feel a sense of waiting, as if my life isn’t really happening yet, or now’s not quite the time to fully embrace it.
It is this dukkha that keeps me from feeling fully alive and authentic. It causes me to hold everything at arm’s length while I figure out what’s going on, or leads me to struggle to put everything right so the discomfort will go away. The thing is, I never manage to figure everything out with my mind, let alone get everything permanently fixed so my ride is perfectly smooth. Ever. In the back of my mind, however, I hold on to the hope that relief is right around the corner as long as I keep busy. (Maybe you react differently, and feel despair or become depressed, but the core of your problem is still dukkha.)
In the moment, I allow myself to fully recognize and feel my dukkha. It is an experience of my body, mind, and heart – not just an idea. Then I invite myself to give it up – to let go of it like a helium balloon.
After all, dukkha is just an attitude I’m taking toward my experience. In terms of how I feel about myself, I notice how limited, unmindful, selfish, silly, hopeless, irresponsible, unlikeable, predictable, etc. I think I am, and then I invite myself to say, “You’re okay.” I say this to myself like a kind parent would say it to a child, making it a comment on my fundamental worthiness as a human being, not an evaluation of where I rank on the human scale of success. I refuse to postpone taking my place in the world because I’m not perfect. I’m just the way I am, fundamentally no better or worse than anyone else. To my long list of proposed self-improvements I say, “Who really cares?” I dare to commit the sin of fully accepting my lame-ass self even though I’m nowhere near meeting my own ideals.
Then, in terms of how I feel about life “outside” of myself, I notice the ways in which life feels unacceptable, and resign myself to being fully present for it in spite of the pervasive inadequacy of my situation. This includes all of my feelings and thoughts of resistance to discomfort, loss, pain, shame, dullness, stress, injustice, or whatever is bothering me. “So, here we are,” I say to myself. “Surrounded by a mess. Forgot again. Stuck your foot in it again. You’ll never get it all done. This is incredibly unfair. Life can be so painful. Or horrifying. Or boring. Or lonely.” I don’t have to like it. I don’t have to approve of my own reactions to the crappiness. All I have to do is be with it all. All I have to do is not turn away from my life.
This practice is so subtle it’s almost impossible to describe in words, but I’ve still got to try. As I stop resisting the way things are, I refuse to postpone appreciation for my life until everything is perfect. I throw out the strident disapproval I’ve been carrying around in my heart as if it would shame everyone into changing. I loosen my grip on my almighty list of the way things should be, and experience the bittersweet intimacy of the way things actually are. I wake up in the driver’s seat. I come home to my life, like Dorothy waking up in Kansas and being so delighted to be back in the situation she had so recently run away from.
Want to explore this teaching further? Read a longer version of this post or listen to the podcast on the Zen Studies Podcast: http://zenstudiespodcast.com/zenacceptance/