Accept it whether you can change it or not

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The most valuable part of my post-secondary education happened during the ten hours a week I spent riding the bus between the campus and my suburban home. For a shy, high-strung, claustrophobic young man, these crowded bus rides served as an intensive hands-on program in acceptance.

The older buses were unpleasantly warm in the summer, but much worse in the winter. The driver sits next to the front door, which must open every other block to let in a few more people. Even though it was often thirty below zero, he would always be wearing only a company-issue fleece — his parka would take up too much of his limited workspace. With each opening of the door comes a blast of arctic air, and so in order to stay halfway comfortable the driver keeps the heat dialed up all the way.

This creates, for the passengers in the back of the bus, a microcosm of runaway climate change. As the bus creeps across town, it fills up with Gortexed students until they are bulging against the yellow line at the front, and the temperature inside each parka rises to tropical levels. Nobody dares open a window because it would it would mean the person sitting nearest to it would have his face frozen even as the rest of his body sweltered.

Faring the worst is the person who lets himself get angry at this arrangement, because this sends him down an even steeper spiral — he fumes into his parka and long underwear, cooking his body faster and bringing his mind to a full boil. Then he is defenseless against everything, inside his mind and out. He is physically trapped, and the context of this powerless feeling expands to the rest of his life. Academic worries descend on him. His relationship suddenly seems unsatisfactory. He begins to hate the institutions which torture him like this every day: the transit service, the college, the commercial sector for which he is going to school to please, and all of their unsympathetic expectations.

He may, at this moment, remember a familiar prayer along these lines:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

But he finds this does not help him accept his physical state, or the chaotic life situation swirling around it. Acceptance of this sort is not something he tries to do often, because it doesn’t occur to him except in moments where he feels powerless. He has been trained that acceptance is difficult, and is always an act of great willpower.

He may learn, after a few years of crosstown winter bus rides, that acceptance is more of a learned reflex than anything, and shouldn’t be reserved for things that cannot be changed. 

***

The Great Platitude has us believing that whenever something undesirable happens, acceptance is the less useful and less preferable of our two options — it’s the second-place prize you get if you can’t change it.

This has some people confusing acceptance with resignation. In this context let’s keep them separate. Resignation is deciding you cannot or will not change something. Acceptance is an emotional phenomenon. It’s the letting go of the emotional demand for something to be different.

You can simultaneously accept something and change it. Not only that, but coming to any reality already having accepted it emotionally makes it easier to change it. It’s a lot more pleasant (and effective) to just calmly clean up the damn milk instead of prefacing the inevitable mopping with a little tantrum. Rejecting any reality makes it spiteful to you.

This means acceptance is the appropriate response to everything that happens, even before you decide whether you will act on it or not. Since you want to accept the things you don’t want to change, as well as accept the things you do want to change, ideally you will accept everything, as it emerges in real-time. This is the holy grail of peace and equanimity, because then circumstance no longer has the power to make the sky go dark on you. You’re going to allow it all as it arises, then act if you want.

Again, acceptance is not the decision to do nothing. It is only the intention to agree with reality, and I have never found a time where it was better to disagree with reality. Acceptance means allowing present-moment pain to exist, as it sometimes must, but it makes you impervious to suffering. Pain without suffering is still painful and still undesirable, but it is bearable. And you are still able to act, but then the action comes from a place of intention instead of desperation and reactivity.

This was a major revelation to the bus-riding college student I once was. I learned to agree with the heat of the bus, whether or not I unbuttoned my coat, whether or not I said something to the driver about it. This is not the same as agreeing that it ought to be that way, just agreeing that this is reality right now and that I would allow it to be real.

It seems like agreeing to the realness of reality is something we would do automatically. We don’t. I’m not sure why we don’t — I guess mother nature is a fan of the brute force approach to solving problems, and nothing is as forceful as a visceral “No!” from the reptile brain. That part of the brain is good at the basic (and extremely important) function of moving you away from danger, but on a human level it is quite dumb. It has a very immature strategy for dealing with undesirable developments. Something happens, and it says “No!”

That’s all it really says. It doesn’t say “No, that is not what I want, so I’ll have to do something else instead.” It just says, “No!” as if it’s being shown upholstery samples. What you’re actually being shown is what your life has become right this instant, and so if you let it do the talking, what you’re saying no to is reality.

I just rear-ended an Infiniti. NO!

My sunglasses just fell in the urinal. NO!

The best this reaction will do is make your insides tighten up, make your face scary and make you want to run from it or hide from it. This is very effective when the new development is a vicious animal, but usually it’s not.

I just dropped a jar of salsa on the kitchen floor. How quickly can I agree that this is reality now?

The reflexive internal discussion about what ought to be happening is usually an unwelcome distraction. It prevents acceptance. We should always be aiming for real-time acceptance of all developments, to the extent that it is possible.

There will be things you will be unable to accept: harm coming to your family, serious medical prognoses, and in these cases the more automatic parts of your brain take over anyway. But that does not change the ideal — accepting everything that happens, as it happens. Whether or not you are able to do it, it always puts you in a stronger position. If there is an exception to this, it’s when there is immediate physical danger and adrenaline will refuse to let you reach real-time acceptance.

How to do it

Essentially, you are retraining the “No!” reaction to an “Okay!” reaction. Not, “Okay I like this,” but “Okay, this is this, and obviously I will work with it, because there’s no other sensible thing to do.”

The most effective way of improving it is simple. You notice the “Ugh” reaction — which is an extremely familiar and uniform feeling once you start to look for it — and use that to trigger conscious agreement. Remind yourself that don’t actually need anything to be different than it is, you just prefer it. You simply agree that it is happening — not that it necessarily ought to be happening, but only that it is indeed a part of reality, and therefore your decisions hereafter will account for this new reality. That’s all.

This amounts to recognizing that your needs are actually preferences, and therefore you should respond to all new events the same way — by acknowledging your preference while allowing for the inescapable reality that you may not get your preference.

There is liberation in this sameness, because you begin to inhabit a world in which there is only one kind of happening: the kind you will deal with in whatever way you are able. This mostly eliminates the heart-wringing cycle of need and hope, which places you at the mercy of circumstance much more than you have to be.

It helps to remember that almost every time you use the verb “need,” the word “prefer” is more accurate. On the topic of reframing your needs as preferences, I highly recommend reading Handbook to Higher Consciousness by Ken Keyes. The structure and prose are eccentric at times but his ideas are unutterably useful.

Over time, you find yourself saying to yourself, “That’s okay,” more and more, and you find there are very few situations when it’s inappropriate. Imagine a world where everything is okay. Imagine how worriless it would be, not because everything will go the way you wish, but because you approach favor and adversity the same way. Bit by bit, you’re making your world into that place. The actual circumstances of your world become less and less relevant. Your quality of life comes increasingly from yourself, and so there’s a lot less clinging and a lot less hating.

So there’s no fabled “balance” to be struck between accepting reality and changing it. You ought to be accepting it as a rule. You will be unable to do it sometimes, but you are better at it than you probably think, and you have unlimited chances to practice. Particularly if you take the bus.

***

Photo by Ahmed Fayad

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{ 47 Comments }

Hamlet November 17, 2013 at 11:58 pm

Bravo, David. You’ve performed a remarkable feat with this essay (as you have in dozens of past blogposts): you’ve improved on old wisdom by clarifying it. I bet even Reinhold Niebuhr would approve. After all, you’ve rescued his immortal quote from the depths of cliché-dom.

Speaking personally, I found that years of reading and re-reading the Stoics actually almost became less useful from overexposure. Taking your recommendations to read Tolle and Keyes refreshed the Stoics to my mind.
I wonder if it works vice-versa for people who are over-familiar with Tolle’s and Keyes’s language. Would then switching to the Stoics be enlightening?
Or how about doing Zen meditation for years, only to find the necessary breath of fresh air with Harding? Is it possible Harding’s technique could become stale, and then you might need a Zen corrective?

David Cain November 18, 2013 at 12:57 pm

That’s a interesting point. Wisdom makes us feel good when we first read it and recognize its practical potential, but this feeling fades. I think for that reason it’s important to put all such wisdom into practical use in your life as soon after you read it as possible. Habits become muscle memory, which is easy to reinforce and does not degrade nearly as quickly as inspiration.

I do find that all of the different sources of wisdom (the ancients, modern self-help, etc) do reinforce each other’s messages, and sometimes it takes a difference vocabulary to let you see a practical way to apply it.

José GAHÉ November 18, 2013 at 4:07 pm

I live in a Spanish speaking country where many struggle to learn English as a foreign language. From our early years we go to school to take grammar lessons and memorize vocabulary. Yet a high number cannot communicate as good as a four year old unschooled child that has learned English from everyday life. Those small children acquire the language rather than just learn it. (You can search “language acquisition vs. language learning”).
I think that the same can occur with wisdom. There is a big difference between listening to wise words and being able to apply them on real life. I have met people that have never heard the “love the enemy” phrase but apply them better that others that have memorized them and even praise the authors.
“It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.” – Gandhi
Sorry for bad grammar or spelling.

Yamini November 18, 2013 at 12:05 am

Hi David, I hope you are doing well. I have been reading/following your blog for a while now (though I never really commented). This morning, I was grappling with a personal issue, and I wasn’t sure what the take away was or how to deal with it. Just as I was about to give up hope that a ‘solution’ would turn up, I happened to check in on your blog to see if there is a new post. I saw this post – one that resonates so well with my current situation that it almost feels like an invisible hand guided you to write it, and me to read it. Thank you for taking the time to write this (and all other) wonderful posts. You have answered many a question that was rattling around in many people’s heads (including mine) in your own, special way. Take care.

Peter November 18, 2013 at 1:35 am

Acceptance is not resignation – very good.

Reminds me of a line from an old TV-Series: “Unfortunately, while all answers are replies, not all replies are answers.”

Lucky for us, David publishes answers, not replies.

Kim November 18, 2013 at 2:58 am

Hey David, thanks for sharing this essay! I very much agree with you. Acceptance is key. I’m rather good at accepting things as they are and seeing anything else as mere preferences. What I find more difficult is to then still get off my arse and work for my preferred options. Example: you notice your friend and you are drifting apart. Okay, that’s how it is. I know I can live without them. But I *should* be calling them to get them back into my life. Friends are so important! As you said, “your quality of life comes increasingly from yourself”. My self finds it hard to motivate itself: “Why change things? It’s okay the way they are.” Hm. Thoughts?

David Cain November 18, 2013 at 12:54 pm

This deserves another post, but I’ve learned a pretty helpful strategy for that. The moment you recognize on a rational level what you should do, move your body towards starting it immediately. Don’t stop to think because you’ll always talk yourself out of it. This usually involves the physical act of picking up a phone and beginning to dial. It doesn’t matter that you’re not totally ready emotionally, because the phone is already ringing and you’re in the middle of it. I’ve done the same thing with exercise. Get the sweats on and pick up the weight, then you’re in the middle of it and 90% of the emotional barrier is gone.

Kim December 10, 2013 at 3:20 am

Guess what I didn’t do immediately even though I knew I should? Yep, reply to this post… I think you gave us already enough tools to tackle my problem: the Four Horsemen come to mind, and also the idea of the Future-Self who’s really us. Trying to be more mindful of them (again) from now on. Thanks, David, for all your insights!

Greg November 18, 2013 at 6:11 am

I feel I learned this way of thinking once I became a parent. When you have a child in your care, you have to think this way, you can’t run and hide, you have to accept that the child has a temperature, or just threw the bowl of porridge on the ground, or has a mess. It has to be dealt with, despite your own fatigue, your own disgust. And the best way to deal with it is acceptance that this is the reality you have to face.

Thanks for expressing it so clearly.

Emily November 18, 2013 at 7:48 am

Greg, I thought the exact same thing as I read through this article. What comes to mind are the middle of the night feedings during the first 3 months. My foggy brain just wanted to throw a tantrum then roll over and go back to sleep. It took acceptance of my situation and reality every night anew at 3 am.

Jacki Maynard November 18, 2013 at 7:50 am

Interesting article. I’ve found meditation to be the best tool when it comes acceptance. As I’ve been taught, we think of it more in terms of reaction vs. non reaction rather than acceptance/nonacceptance. The benefit of meditating over in the moment practice, is that through meditation we find SPACE. And with that space we literally drive a wedge between the salsa on the floor and the UGH. So the ugh need not happen at all. Easier said than done of course but for my own life, meditation has been the only practice that’s gotten me anywhere.

David Cain November 18, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Yes, this is taking on the same thing from a different angle. This technique will work even if you miss the space between stimulus and reaction. It allows you to back up and do it differently. Meditation practice certainly makes everything here easier and more intuitive.

Cherry Odelberg November 18, 2013 at 7:52 am

This is wisdom.

Dustin November 18, 2013 at 8:36 am

David, I love the way you phrase things. I’ve always focused on “embracing the struggle”, loving the difficulties in life and learning from each situation. But I think this may be an even better way to put it. Accepting reality for what it is – that’s true peace. I would love to explore this line of thought further. Do you have any book recommendations besides the one you listed above?

David Cain November 18, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Yes. As someone said below, this is essentially another way of describing non-reaction and non-judgment, which are skills you inevitably learn from meditation. In my mind Jon Kabat-Zinn is the best ambassador for non-denominational, practical mindfulness meditation. I recommend Wherever You Go There You Are

Thrackle November 18, 2013 at 8:45 am

Really glad I subscribed to your blog (and had a chance to meet you in Boulder). Excellent explanation of this. I had thought about some of these same conflicts in the serenity prayer, but I hadn’t teased it out as thoughtfully as you have. So this was a very helpful post. Thanks.

David Cain November 18, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Hi Thrackle. I don’t know which of the wonderful Boulder people you are, but I didn’t meet anyone I didn’t like, so I can say it was good to meet you ;)

The serenity prayer always bugged me, particularly because the whole thing is asking for a stronger being to do these things for you.

gael blanchemain November 18, 2013 at 8:57 am

I guess I struggle mostly with accepting my own mind. I desperately try to be perfect and positive in all circumstances… and I fail miserably at this game. I get angry. I get angry at urinal swallowing my glasses, at self-centered bus drivers but I mainly get angry at myself for not coping with things as they are.
As a response, my main practice is to try to be tolerant with my own anger and rigidity, my expectations. Maybe your post implied this part as well.

It’s disappointing to realize that your mind needs so much help, like going to a dance class and discovering that in fact you can barely walk, but there’s nothing you can change without fully accepting it in the first place, it’s a never ending walk backward. Acceptance has a lot to do with true love, I think.

David Cain November 18, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Giving up perfectionism is a necessary first step to this. Perfection is a completely unrealistic expectation. We are all messing up all the time, it’s totally healthy and okay

John November 18, 2013 at 10:14 am

A wise article. The more we disregard trivial situations in life, the more positive mental space we have. I like your point about “need” and “prefer.” Often I find myself choosing the easy way out of situations that are uncomfortable because I “need” to take the easy way. Quite a revelation that I have trained myself to prefer the easier way.

Kenneth November 18, 2013 at 10:50 am

Errata – Ken Keyes, not Key Keyes. Also, missing the word IS in the sentence beginning with That part of the brain IS good..

Loved this article. Just clean up the damn milk! One major illumination for me is that most everything is a preference, not a “need”. This has far ranging implications in the whole money equation, of how much stuff do I really “need” to run my life? A lot less than we think! We could live in the Unabomber cabin and grow a garden and get by on very little if we had to. I need to keep this in mind as I wrestle with when I should quit being a Debt Slave.

David Cain November 18, 2013 at 12:31 pm

Ah, thanks for the heads-up.

The Unabomber cabin lifestyle, without the bombing part, is my plan B

Sue November 18, 2013 at 11:43 am

Thank you so much for the reminder, David. I’ve been on the road of acceptance for quite some time, and this philosophy never changes for me. It is good to know that someone out there is able to explain it as clearly as you have. Awesome article.

Melissa November 18, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Thank you. This was what I really needed to hear today.

Victoria November 18, 2013 at 3:36 pm

This is a great post. I’ve read it twice and once to my husband and suggested it to a friend.
It’s just what I currently needed to hear. Thanks a lot.

Sean November 18, 2013 at 10:48 pm

There are two things in life. The things you can control and the things you cannot. A lot of my friends with mental illness are really good at taking what they cannot control and turning themselves into victims then wallowing in the misery. Deep down anger is a cry for help. In a situation you can’t do anything about sometimes we need help. One thing I do when faced with such a situation is accept it it, do what I can, and then get support from the people around me. Sometimes just venting about it helps…

Cindy November 19, 2013 at 7:14 am

I learned this difficult truth many years ago the hard way – with the death of my first husband at age of 32. Left behind with a toddler and a 4-month old baby, I couldn’t fathom how on earth I could possibly raise them alone. Talk about being angry! The future I had envisioned was gone in a millisecond. My experience boiled down to my home-spun aphorism I still remind myself often: Grief (derived from any source) is learning to accept what is unacceptable. Life was (is) hard enough as it was (is) without also doing battle within my mind trying to resist it! Thanks for the great article.

Edward November 19, 2013 at 10:14 am

While I agree with the Taoist principles of becoming like water, especially in relation to almost irrelevant things which you cannot change, I’m glad Rosa Parks didn’t accept the situation as it was on the bus. Anger can be an incredible power for good if channeled in the right direction. As they often say in Latin America, “Ya Basta!” (“Enough is enough!”).

There’s a third option besides acceptance/frustration I’ve learned. It’s abandon. Saying to yourself, “You know, I’m not going to do this,” and getting off the bus to walk. …Or wait for a less crowded one. (Even if it is freezing outside.) I have been waiting in lines for fast food, behind a belligerent customer yelling at an incompetent worker, waiting 10 minutes, I just shrug and walk out. Waiting with my cart at the grocery store, 10 people deep, suddenly there is a price check, then the clerk has to change the register tape, then a little old lady starts counting pennies, then I leave my cart where it is and just walk out. Not in a huff, mind you, in a rushed feeling of liberation. There is nothing to say that I *had* to wait where I was. It is not worth raising my blood pressure over or proving to myself that I am a patient, zen person. You don’t have to play the games constructed around you. Walk away from the poker table any time you feel like it.

The drummer from one of my old bands, though an irresponsible lout himself, used to always say, “There is no problem so big that it cannot be run away from.” …There’s a little truth in there.

Gary November 19, 2013 at 12:45 pm

This article is proof that you travel – It reminds me of a thousand buses I’ve had to endure throughout the third world (and Canada, as you say!) Fantastic and inspiring writing as always :)

s November 19, 2013 at 1:33 pm

I’m reading the book now, easily becoming one of my favourite. Cheers

Chris November 19, 2013 at 9:46 pm

David, I keep refreshing your blog everyday waiting for new post and was excited when I saw this new one today…..I was not let down one bit at all. I really related with what you have written and not sure if it is fom reading and having better awareness or just getting more “mature” aka old :) I also got a chuckle out of the bus story as only a Canuck can appreciate the frozen face and sweating body.
Cheers

Kevin Cole November 20, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Wow. Powerful stuff man.

I like your take on this. Over the years, I’ve worked on being less reactive to negative stimulus. It’s worked to a certain degree, but it’s human nature to have some form of reaction. You can’t just say “I choose to feel nothing!”

But what you’re doing here is saying “I choose to react in an accepting manner.” It’s a total shift from an unnecessary feeling of anger and contempt to a feeling of calmness. Love this.

Nitya November 20, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Great thinking!
When confronted with such situations, i usually indulge in a bit of self-talk, saying ‘you’re better than this’ when the urge to rage against the reality gets too great.

Joe November 20, 2013 at 8:25 pm

I’ve had to go on a fair share of airplanes in recent weeks and have been able to practice this often, as well as see some fail horribly at it. Every time a plane arrives at the gate, that tone goes off and 3/4 of the passengers rip their seat belts off and proceed to stand and gradually fume as they are stuck in place. I noticed quickly, that it takes the same amount of time for the aircraft door to open, the same amount of time for the people to get their bags out of the overhead, and the same amount of time to file out of the plane. So, I accepted that, and enjoy the few extra minutes of reading time.

David Cain November 21, 2013 at 8:51 am

That is a perfect place to practice this. It’s almost like it’s designed to test us.

Terry November 21, 2013 at 11:46 am

The key point here is that acceptance is the basis upon which to begin to negotiate with our circumstances. Very clearly communicated, with practical applications in recognizable scenarios. Thanks for the references from the literature.

Pura Vida Nick November 21, 2013 at 12:04 pm

This is a great essay. It reminds me of the movie I just saw yesterday, “About Time.” The main character can travel back in time and change his own life (not other people’s lives). The movie weaves in and out of him learning how changing variables in his life will affect his future. He even gets to the point where he re-lives each day, and the 2nd time around is conscious about every little thing, noticing the little things in life. But in the end, he learns to accept today for today and stops going back and changing anything. He lives each day consciously, and intentionally, and accepts reality for what it is. No need to change anything or say “no” to reality. He learns to accept it.

Nate November 23, 2013 at 6:28 am

Amazing how much smoother air travel is once I started to practice this. Thanks David, I just started reading your blog and I, like many others have commented, look forward to your posts.

Ludvig Sunström November 24, 2013 at 10:37 am

I was at the gym a few weeks ago and someone put gum in my padlock. For a few seconds I got a bit angry, but then I realized what an extremely strange thing it was and I got into analyzing it and ended up laughing out loud.

In either way it had nothing to do with me, and I had no trouble getting the lock open anyway.

Chrissy Tan November 26, 2013 at 6:36 am

What frustration and negativity you experience on a bus is just temporary. Why let it drain your positive energy?

Karen J December 31, 2013 at 2:44 am

Thank you, David! I’m late to this party, and haven’t read the other comments, but this is both SO TRUE and SO USEFUL – and I don’t even take the bus these days!
Hugs and Happy New Year ~

Johanna January 12, 2014 at 7:35 am

It took me a minute to figure out how to leave a comment correctly, but wow! Here I am, this article is fantastic, so well written. I thought I would have difficulty relating to your younger perspective on issues that I write about on my blog johannayorksr.com (Life According to Johanna). Instead I am treated to a cogent, concise and very well written article that relates to me right here, right now! Living in the moment is my current life work. I hope you have read Eckhardt Tolle’s work it is also fantastic. My web master David Parker recommended you and now I see why.

many January 30, 2014 at 3:43 pm

hi david, im new to this posting lark, but I just wanted to say how much I love your blogs, it is like having your own therapist every day, you have changed the way I see life. I have noted down books you have recommended and quotes, I already own”wherever you go, there you are” I hope this gets to you, im in uk thankyou so very much,

David Cain January 31, 2014 at 10:02 am

Glad you’re enjoying it, many. Jon Kabat-Zinn is excellent. If you can’t get enough of “Wherever you Go…” try “. He really expands on everything in WYGTYA. Hope to see you again in the comments!

mandy January 31, 2014 at 3:14 pm

hi David, Thanks so much for getting back to me. I accidentally misspelt my name!!! Its Mandy, sorry.! Im going to read WYGTYA again,s.l.o.w.l.y and put it into practice, not back on the bookshelf !!

David Cain January 31, 2014 at 3:59 pm

I thought Many was a strange name, but I didn’t want to say anything :)

Stephanie February 24, 2014 at 5:35 am

Hi David,

I am new to your blog (found my way through another blog that posted this post). I am so glad that I have found you. You have totally saved me.

I was struggling with things workwise and personally, but this post jut so put it all into perspective. I have adopted this way of thinking over the last few months, and I totally love the new me. It has been a positive experience.

Thanks

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