Acceptance as a Conduit to Change

September 3, 2020

While there are many definitions for “acceptance,” in Zen or other contemplative practices, acceptance is acknowledging reality as it is. In essence, to accept something means to stop resisting or stop actively trying to change reality. So how would acceptance facilitate goal oriented behavior? To be honest, acceptance is the antithesis of change; therefore, it seems reasonable to want to fight acceptance if reality is uncomfortable or disappointing. However, acceptance is fundamental to change.

Imagine you have survived a plane crash and have washed ashore a deserted island. You are tired, thirsty, hungry, and terrified. Understandably you want nothing more than to 1) survive and 2) escape the island. These are reasonable change oriented goals. What would non-acceptance look like in this situation? Ignoring the new environmental challenges? Maybe denying your hunger or thirst? Possibly hoping that this is all a dream? Maybe if you fall asleep right here on the shore, you’ll wake up in your bed? In a non-acceptance frame of mind, your fundamental goals of survival and escape are unlikely to be realized. Thus, change oriented goals require a profound degree of acceptance of reality as it is. That means observing and acknowledging the external reality as well as internal reactions. Only then can you adequately problem solve with all available information.

The previous example is admittedly far-fetched, but the precepts remain exactly the same:

Know the difference between acceptance and non-acceptance. Non-acceptance can feel like you’re fighting something, like you’re wishing that something weren’t true. It can feel like there is a glimmer of hope that you’re latching onto, and your muscles are tense and tired from clinging on. Acceptance, or the other hand, is lighter—but acceptance also comes with acknowledging a painful reality, which can be incredibly sad. Often when people want to ignore reality, they are attempting to avoid sadness.  

Change requires acceptance of all the facts, no matter how uncomfortable or painful. Acceptance means observing and acknowledging all the facts. That means the environment, your behavior, and how your behavior impacts the environment. For example, if someone misses out on an employment opportunity because he was 20 minutes late to an interview, if this person wants to reduce the likelihood that he is late to meetings, he will need to first acknowledge that he was late and then examine what factors got in the way of his ability to be on time.  

Acceptance does not mean approval. Using the above example, let’s assume that the person was only 4 minutes late to the interview, but the interviewer happened to be meticulous about promptness. The facts of reality are a) the interviewee was late, (let’s assume), b) the interviewee has a pattern of being late, and c) the interviewer appreciates promptness. If the interviewee wants to change his behavior such that he is more prompt to meetings/appointments/interviews, he does not have to think that being on time is “correct,” or that the interviewer was “right,” but rather, being on time is a more effective behavior for reaching his goals.

Taken together, acceptance facilitates change in that it enables the observer with all the facts, not just the convenient ones.

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