Many years ago I worked for, Mark, an educational psychologist. A high school asked him for help. During the initial meeting with the school principal, Mark asked about school attendance. The principal said, “Our students have to come to school. We accept no other choice.”
Mark scratched his head and said, “Your records show an 8.7% truancy rate. Apparently, one youth in twelve exercise choices you don’t recognize. If we accept the truth and relax, we’ll be in a better position to explore ways of responding.”
Many of us have realities in our lives we’d rather not accept. This too easily slides into denial and limits flexibility and creativity. The issues we’d rather not face vary from quarrel with friends to body weigh to job to finances to kids to the purpose in life.
Lack of acceptance is crazy. The principal’s non-acceptance of unexcused absences was senseless because it clashed with reality. Being out of touch with reality is a definition of insanity.
If I break an arm and don’t accept it, my image of myself that is at odds with reality. If we have a drug problem, marriage problem or health problem and deny it, that’s crazy.
So acceptance of things as they are is essential for living sanely in the world.
On the other hand, casual acceptance can feel crazy making. Sometimes casual acceptance is helpful. If traffic makes me late for a meeting and everyone says, “C’est la vie. That’s life,” this light touch is helpful. If I spill food on my shirt and say, “C’est la vie,” that may put it into a helpful perspective. But if I get a cancer diagnosis or a friend dies, “C’est la vie,” feels dismissive. It denies the depth of fear or heartache. It feels crazy making and lonely.
Wise acceptance is different from lack of acceptance on the one hand and casual acceptance on the other. It sees things as they are but doesn’t dictate how were supposed to feel. It accepts our inner responses as well as the outer reality.
In doing this, wise acceptance isn’t “one size fits all.” It isn’t a pat way of reacting to all issues. Wise acceptance is subtle and nuanced and varies from situation to situation.
So I’d like to offer a practical, blue-collar, concrete, paint-by-the-numbers process that walks us through these subtleties and nuances.
It can help if you have a specific issue in your life to reflect upon as we go along. Wise acceptance may not solve your issue. But it may loosen the grip it has on you and change your relationship to it.
This process has seven phases which flow from one to the next. These come from a meditation practice I learned from one of my teachers, Bhante Vimalaramsi. I’ve adapted it to clarify its relevance to living actively in the world.
Seven phases are a lot to keep in mind. To help remember them, they all start with an “R”: Recognize -> Release -> Relax -> Re-smile -> Reflect -> Respond -> Repeat ->
The first step in dealing with an issue is recognizing it in all its dimensions. This can be tricky.
Let me tell you a story.
A time a long time ago my wife left me. I had been deeply depressed. She mistook the depression for a sign that I didn’t care for her. She thought it best to move on. I didn’t blame her. But when she moved out I was devastated and mute.
I remember, three or four weeks later, sitting in the parsonage living room. It was a big parsonage. And now I was alone in it. It was snowing that afternoon muffling the sounds from outside.
I sat next to a window looking at a living room wall. The wall was blank except for a clock. I was miserable. I thought I’d always be alone. I felt my life was over and I had failed.
Gazing blankly into space, a tiny part of my attention noticed the second hand moving around the face of that clock.
As the hand came back to the “12,” I had an epiphany: “This last 60 seconds wasn’t so bad.” I thought, “The snow is beautiful. I am depressed and sad. The fire in the wood stove radiates a lovely warmth. My wife isn’t here. But she’s never been here in the afternoons – she has a job. I have a job as a minister. Maybe we’ll never get back together. But I doubt I’ll always be alone. And right now, the room is peaceful – almost serene. The cat purrs in my lap. This moment isn’t all bad.”
I had compressed my life into a sound bite called “miserably alone.” Suddenly it opened up revealing disparate elements. I recognized events, thoughts, feelings, moods, mental elaborations, possibilities … Some elements were difficult. Others were nice. My mental projections into the future were glum. But the actual moment wasn’t so bad.
(By the way, the next thirty-five years unfolded very differently from my fears. We got back together. We raised two kids. My depression dispelled with some dedicated inner work. We’ve had a long and satisfying relationship.)
So what issues do you face today? Recognizing reality is tricky, particularly when we feel stuck. Too often we reduce the issues in our lives to sound bites.
Recognizing an issue means looking deeper than the sound bite. It means seeing events as just events, feelings as just feelings, fears as just fears, hopes as just hopes, mental projections as just mental projections. We see possibilities as just possibilities but not as inevitabilities.
It takes a little time to sort all this out. It takes a little time to see the larger context of our lives. Recognition takes time.
So whether our issue is a relationship difficulty, disease, worrisome kids, fears for the world or whatever, recognition isn’t glancing over the situation lightly, like skipping a stone over a lake. It’s stopping what we are doing and giving it clear, dispassionate, undivided attention.
The second phase is to release the issue. Our culture has a bias toward fixing situations or getting control of them. This is the opposite. We just let it be.
The Zen Master Suzuki Roche said, “The best way to control a cow is to put it in a large pasture.” Release means giving the concern some space.
As we release it, it may wander across the pasture and out of our lives. Or it may come back and stare us in the face with big brown eyes as it chews its cud and shakes flies off its ears. Either is just fine.
Release isn’t pushing the issue away. It’s just letting go of our grip on the problem. To truly let something be means it can do what it wants. We no longer hold it close or hold it off.
The best way to control a cow is to release it into a large pasture.
The third phase is to relax. The first two phases are passive as we recognize the problem and release it – let it be. In this third phase, we start to act. The first action is directed inward – soothing our stress. We aren’t trying to change the situation or our thoughts or feelings. We aren’t trying to relax the problem: we’ve just released it to do what it wants. We look inside, notice any physical, mental or emotional tensions and relax them. That’s all.
There’s no need to force relaxation. This is just a gentle invitation – like a sigh.
Yet this invitation to relax is very important!
The next phase is to invite a lighter state of mind. One way to do this is to smile – not a forced smile, but a gentle one. A frown takes more energy and tension. So as we relax, smiling comes easily.
It’s called “re-smile” because we do it over and over. But in truth, re-smiling refers to any uplifted state – lightness, kindness, joy, ease, gratitude, spaciousness …
Sometimes this lightness comes acknowledging, “Boy, that situation sure has me by the throat. Far out.” It helps to take ourselves lightly.
The fifth phase is reflecting on the issue. Up to this point, we have been letting go, releasing, relaxing and drawing in a higher state of consciousness. These are like getting out of the barnyard, walking across a meadow and up a hill to get a broader view.
Now we use this broader perspective and look at our issue. We look with a clearer head and more spacious heart – states that are more likely to see wisely.
The sixth phase is to respond. As we look at the issue with some caring dispassion, our response may be to do nothing, engage vigorously, or something in between. If there is some action that grows out of our reflections, then we go with it.
What’s important is that we are responding rather than reacting.
If our issue is dealing with the death of a close friend or the sudden loss of a job, the grief or the fear might feel overwhelming. The emotions are so strong we can’t stand it. We may do anything to discharge these uncomfortable feelings: kick the dog, honk the horn, invade Iraq, … When we react, we aren’t responding from wisdom but from emotional necessity.
This whole process is designed to avoid this kind of reaction. We recognize the situation, release the grip it has on us, relax and move into a brighter clearer state. And from this non-reactive place, we reflect on the situation. From this non-reactive place we can respond with greater wisdom and clarity.
This is the whole point: wise acceptance and wise response.
The final phase is to repeat the process as needed. We take a look at where the situation is after we’ve responded or reflected. Maybe we’re truly done. We’re free of it. That’s fine. Then there’s nothing more to repeat.
But more likely, as we reflect or respond we see that we didn’t recognize all the dimensions of the situation or we didn’t release and relax fully – there is leftover stress. Our wiser state was an improvement, but not as wise as possible.
If we didn’t do the process fully enough, that is fine – nothing to worry about. Repetition makes the process self-correcting. If there is more to be seen or done, it will arise again inside us.
So we recognize what the situation is now. We release, relax, re-smile and reflect again. This time maybe we go a little further.
This is the beauty of this process. We don’t have to do it perfectly. Doing it just a little is good enough. As we repeat, it gradually works itself out.
The seven R’s are not entirely separate. As we practice this process, they begin to blend together. They become less of a set of isolated stages and more of a dynamic flow of energy.
To recognize a situation clearly, we naturally step back from it a little. “Lets have a look at this,” implies getting a little distance from it so we see it clearly. This stepping back is part of the release.
As we release, we tend to relax. As we relax, our mood brightens. From this brighter place, we may be inclined to have a look at our issue again. From this reflection, a response may flow naturally. And after responding we naturally take a look to recognize where things are now – we repeat.
Think of this as “rolling the Rs.” Don’t push for this flow. But don’t be surprised if the stages start to flow together naturally into a single process with multiple aspects.
This is what I mean by wise acceptance: recognize, release, relax, re-smile, reflect, respond and repeat as a unified flow with several dimensions. It is passive and responsive, dispassionate and engaging, caring of ourselves and caring for the world. It is both forgiving and responsive. And it takes the issues in our lives seriously and encourages us to take ourselves lightly.
If we engage this way it becomes easier to see the soft spot – the luminous center – of other people and to recognize it in ourselves. And it is easier to let the past be the past – to stop trying to have a better past – and move wisely into the present and beyond.
(First Delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento, on Sunday, January 9, 2011. © Doug Kraft, 2012)