“We tend to think of stress as something that happens outside of ourselves; something that happens to us. But science is showing that it’s not the stressors in our life, but how we perceive them that determines how much we suffer.”
A couple years ago, I went to Bhutan to collaborate with the executive director of the Gross National Happiness Index project. As part of my trip, I was invited to a dinner with his Royal Highness the Prince of Bhutan and many government officials of the country. I entered the exquisitely decorated dining room to find eight large, round tables, each alight with candles and colorful flowers. I was told that each table hosted an honorary guest to facilitate the dinner. I had been assigned to the table with the head of military and police.
I’ll admit, I was disappointed. And a wee bit judgmental. Military? Police? I was a mindfulness and compassion researcher, for heaven’s sake. Why hadn’t I been assigned to the minister of health or education or happiness?! Unsettled, I found my place next to the chief of police. We sat in silence for some time. Finally, with hesitation, I asked him to tell me about the military and police in Bhutan. With a welcoming smile and eyes bright, he said, “Police are seen as the parents, teachers, helpers, and protectors. They remind people of their values, of how to treat others—of who their best selves are.”
He went on to share how he trains his officers in compassion. Then, more somberly, he said, “A police without compassion is a very dangerous thing.”
My eyes filled with tears. I was touched by his wisdom and aware of how my preconceived ideas had created stress where none was needed, potentially blinding me to this beautiful moment.
We tend to think of stress as something that happens outside of ourselves; something that happens to us. But science is showing that it’s not the stressors in our life that determine how much we suffer, but how we perceive them.
We may not have control over the challenges we face, but we do have a choice in how we perceive and respond to them. As meditation teacher Satchidananda says, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”
The Power of Acceptance: What We Resist, Persists
In a popular story, a teacher walking outdoors with his students points to a very large boulder and says, “Students, do you see that boulder?” The students respond, “Yes, teacher, we see the boulder.” The teacher asks, “And is the boulder heavy?” The students respond, “Oh, yes, teacher, very heavy.” To which the teacher replies, “Not if you don’t pick it up.” We inevitably encounter “boulders” throughout life. Whether they crash without warning or whether we knew, deep down, there was a rockslide waiting to happen, we have two options: We resist them, or we accept them.
One of the great paradoxes of mindfulness is that by accepting pain, we reduce our suffering. Our resistance to pain compounds and increases our suffering. Mindfulness teaches us how to accept the boulders of life.
To be clear, acceptance isn’t the same as passive resignation. Nor is it approval, indifference, or defeat. Acceptance means that we accept what is happening not because we like it, or don’t care, or have given up—but because it already is happening. Acceptance means that we open our eyes and look straight at the boulder so we can see it clearly and determine how to respond effectively.
We all encounter pain in life, lose friends and family, get sick, grow old, and die. So do the people we love. Pain in life is inevitable. Suffering, on the other hand, is optional.
This notion that we can disentangle pain from suffering can be a mystifying idea. How is that possible? Think for a moment about our usual response to pain: We spend endless time and energy fighting the boulders in our life to get things just the way we want them. Then, have you noticed what happens? Just when we finally get the boulders lined up, wipe the sweat from our brow, and stroll down the seemingly clear path ahead … bam! We run straight into another boulder. Again, we sweat and struggle, push and pull, get it where we want it, and … bam!
Even if we manage to twist and bend reality into the way we want it for a moment, in the next moment things change. This is one of the fundamental laws of nature: Everything changes. When we resist this reality, we suffer.
Acceptance is the surprising antidote to suffering because it helps us understand our experience rather than drown in it. Acceptance shifts our relationship to what is happening and separates the pain that is inevitable from the suffering that is optional. In fact, how much we suffer in any given moment depends on how much we resist the pain.
For example, when we get stuck in traffic, we often become impatient and irritated, wanting the other cars to get out of our way. We also might get frustrated with ourselves, thinking, “Why did I take this route? Why didn’t I check traffic before I left?” The pain of traffic gains power over us as we embroil ourselves in a fog of fury and self-judgment, adding boulder upon boulder to our suffering.
Imagine, on the other hand, that we accept the reality instead of compounding it with resistance, and that we free up our resources to face the challenge. Instead of fuming over the undeniable fact that we are now stuck in traffic, we can accept what is.
As we slow down our racing thoughts, perhaps we notice the sunshine filtering through the car window. Or perhaps we become aware of the other drivers and notice how frustrated they are, recognizing that from their point of view we are the traffic slowing them down! We’re all in the same boat.
Or perhaps we simply let our exhausted minds rest for a few minutes, giving ourselves much-needed breathing space, before we head into our task-packed day. We might even practice some deep breathing and feel our bodies begin to relax.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is easy. And to be sure, there are many life events far more challenging than a simple traffic jam. But I have come to believe that even when faced with the end of life itself, we always have a choice in how we perceive a situation and how we respond to it. Resistance only begets more suffering. Acceptance brings peace and possibility.
By accepting what is, we put ourselves back in the driver’s seat. As Frank Ostaseski, founder of Zen Hospice, beautifully put it, “Acceptance is not resignation. It is an opening to possibility.”
Below is a practice born from the heart of mindfulness that can empower us to surf life’s waves and accept life’s boulders with greater skill and ease.
Sit quietly and allow your body and mind to rest. Set an intention to cultivate the power of acceptance. Bring your attention into the present moment with an attitude of kindness and curiosity. Intentionally bring to mind a painful area of your life where it could help to practice less resistance and greater acceptance.
How does your resistance manifest? Does it show up as bursts of anger; self-defeating behavior; avoidance; physical symptoms such as sleeping too much or too little, eating too much or too little; or maybe in trying to control or force things? With an attitude of kindness and curiosity, ask yourself: How is my resistance causing greater suffering to me and/or to others?
Now, gently direct your attention to what it would feel like to practice greater acceptance of what is happening—not because you want it to be happening, but because it is already happening. Since it is already happening, what might be the best way to deal with it? Spend a few minutes in this place. And then, as you are ready, take a deeper breath in and out and gently open your eyes.
Take a few minutes to write about your experience and any insights you had. What did you notice? Does shifting your relationship to the pain shift the amount of suffering you experience?