One of the most challenging concepts in mindfulness practice is acceptance. Mindfulness means being aware of what’s happening in the present moment, without judging whether we like it or not, and without trying to change it – in other words, accepting what is. This seems like a simple idea, yet it’s paradoxical, because it’s the opposite of how we usually think, and what we usually do.
In our usual mode of functioning, we’re busy comparing how we’re doing with how we believe we should be doing, judging whatever is happening as desirable or not, then trying to hang on to or get more of what we want, as we avoid, ignore, get rid of, or suppress what we don’t want. This applies to feelings, thoughts, behaviors, people, possessions, and situations. We usually want things to be different than how they are, so we focus on the gap between what is and how we think things should be, and constantly strive to change, whether ourselves, others, or the circumstances.
In mindfulness practice, we aren’t trying to change anything. We may begin with becoming aware of the breath, as it moves in and out of the body, without trying to regulate or change it, in fact, the instruction usually given is simply to notice how we’re breathing, rather than breathe more slowly, or deeply, or differently. As we continue to practice, we learn to tune into sensations in the body that we habitually ignore, which may include sensations of discomfort or pain that we usually seek relief for, and we are instructed to simply investigate them with an attitude of kind and interested curiosity. We allow unpleasantness, rather than trying to make it go away.
We also learn to acknowledge our thoughts, without making any effort to control or stop them, just being aware of the constant chatter of mental activity, as we keep returning our focus to the breath, over and over. The same for emotions, even the strong negative ones – we’re just noting and naming them, allowing them to be there, as we bring our attention back to the breath or the present moment. Not only do we practice simply noticing or acknowledging, but we are also invited to welcome it all: every one of our physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions, pleasant or unpleasant – in fact, we are especially encouraged to welcome those that we feel a strong aversion toward.
What is the point of this practice? How will simply noticing, allowing, and letting be help us to feel better or change anything? And especially if what we become aware of is how much we’re suffering – how will that ever lead to greater peace, well-being, and happiness?
These questions always come up in my mindfulness classes and groups at some point, and over the years I’ve offered various answers – but none so clear and succinct as this statement I stumbled across recently by Carl Rogers (1902 – 1987), an American psychologist, author, and a founder of the humanistic psychology movement:
The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.
This is the paradox of mindfulness practice, in a nutshell. When we practice acceptance, and keep practicing, then over time we discover that change happens, almost effortlessly. The effort is in the practice, and in working with our doubting minds, rather than in trying to force change to happen.