by Michael W. Taft
This is an excerpt from Michael’s upcoming book The Mindful Geek
If I had to choose just one thing to teach, one single practice to give you that would do the most to improve your life, it would be the practice of acceptance. Although it may seem like a paradox, acceptance is one of the most powerful things your can do for yourself and others.
Amusingly, acceptance is the one thing I get the most resistance to from students. People just do not like the idea of accepting things. It seems to go against the grain of our society to just live with something. We admire people who fight cancer to the finish, even when they are bound to die. We rightfully make heroes out of people who refuse to tolerate the adverse conditions of their lives, and who strive against all odds to change those conditions for the better. This kind of struggle to improve the world and our place in it is laudable, and worth all the blood, sweat, and tears shed in achieving it. By all means, work hard to change your life and the world for the better.
If we are going to have a rational discourse on this topic, however, we have to admit that there are some things that we cannot change. Unless you’ve developed some device the rest of the world hasn’t learned of yet, you cannot change the weather today. If it is raining, and you don’t want it to rain, there isn’t much you can do about it. True, if there are clouds, and you want it to rain, and you have enough money and resources, you could seed the clouds with silver iodide and maybe get a shower. But for all other conditions, and for virtually every one of us, changing the weather just isn’t an option.
And yet I run into people who are actively angry about the weather all the time. They want it to be hotter or colder, they want it to snow or to stop snowing, they want it to be more or less windy. They shake their fist and curse the weather. And, of course, they are entitled to their emotions about it. Yet, in the case of things we cannot change, wouldn’t it be better if we could generate a little acceptance of the situation? All the anger, sorrow, and other negative emotions about the weather is never going to change it, it’s only going to make you unhappy. In such a situation, acceptance is a very desirable strategy.
The weather is an easy example, and there are others. In the Bay Area where I live, the traffic across the Bay Bridge at certain times of day is hellacious. If you get caught there during rush hour, morning or evening, it can mean idling almost motionless in a virtual parking lot. The traffic jam is predictable, and there are other forms of transportation, like the BART subway, available. I have one friend, however, who gets worked up into a rage whenever we get stuck in this mess. She bangs the steering wheel with the heel of her hand, cursing out the other drivers. The longer we’re stuck in traffic, the greater her fury becomes. If I suggest that all her anger isn’t helping anyone, especially not her, she nearly bites my head off. (I’ve stopped making that suggestion.) But isn’t it obvious that there is literally nothing to do about the traffic once you’re stuck in it? If you didn’t want to encounter a traffic jam, you should have left sooner or left later, or taken an alternate mode of transport. As it is, once you’re stuck in traffic, you are stuck and that’s it. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to try, at least try, to accept this fact?
Maybe in our combined societal fantasy, you would get so angry at the traffic that you would quit your job, go back to school, get a degree in aeronautical engineering, and design some kind of flying car. You would channel your rage at the unbearable circumstance to create a flying car company, sell thousands of miraculous flying cars, and become a billionaire, loved by all in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and other high-traffic zones. And by all means, if you are motivated to do that, please go ahead.
Yet I suggest that very few of us are actually qualified to even attempt to do something like that, let alone have the time, energy, drive, and life circumstances to make it possible. And even the one-in-a-billion individual who can do it, cannot do something similar about all the other things in his or her life. Under those circumstances, wouldn’t it be better to just let go and accept that you’re stuck in traffic and make the best of it?
Acceptance doesn’t have to be a grim defeat. You could get into a great conversation, listen to a fascinating audiobook, talk to your mother on the phone. You could actually end up having a fabulous time during those hours that you’re stuck in traffic. That would be improving your life, rather than just letting righteous indignation give you an embolism.
These quotidian examples are not the only sort. What about all the injustice in the world? What about the pain, suffering, starvation, rape, torture, murder that is going on this very moment? By the power of the Internet, I just learned that 18 human beings die from starvation every minute. That fact alone is so sad that it could send you into a permanent depression. You just watched another minute of Game of Thrones, stuffing a bag of potato chips in your face, and—oops!—another 18 people died because they didn’t have any food. There is no end to these upsetting and depressing facts, and if you have any heart at all in your chest, you will do just a little bit more each day to relief other humans of some suffering.
But if you want to live at all, you will also have to practice at least a little bit of acceptance about all this. You are not a demigod, you cannot personally help each and every person are suffering from all these problems. You can do what you can, and after that you have to rest. If you let it all get to you, it will drive you crazy, maybe drive you to suicide. There is only so much you can do, and beyond that, you just have to accept that that is the condition of the world at the moment. Even saints have to stop saving people long enough to sleep now and then. And during those times, they have to just accept what’s going on in the world.
So, by all means, change everything you can. But, for everything you cannot, try to cultivate a little acceptance. Meditation practice will help you to do that. We’ll look at exactly how in the next installment.
photo by CitySkylineSouvenir