Mindfulness Meditation
    • Learning how our mind creates our world

Accepting Reality

by on 13 September

A half dozen years ago, I reflected upon three "teachings" about accepting reality. They made me realize the importance of that attitude in practicing mindfulness, and in reducing dukkha. Dukkha is the Pali word for unsatisfactoriness or suffering, Pali being the language used in India at the time of the Buddha.

The first teaching was by Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now. He said that, faced with a stressful situation, we have three choices: change the situation (i.e., improve it), leave it, or accept it. I interpret the term "stressful situation" very broadly - that is, any situation which causes us to experience emotional pain, a negative emotion such as irritation, anger, anxiety, fear, loneliness, envy, or craving. The first two options involve acting outwardly, in the external world. We could try to change the situation, for example, by trying to persuade someone to act differently because they are causing us stress (e.g., in a difficult relationship). Or, we could leave the situation (for example, a stressful job). The third option involves acting inwardly, upon our inner self. It involves reflecting upon the futility of resisting a situation we cannot change or leave, and focusing on and experiencing our resistance until it dissipates and disappears. For example, if we fall ill, which we cannot change or escape, the wise course of action is to accept the situation. The only result of wishing that we weren't ill is to create stress – dukkha - and make ourselves unhappy.
The second teaching came from Bhante Rahula, a Buddhist monk who led a meditation retreat which I had attended in Arnprior. He said that the following equation provides a useful perspective on dukkha:

Suffering = pain times resistance

 In other words, if I experience a painful situation (either physical or emotional pain), and I resist the situation by wishing it was not happening, I will increase my suffering by the extent of my resistance. For example, if I have a head cold and then dwell on the things which I cannot accomplish because I am ill, I will make myself suffer far more than if I just experience the head cold as a physical reality on its own.
As I thought about this equation, it struck me that, if I substituted the word "reality" for pain, it became even more powerful:

Suffering = reality times resistance

 This version states that, any time I resist reality, I will make myself suffer. That's not to say that I cannot choose to change reality or leave it, as mentioned above. However, if I invest effort in wishing that reality was not happening, I will only create unhappy feelings (dukkha) for myself. It does not matter if the reality in question is unfavourable weather, an illness or pain, a stressful situation at work, a difficult relationship, or the unfortunate circumstance of someone we love.

 As I thought further about my own resistance, I realized that in most cases it arises because reality is different from my expectations. As I played with that notion, I also worked to convert the equation to express happiness rather than suffering, since that's what we're trying to achieve in life. The result was the following perspective:

Happiness = reality/expectations

This means that my happiness is inversely related to my expectations. The higher my expectations, the more likely I will be disappointed and unhappy. The lower my expectations, the more likely I will be happy. It's a bit like thinking about the half-full cup. Why would I expect the cup of experience, the cup of life, to be completely full all the time? Where did I get that notion?

 I started applying this equation – using it for reflection – whenever I was experiencing dissatisfaction with reality. For example, if I came down with the flu or my car had a flat tire and I felt myself feeling upset, I would recall this reflection and focus on my expectations before this event. I would ask, "Why would I expect to always have full tires, or never come down with the flu?" And, as I continued this reflection, the feeling of disappointment would begin to dissipate. I would realize that I was creating the unhappiness and slowly stop doing that. It has become a very helpful practice for me, reducing experiences of suffering or stress. The more I apply it, the more peaceful my life becomes.

 The third "teaching" arises from the seven attitudes of mindfulness presented in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that I teach and which are set out on the Home Page of my website (mindfulmeditationottawa.ca). As I reflected upon these attitudes and their relative importance, I concluded that the attitude of acceptance was the most valuable of the seven, at least for me. When I accept reality, this tends to reduce my need for the other six attitudes. It usually means that I am also practicing to a great extent:
­ -     letting go of preconceptions or expectations about my current situation
­ -     not judging myself and my situation, usually negatively
­ -     not striving to change reality
­ -     being patient with what I am currently experiencing
­ -     practicing "beginner's mind", open-mindedness towards my experience
­ -     trusting that the future will be all right

 I have found these attitudes very useful in my mindfulness practice. When I experience discomfort with reality, and explore what's happening, I invariably find that I'm not observing one of these attitudes. They bring me back to mindfulness, to paying attention to what's actually going on. I try to tell myself, "This is what's happening now", rather than "I wish things were better". And perhaps to reflect on how much is still in the cup.


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