Mindfulness A to Z - Selections
A sweeping field guide to the practice of mindfulness.
A is for acceptance.
I sat my first vipassana retreat in 1989. The first meditation retreat can be brutal on the body. I had my share of stiffness and soreness, especially in my knees. About seven days into the process I couldn’t get comfortable no matter what position I struck. There was no escape from the pain unless I was willing to abandon the retreat—a thought I relished for a long while. So there I was, sitting with the agony, hour after hour, fighting against it, wishing it wasn’t there. During one of the hour-long sittings I realized I had a choice: I could continue resisting the pain or I could try to accept it.
I chose acceptance. I turned my attention toward the sensations instead of away, which is where I instinctively wanted to go. After a week of practice, I had developed a level of concentration that allowed me to look precisely at my own bodily discomfort. My first approximation of that discomfort was that it was solid, intractable, difficult—like a railroad spike had been pounded into my knee. As I got closer to it with concentration, I noticed something else: oscillation, variation, and cessation. Within the discomfort there were moments of peace surrounded by moments of intensity. There was no “pain,” only energy. The story of how awful it was dropped away, leaving only the bare experience of it. After that sitting, the tension in my muscles released; my body relaxed into the moment, and the rest of the retreat was free from that particular suffering.
When we are mindful, when we give our full attention to whatever is happening now, and can do so without the usual storytelling, pushing, pulling, and judgment, we arrive at acceptance. But it is rare that we give our full attention to what is happening now. We give partial attention; the rest of our attention is somewhere else. We are easily distracted. Our attention is always alighting some place other than here; we may think about what’s for dinner, or review a past conversation. Wherever our attention is, it is not here, fully experiencing this present moment.
Thus, every moment of our existence presents us with the same basic choice that confronted me on the retreat. We can be present to what is happening, or we can fight against it. The tendency to resist is automatic, reflexive, and perhaps even compulsive. It may be relentless. Like a comfort-seeking missile, we may tweak, adjust, and modify every circumstance. Or, in the rare moments when things feel perfect, we may worry about losing the experience, and in these moments we are resisting the inevitable changing nature of things.
Acceptance is not acquiescence. We find ourselves in many situations that are not ideal. In some such situations reasonable action can be taken to change things. However, there are many situations in life where a simple act to change things is neither feasible nor possible. In such situations, acts of resistance become fruitless, and acceptance becomes a more meaningful option. When we resist, we are, in a sense, complaining about the situation. The complaint creates a boundary between oneself and the experience one is having at that moment. It takes energy to maintain that boundary. Our sense of “me” pushes against the reality of the situation and cries: “I don’t want this.”
We spend the moments of our lives pushing against what is so, wishing it were somehow different. Acceptance is a profound—perhaps the most profound—way of being in the world. It opens us to the raw, unadulterated experience of life in the moment. It is the only way to meet life as it is; everything else is fantasy, imagination, and hope. You can practice acceptance right here, right now. As you sit, feel the breath moving into your body. Give your full attention to the sensations of breathing without trying to change it in any way. Let go of thoughts about the future, the past, and elaborations of the present. Accept the simplicity of this moment, of the natural act of breathing. When your attention wanders from the act of breathing, don’t let it perturb you. Accept that such wandering happens and simply bring the attention back to the breath.
It’s a happy accident that the first entry of this book is acceptance. We could probably end the book here too. Acceptance is, in many ways, a synonym for mindfulness and the awakening it promises.
I’ve torn the medial meniscus—the cartilage in my left knee. It’s a vexing and debilitating injury, which takes me out of my usual active routines. I missed a month of golf in the fall and there was no snowboarding or indoor golf for me that winter. This could have become a source of much anguish: “Poor me.” But just because my knee hurts and the pain must be respected doesn’t mean it must be worshipped. I can observe the injury-induced limits with a degree of equanimity—careful observation and interest that is not personalized. In other words, there is no “me” to feel sorry for.
Reality is what it is; I made an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon. My mind could then relax; there was nothing to do but to take care of myself in the moment. Fretting about it and worrying about the larger shape of my life wouldn’t help the situation. The injury may be healed with surgery—or it may not. The injury could leave an enduring stamp on my life. If that were the case, I would have to deal with new limitations, whatever they may be. As it turns out, the surgery is a success and I resume normal activities.
Things happen, things that we don’t want to have happen—sickness, aging, death, and losses of every kind. It seems that we can see even little everyday setbacks, disappointments, or failures as things to be avoided at all cost. The fear of failure, of meeting with what we do not want, feeds our storytelling impulse and pushes us away from the reality of the moment.
Contemplating our biology can help us to understand why we are this way. Nature has provided us with mechanisms that help us to successfully navigate through a world filled with danger. Our natural emotions guide us: anger, fear, and shame keep us safe from potential harm; joy, pleasure, and interest support the long term projects of survival and reproduction. Negative emotions are our threat-detection system. It’s a straightforward system: approach things that feel good, withdraw from things that feel bad, ignore things that seem to be neither.
In contemporary culture, especially in the privileged cultures of the developed world, the survival-oriented function of negative emotion is largely obsolete. We can buy our food at supermarkets; we don’t have to contend with predators; we have central air conditioning and heating systems. We still have to contend with social strife, but in an advantaged society, we don’t have to worry about having our homes marauded by a rival clan of hunter-gatherers.
Because we live in a less threatening world, we have come to see threat-oriented emotions as bad. It’s as simple as that—feeling unpleasant is bad. Our relationship to negative emotions can be seen by the way “necessities” like headache remedies, fabric softeners, and even prescription drugs are advertised. Such ads seem to suggest that we should never feel unpleasant, uncomfortable, or encumbered in any way. If the little aches and difficulties of daily life creep in, there is a product we can buy to ameliorate that unfortunate condition. The implicit message is that we should always feel pleasant, comfortable, and free from adversity. We’ve become afraid of our natural emotional life.
Adversity doesn’t have to spoil a good mood so long as we can accept what is happening. We can retain a sanguine disposition if we can be interested in what is happening and not engage in storytelling about how the particular adverse occurrence is ruining our day. Adversity that is not life threatening or that does not lead to enduring harm is just an experience. It is an experience that we might even find interesting as it unfolds moment by moment, if we can just allow it to be there without preoccupation, without seeing it as an indictment against our lives. We may even look at big-ticket adversity items that do lead to harm as a teacher. It is possible to transform financial failure, cancer, or natural disasters into learning experiences when we can bring mindful attention to our lives even as such events unfold.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has noted that it is hard to control oneself during an episode of anger. “Although one may know intellectually that anger is destructive, that one should not let oneself be swayed by the power of anger, that one must cultivate love toward others and so on, the chances of recalling this are very limited when engulfed in the heat of anger. In fact, thinking of love at that moment seems very impractical—it’s farewell to love and compassion.”
Our figures of speech suggest that anger is a force that must be discharged. We lose our cool and blow our tops. We burn with anger. These metaphors also seem to suggest that we are not entirely responsible for our anger—it’s a force that happens to us, rather than something we choose. But anger, like all strong emotions, emerges from a confluence of natural forces and personal choices.
When we can notice the energy of anger arising in our bodies, choice becomes possible. Without that ability to notice, we just react like insects—stimulus and response. Noticing allows us to intervene with awareness. Awareness allows us to observe the sensations and energy that build up in our bodies. Noticing the breath shortening, growing quick and shallow, we recognize the onset of anger and can choose to change its expression. Instead of acting out like the Hulk, we might investigate the intense, embodied experience of anger, and through that investigation, exercise choice—a different way of being.
Anger may also be directed at oneself. At such times, it is just as disruptive, violent, and destructive as it is when directed elsewhere. We might get angry with ourselves for getting angry with someone else. We might get angry with ourselves when our attention wanders during meditation. We might get frustrated when our progress with meditation does not unfold according to preconceived plans. But as Lodro Rinzler, author of The Buddha Walks Into a Bar, cautions, “In twenty-six hundred years of meditation and teaching, no Buddhist master has ever said, ‘You should just be a prick to yourself. That’s how you create inner change.’” Anger can be harmful no matter where it is directed.
There are a few situations where anger is appropriate. Anger is natural in response to a truly threatening situation, but the vast majority of situations are not really threatening. Most of the situations in which anger typically arises only menace my idea of what should be happening in that moment. I am more vulnerable to my emotions, especially those in the anger family—anger, irritability, and frustration—when I don’t practice mindfulness daily. With a modicum of practice I become capable of noticing the early warning signs of anger, which arise as bodily sensations. With continued practice I may even anticipate situations likely to provoke anger and move into them with an eye on my body, ready for the arrival of this potentially unskillful passion. If I notice its first stirrings, I may be able to circumvent the reaction entirely, thereby averting both the destructive social effects of expressing anger and its harmful internal effects, such as contributing to chronic stress.
Even with the best of intentions and a foundation of practice, anger may still arise in ways that are unhelpful. All is not lost, however, because mindfulness can be brought in after the fact to contain its ugly effects. One evening in the winter I came home to find the woodstove cold when it should have been warm. I realized that I had left the flue open all day—a dangerous situation because that particular stove burned very hotly. Supernova hot. This was the third time that week I had left it open, although I was certain I had closed it that morning. I was chagrined, astonished, and indignant that I had dropped the ball again. The situation had exceeded what I could accept. My habitual reflex emerged—a near involuntarily efflux of anger. I yelled expletives aloud at myself.
After a brief meltdown, I sat down on my cushion, found my breath, and noted the tight sensations occupying my body. Awareness of the sensations helped to curtail any further anger. I had to check plaintive thoughts, not only about the open flue, but also about the mindlessness it represented. I sat with it all, acknowledged that it happened, inquired into the triggers of that particular moment, probed alternate possible responses should the situation arise again, and then settled back into the present moment. The anger gave way to a sense of peace; I shivered and lit a new fire.
Whatever our personal emotional tendencies may be, mindfulness can help us to be less angry with ourselves, others, and situations in our lives. Mindfulness can help us to become intimate with the energy of anger, and because of that familiarity we won’t be blindsided by it. Instead, anger becomes information about our view of the current situation—feelings which, when recognized, can be a prompt indicating that we need to shift that view from one of resistance to one of acceptance.
“Hotel Renfrew? Looks more like a department store,” I said to myself as I was walking around Montreal. “Maybe the hotel is on the upper floors.” It turns out that the name of the establishment was “Holt Renfrew,” and it’s not a hotel at all (it is actually a high-end department store). I really didn’t read the name, didn’t give it my full attention. I assumed it was a hotel—fooled by the commonality of letters in “Holt” and “hotel” and because it was in a part of town that had a lot of hotels.
Misperceptions like this happen all the time. We can’t process all of the information—the overwhelming amount of information—availablein any moment. We select. And what we select depends on what’s on our minds, what we’ve been exposed to recently, and myriad other factors. I was looking for a hotel near to Holt Renfrew, so that task biased my perception. Attention can be flimsy, fickle, and faint. It can be opportunistic and lazy. When I buy a new car, I start to notice that same model all around town. Those cars were there before; I just didn’t have a reason to notice them.
It’s hard for the untrained mind to sustain attention—in other words, to concentrate—without a compelling context. Even in compelling contexts, such as having sex, it may only devote a portion of itself to the experience. Try to focus on any object that you can see now; give it your full attention. Stop the exercise whenever you have a discursive thought about the object—an association, a memory, or an unrelated thought. Go ahead. Try it now.
For most of us the exercise will only last a few seconds. While we were all expected to pay attention in school, I’ve never met anyone who was shown how. Mindfulness is a way to train attention. Once we acknowledge that our attention is neglected, underdeveloped, and narrow, we can see the wisdom in training it to be more concentrated, robust, and responsive. We can move from living life on automatic pilot to giving our attention to the experiences that are happening now. Life becomes more vivid, rich, and intentional. These qualities help us to become more engaged with our lives, increasing our chances for happiness. When attention is superficial, the quality of life is likewise on the surface. When attention is deep, the quality of life will likewise go beyond the surface, revealing a world not otherwise appreciated—a world of perceptions, meanings, and revelations.
The late psychologist Julian Jaynes likened conscious attention to asking a flashlight in a dark room what the room looks like. Everywhere the flashlight is directed, the room appears illuminated. Likewise, we can’t see all the moments of our lives when our conscious attention is dark, as they become when we move through the world lost in stories.
Conscious attention is a very small part of what our brains do—a sliver of a sliver. Most of what our brains do is unconscious, performed without explicit attention. This unconsciousness allows us to walk, drive, and do most of what we do every day without having to think about it. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” While civilization may advance, this automaticity can become a problem for individuals if it is the prevailing, or only, mode of being in the world.
Attention is a skill, and as with all skills, it is a trainable one. While attention is not a muscle, it responds to being exercised much as a muscle does. It gets stronger, more flexible, and toned. The brain regions devoted to attention grow thicker the more we exercise the faculty. Mindfulness meditation is exercise for the mind that produces mental fitness. We build attention by practicing the art of the gentle return.
- Take a few minutes and try to focus on something like your breathing in this moment.
- Each time your attention moves away, gently bring it back.
- You’ll notice the sensations are different now, and in a few moments attention will be off somewhere else again.
- Once more, catch your wandering attention and bring it back.
This practice exercises your attention “muscle.” Returning is more important than keeping your attention rigidly fixed. The more you practice returning, the more fit your mind will become.