How can we reconcile the desire and intention for continuous improvement, growth and learning, with what we are told by a host of different spiritual teachers about total and unconditional acceptance of reality and the moment, or the Now?
Modern spiritual teachers talk about acceptance of and total alignment with reality as the way to peace and happiness. Eckhart Tolle writes about being “in the Now”, Byron Katie writes about “Loving What Is” and Hale Dwoskin asks the question “Could you let go of wanting to change things?”. These philosophies all suggest that the way to happiness is via complete acceptance and surrender to the way things are right now. Furthermore, the essentially total agreement of all spiritual and philosophical traditions about this notion of acceptance suggests that it’s a fairly universal principle. It’s also a concept that we can test out ourselves, through experiments of various kinds. To do this, we can perform meditation and other practices that help us accept our life situation as it truly is, with no clinging and no judgment.
How can we reconcile this approach with the usual intention for personal development and self improvement, which is predicated upon improving, changing, and getting “better” at something? There’s a very interesting paradox here that is worth exploring more deeply.
It’s important to realize that total acceptance of the way things are, and living Now, does not preclude action in the moment, nor does it preclude having a preference for one reality over another. After all, you’re always going to be doing “something” – even if that “something” consists of withdrawal and inaction – even refusing to decide is a decision of sorts. Whatever “something” you choose to do will lead you somewhere different from where you are right now. Flow and change are the only constants, and given that these are inevitable, we might as well take those actions that are most likely to create that reality that aligns with our preferences.
We need to be careful in our acceptance of things as they are, not to cross over into “overacceptance” of things as they are, that is, clinging to things remaining constant and not changing. Conditional acceptance is no acceptance and conditional surrender is no surrender. Wanting things to stay the same is just another facet of resistance to the way things are, and is not true acceptance but clinging. The very notion of “the way things are” right now contains within it the seeds of its own transformation. If you attach to some static vision of the way things are, you’re not in the Now at all. Instead, you’re binding yourself to the illusion of time and creating suffering for yourself. Pushing too hard for a time-bound vision of “now” – wanting to freeze time – instead of accepting flow and change, is the opposite of being in the moment. This feeling often arises from the emotions of craving security and certainty.
At the same time, the opposite phenomenon is undesirable. Overacceptance of change is simply craving change, seeking change as a way to escape an apparently undesirable present life situation. Rejecting the present in favor of change is also antithetical to true acceptance and surrender.
The correct – or at least most fruitful – practice of acceptance and surrender needs to incorporate two components, both the way things are now, as well as the inevitability of things changing. Cling too much to the way things are now, and you can’t accept things changing. Cling too much to the idea of things being somehow “better” in the future – that is, overacceptance of change – and you can’t accept the reality of your situation right now.
Overacceptance is the opposite of rejection, but it is equally antithetical to acceptance. Overacceptance is merely craving for something, the expression of desire – not really acceptance at all, but clinging. This is an interesting balance and a paradox. Love your current life situation too much and you don’t want things to change. Love change too much and you don’t want your current life situation as it is now. How do we resolve this?
The key is to accept and surrender to both at the same time. Accept your current life situation, exactly as it is, and accept the fact that this life situation will inevitably change, both with unflinching honesty.
Shift too far in the direction of wanting things to stay the same, and you begin to hate the future, and fear loss of what you have now. Shift too far in the direction of wanting things to change, and you begin to hate the present, and fear that things will never change and never get better. Acceptance and surrender – of both things as they are, and things as they will be – is the only true solution to this paradox.
This concept is intimately related to the four states of mind to avoid: Nostalgia, Hope, Regret and Worry. Wanting things to stay the same is essentially a combined state of Nostalgia and Worry – a feeling that the past was better, and the future is going to be worse. Conversely, wanting things to change is a combined state of Regret and Hope – the past was bad, and the future is going to be better.
Regardless of which of these states arise, and how, we can always strive to do our best to release them, and instead to focus only on the present moment.
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