Self improvement versus self acceptance

by Jack on March 2010

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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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Abby March 23, 2010 at 09:32

Interesting perspective on self-improvement. I tend to view it as a stripping away process, a process of letting go and getting back to the essential self rather than a process of improvement, of gaining, of getting better. I think when viewed from that lens, the delicate balance of acceptance and release is more easily obtained.

We all have the tools we need to survive and to thrive … they just get hidden under all the muck of cultural “shoulds”, “should nots” and moral imperatives. Coming back to your essential self through self-reflection, meditation, yoga, religion, marathon running, etc… is simply stripping away all the unnecessaries and getting back to basics.

I’d add Tara Brach to your list of experts. She encourages a similar attitude to the one you suggest: “There is something wonderfully bold and liberating about saying yes to our entire imperfect and messy life. With even a glimmer of that possibility, joy rushes in… when we put down our ideas of what life should be like, we are free to wholeheartedly say yes to our life as it is.”

Pretty awesome 🙂

Reply

Jack March 23, 2010 at 10:26

I think that’s actually a wiser way to frame self-improvement / PD / growth. Also very Taoist.

e.g. http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html#29

All the stages of planning, goal setting, visualizing, and so forth, are simply a way of setting the foundation for a deeper transformation.

My previous post goes into some specific methods of releasing / letting go in order to order to permit this natural process to create the desired transformations.

Looking forward to checking out Tara Brach. So much reading, so little time!

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Sherri Frost March 23, 2010 at 20:27

Things will not remain the same no matter how much we try to make it so. Since change is inevitable, we must accept it. Even better if we embrace change and actively shape it to create our own reality. Too many live in regrets of the past or worry about the future. Very few actually live in the moment of now.

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Niall Doherty November 5, 2010 at 12:49

Jack, this part really resonated with me: “Accept your current life situation, exactly as it is, and accept the fact that this life situation will inevitably change, both with unflinching honesty.”

That is indeed key. Embrace the here and now, make the most of it, but accept that it will change just like everything else.

Keep doing what you.

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Jack November 5, 2010 at 14:10

Thanks Niall,
Yeah, it’s kind of a balancing act – “accept” the present a little too much and you get attached to it, “accept” change a little too much and you get expectant of (i.e. attached to) the prospect of change.

Simple, but not easy. 🙂

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Natalie December 9, 2010 at 08:41

Hello Jack,

I think this article is brilliant. Since facing my own life challenges, and embarking on the world of meditation and self help books, I’ve been constantly asking myself this very thing. How do you reconcile wanting more in your life/striving for more vs meditating on accepting what you have and appreciating/being happy with that. I think it is a fine balancing act. I read this today ‘Desiring to change is okay, but longing for change actually hinders our growth. An important aspect of developing acceptance is learning to avoid craving. Craving is when we long for something, and unfortunately craving can make us very unhappy’ Full article at . http://www.wildmind.org/applied/daily-life/tools-for-learning-acceptance.

So in a nutshell, whilst I shouldn’t loose sight of hope etc, I think I need to start meditating on ‘acceptance’ – because craving it seems only leads to unhappines.

Cheers from Melbourne, Australia,
Natalie.

Reply

Jack December 9, 2010 at 23:39

Thanks for your kind comment, Natalie! I’ve heard some good things about Bodhipaska who runs wildmind.org – I’ll check out that article!

This situation definitely is a paradox for the logical mind.

I think we’re more likely to “get what we want” when we have a loose grip on wanting things (what Lester Levenson called “hootlessness” – i.e. not giving a hoot – and what Buddhists call non-attachment).

But it’s not something where we can go, “Hmm, OK, I’ll just figure out how to let go and that way I’ll get it faster and better! Ha!”.

I think we genuinely have to be in a state of non-attachment in order to make this work. The solution? More meditation, more breathing, more release. Rinse, repeat. 😉

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Ersin August 1, 2012 at 17:11

Hi,

So you’re saying that we need to find balance between accepting too much things as they are Now and change. Am I right ?

It seems hard but it’s the only way to avoid the paradox between those two extremes, I guess…

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Jack August 1, 2012 at 19:50

Hi Ersin,
Thanks for your comment!

In considering the question, I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Ram Dass: The world is perfect as it is, including my desire to change it.

This isn’t something that you can prove true or defend with logic – it’s more of a personal choice that someone can make, in order to view circumstances in a certain way (or not).

It’s very important to see things accurately, as they really are, without defensiveness, judgment, or denial. For example, if a person is unhappy with some part of their life situation, then that feeling of unhappiness is real and it’s here – no sense in pretending otherwise (“perfect as it is”). And of course, an person experiencing unhappiness is probably going to want to change things to feel happier (“desire to change it”).

Starting from the assumption that things are perfect as they are can be a more empowering starting point than feeling the need to forcibly correct something wrong with the world. The specific actions a person will take are probably going to be the same in either case, but one way is fighting the world at every step, and the other way is accepting of the way the world is at every step.

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Ersin August 2, 2012 at 07:40

Hi Jack,

Thank you for answering !

It still seems incompatible to me ! if you accept the world as being perfect the way it is, then will you really change anything ? Honestly ? I have serious doubts!

I love the quote though… I’ll remember it.

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Jack August 2, 2012 at 10:22

You’re right, just because I explain it this way doesn’t mean it’s not still a paradox. 🙂 It’s just one way that I think of it.

Another metaphor that might work is “the world is perfect, and has both a position and velocity”. That is, it’s perfect now, and its process of change unfolding is also perfect.

Reply

Ersin August 4, 2012 at 14:30

Aha ! This way, maybe, it can be compatible. Then the question is which one do I start with ? Accepting or changing things ? Both ?

This paradox is very close the paradox of free will and determinism, I think.

Well, anyway, thanks for answering.

Ersin August 8, 2012 at 10:29

Hey, ack. I found something very interesting that I wantd to share with you : http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/23/health/23lives.html/?pagewanted=all

It’s an article about Dialectical Behaviour Therapy where they talk about self-acceptance vs. self-improvement.

I’ve even ordered the skill work book of DBT. It seems very promising.

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