It’s impossible to go throughout life without experiencing loss, rejection, failure, heartbreak and adversity on some level. Stressful situations happen to everyone.
Some things happen suddenly. We’re heading in one direction and unexpectedly we get the call that our brother died in a car crash. One moment we’re running for the ball during a soccer match and in the next, we find ourselves lying on a stretcher with a broken C2 vertebrae. Or, the person we thought had feelings for us suddenly goes cold.
On the surface we can understand the hard things of life: accidents happen. People make mistakes. Injury, loss and pain are unavoidable facts of life. These are basic tenets we understand. But understanding and acceptance are not the same thing.
It’s easier to understand that accidents happen. Much harder to accept the loss that is yours. It’s easier to understand how an injury or illness happened or maybe how it could have been prevented. Much harder to accept the path to healing. It’s easier to understand that the investment from the other person won’t be reciprocated in the way you want. Much harder to let go of the feelings you have and to not feel stupid for having them in the first place.
Understanding a situation and accepting the situation are not the same thing.
I’ve recently been moving through some difficult feelings. While I can finally understand the situation, something I fought for quite some time, it wasn’t until this last week that I realized I was struggling with the acceptance of it. I was going through the motions and mouthing, ‘it is what it is’, but with no real sense meaning behind it and that’s because I didn’t want to accept the loss – I didn’t want to lose the meaning the particular thing held in my life.
When we experience loss in our lives, on any level – big or small – from our interpersonal relationships to the relationships we have with our jobs or identity, we also lose the associated meaning that thing or person represented and to lose that meaning is to lose a part of ourselves.
When we lose something in life, the hardest pill to swallow is that part of us is gone.
The emptiness we all feel when we lose something is a lack of meaning and identity. There is, quite literally, a hole inside ourselves of what this person or this thing meant to us. We can understand the loss all we want, but when we fight the acceptance of ‘what is’, we end up clinging to the past and find ourselves fighting against our reality, which only intensifies the pain we feel.
What Is, Is What Is
Psychotherapist David Richo in his book, The Five Things We Cannot Change: And the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them says, “We can learn to accept life on its own terms. We can even find its terms satisfactory. We do not have to shake our fist at heaven. We do not have to demand an exemption or take refuge in a belief system that muffles the wallop of the givens by promising a paradise without them. We can craft a sane and authentic life by saying yes to life just as it is. Indeed, our path is ‘what is’”.
Acceptance doesn’t mean you like the situation. Chances are, you won’t. Acceptance doesn’t mean when adversity comes your way you throw your hands up excitedly and say, “Bring it on!” Because the reality is, your first impetus will be to tell it to F off.
Acceptance is simply an acknowledgement of what is. Rather than fighting against and forcing to change, acceptance is a softening around. Whatever the situation or feeling you have around it, it simply ‘is what it is’ at the moment. Only when you can acknowledge ‘what is’, can you move beyond what’s happening right now and begin to create the path forward.
In many ways, acceptance is the birthplace of real freedom because when we can move past understanding a situation for what it is to full acceptance of the situation – that the situation just ‘is what it is’ – we stop giving our power away to the things in life we can’t control.
You can’t control other people’s actions
You can’t control how and when they will respond to you
You can’t control if someone else returns the love you give
You can control your response to what happens
You can control what meaning you assign to the event
You can control the lessons and learning you gain from the experience so that you may carry them forward
We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.” — Carl Jung
The Path Forward
All experiences in life are just that: experiences. And the reality is, at the end of the day, while we can’t choose the experiences themselves, we can choose what we experience. When we allow ourselves to accept life as it is, we open the door to choosing how we experience it and what meaning we gain from it.
Accepting What Is
In the intenSati class I teach, the word Sati means mindfulness or awareness without judgement. It’s the pause, the breath, so that you can tune in and become aware of what you are feeling. Awareness is central to everything we do because without awareness we are simply reacting to whatever life throws at us and experiencing the resulting emotions.
Take a moment to pause and take several deep breaths in and out through the nose, allowing yourself to ground down fully into this present moment. Begin to notice how you feel (excited, angry, hurt, indifferent, etc.) and just sit with the feeling itself: what does it feel like and where do you feel it? The objective here is to remove any meaning attached to the emotion (i.e. I’m upset because…).
Reflect on what is causing your suffering, discomfort or struggle. You might already know why you feel the way you do, but often times we think it’s one thing until we sit with it and get really curious. Rather than thinking the hurt is the result of something someone else said or did, when we sit with our hurt, we might realize we’re upset with ourselves and what we sacrificed or gave up.
Side note: this is probably the hardest part of the process because we don’t want to feel the hard and uncomfortable stuff of life. We often forget the human part and the experience part of life – or we might simply want to bypass them – and jump right ahead to spiritual enlightenment. This step reminds us that the work is in the work itself.
Give Yourself a Reality Check
After you’ve gotten clear on what is at the root of your suffering, make a list of all the things and parts of your life that you can’t control. Then, next to each item, identify what you can do to respond to the things you can’t control.
Making this list, as simple as it sounds, is by far such an enlightening process because even though we understand what things are outside of our control, it’s not until we write them out on paper that we can truly see how much time and energy we are investing into the things that don’t matter because we have no control over how they go anyway. Beyond that, when we reflect on the things we can’t control, we can gain clarity around the things we can – and that’s where we put the power back in our hands to move forward.