Several years after first learning about the power of the mind, I, too, was finding my way. For a time, my main spiritual practice was saying mantras and affirmations in an attempt to change my life circumstances. The strategy worked; things I wanted came to me. Then, the rate of change slowed. I became interested in other ways of improving myself, an interest that led to my writing the first two books in this series. During this time I learned several new spiritual practices, including meditation and following my intuition, practices I value to this day. By the end of the second of these spiritual memoirs, though, my focus began to shift. Rather than seeking enlightenment, I started seeking acceptance. And I don’t think it’d be an overstatement to say that since completing that book, acceptance has been the theme of my life.
It keeps coming back. It started with Matt Kahn and his book, Whatever Arises, Love That: A Love Revolution That Begins With You. Then, oh–Pema Chodron. She wrote When Things Fall Apart: A Heart Advice for Difficult Times, and several others just as good on the same topic. I was surprised by Glennon Doyle’s marriage memoir Love Warrior and then, at the tail end of my last pregnancy, I read Byron Katie’s Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, and that did it.
I’d learn this acceptance thing if it killed me.
One afternoon during this difficult time my Buddhist friend came to my house for a visit. She let me sit on the mattress on my living room floor–practically at her feet–and ask her what she thought of my life goal to live in a state of meditation (which for me is spiritual-ese for “continual bliss”).
“That’s a good goal,” she said. I was buoyed, but she wasn’t done. “You will still feel pain, though, you know. The waves won’t knock you over, and whatever happens, you’ll have peace. But sadness? That’s still going to happen.”
“Even if you’re perfect, if you do everything right?” I asked. “Even if you’re in touch with the Divine at all times?”
“I think so,” she said. “I think you always will.”
“You’re probably right,” I said. “But part of me is convinced that if I’m spiritual enough, pain will be impossible. I’ll be able to return to my spiritual high, no matter what happens–at least most of the time.”
“Well, that’s what you’ve been taught. As a Buddhist, I’ve been taught something different. Buddhists seek to be at peace in the midst of all circumstances. But we don’t try to maintain an emotional high. The body can’t handle it. It wouldn’t even be healthy.
“The high is temporary. The high is a buzz. When you seek to sustain it, you create attachment.”
Byron Katie disagrees. “Peace is our natural condition,” she says. When we’re free of our limiting beliefs, we can’t help but feel good; it’s who we are. The discomfort, the pain–they’re not the truth. They’re the result of our fears. As we do the Work and the untrue thoughts dissipate, we free ourselves from suffering. This is my experience, and yet–there’s still pain. Lots of it. Even after a year of the Work. Maybe a year isn’t long enough to find freedom. Or maybe my Buddhist friend is right, and as long as I’m still on earth, I’ll have suffering.
I don’t know. I wonder. I don’t know.
But I know what I know, which is that when you can’t avoid pain, you can still appreciate it.
Appreciation is a shortcut to acceptance.
A few days ago, a blog reader asked me how we can balance our need to change difficult life circumstances with our need to accept them. It’s a great question, and when I began my response, I didn’t know where it would go. I made a few general statements, nothing particularly insightful. Then I decided to speak of my own experience. This is what I said:
“Personally, I don’t leave much to fate. If I want it, I go after it. I simply try to do so in an detached way, with the attitude that if it’s not meant to be, well, I’ll be fine. Does this ‘going after’ of something sometimes feel like non-acceptance? Surprisingly, not really. Think of it this way: Acceptance is not liking something. Acceptance is looking at something you don’t like and realizing that it is the very best thing for you right now.
“Acceptance isn’t liking something. It’s not liking it and appreciating it, anyway.”
At the start of this serial, I described my struggles with motherhood, perfectionism, depression and more. And since writing those words, little in my external reality has changed. Ellie is over a year old now. My boys are five and three. I still don’t get much time to write, and I’m still depressed.
And yet. Things have changed. Internally, that is. Somewhere along the line–I believe it began in the fall–I started interrupting myself during tough moments to remind myself to appreciate difficulty. “This is the good stuff,” I tell myself when I find myself bubbling with annoyance or anger. “This is the best part, the part that helps me grow. If I didn’t have challenges, life wouldn’t be worth living. If everything was always perfect, what would be the point?”
It’s a great habit. No–it’s a great spiritual practice. One of the best.
These days, I still seek to maintain a state of continuous meditation. I still try to use my intuition for decisions large and small. But when it comes to spirituality, I’ve shifted focus significantly. My new form of spirituality isn’t seeking bliss, or enlightenment, or a continual experience of the Divine. It’s less lofty than that, more practical. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like spirituality at all; instead, it’s just a philosophy that helps me get through the day. Put succinctly, my religion is peace, pain, hard work, appreciation and acceptance.
Pain is a gift. It’s the greatest teacher we’ll ever have. Inner peace is our truest compass. Hard work reminds us of our humanness, but it’s appreciation that does the heavy lifting. When I appreciate something without liking it is when I’m really being a master. Then, at the right time, acceptance follows.
Appreciation leads to acceptance, which leads to peace.
Like Kuffel, I’m not everyone’s idea of a success story. She’s still fat. I’m still depressed. But I’m starting to see my way more clearly. And for now, that’s enough.