Acceptance is a strangely loaded word. Self-help gurus sometimes say that if we accept things then we won’t try to change them. Social justice advocates sometimes say that if we accept the world as it is then we won’t take the actions necessary to bring about true justice. We need our fear, anger and discontentment, people say, to motivate us. But what if there is something better?
How do I make the discomfort of life go away, hopefully forever? How do I face up to the fact that I am going to die, like everyone, and stop worrying about it? How do I make it so that I don’t feel the insecurity of life so keenly? How do I deal with the fact that the world is messed up and the politicians don’t seem to care?
Those are the kind of questions that were on my mind when I went for a consulting interview with a Zen teacher a few years ago. So when the teacher asked, “Do you have any questions?”, almost as a joke I said, “Yeah, what should I do about my fucked up life?”
But for now, suffice to say, that part of the answer the teacher gave me was to accept that life will always be fucked up. He said, “There is a difference between inside fucked up and outside fucked up.” Outside fucked up is when the circumstances are different than we want them to be. Inside fucked up is when we can’t accept that the circumstances are not as we like.
Acceptance?! Give Me A Break!
Acceptance is, strangely, a loaded word. Self-help gurus sometimes say that if we accept things then we won’t try to change them. Social justice advocates sometimes say that if we accept the world as it is then we won’t take the actions necessary to bring about true justice. We need our fear, anger and discontentment, people say, to motivate us.
But actually, when we are stuck in our fear, anger and discontentment, what really is motivating us is the desire to make those feelings go away. Our brains are not so much motivated to bring about better conditions for ourselves and others but to remove the discomfort. We might, therefore, unconsciously turn to alcohol or drugs or sex or sleep or gluttony or denial or selfishness or even violence against others and the world to try to make our feelings change.
Not only that, but if we are accustomed to acting out of discontentment, fear and anger, then even as we near a goal to help ourselves and others, we can be distracted by the next thing that makes us feel uncomfortable. We will be pulled around by the nose by every bit of discomfort. Life will always be outside fucked up, the story goes, but if we are inside fucked up about that, we will forever remain on a hamster wheel, distracted from what is really important.
The Motivation Beyond Discontentment
On the other hand, what spiritual teachers I admire have told me is that if we are able to radically accept that the outsides will always be fucked up, if we accept it to the point of not even calling the outsides fucked up, then a tremendous personal energy will be released in the form of what could be called love and compassion. This love and compassion–unlike discontentment, fear and anger–is inexhaustible, fierce and focussed. As a motivator, it is exponentially stronger than the discontentment, my teachers say. And it isn’t so much about feeling better but about doing better.
So the paradox is, if we can avoid being inside fucked up about being outside fucked–that is to say, if we can radically accept our lives and the world as they are–we can stop struggling and therefore release gigantic amounts of energy to make the changes we need to make to help ourselves and others. Plus, we don’t have to be unhappy doing it. We can do what gives long-term satisfaction instead of just short-term relief.
How Do I Get Un-Inside-Fucked-Up?
Well, that is up to you. Some sort of spiritual practice (and I mean practice like meditation or centering prayer rather than just a spiritual “path” or “study”) can help. In this secular, hyper-rational age, we sometimes great spirituality with suspicion, sometimes justifiably since some people use their spirituality to numb themselves to the world’s problems instead of helping with them.
But I’d argue that’s a false spirituality (a discussion for another time). A real spirituality actually cements our place in the world and our ability to help it.
As for what practice to follow, this post is not so much about defining a spiritual practice as suggesting that one may be helpful. As for me, my own practice is Zen meditation but, of course, that may not be fore everyone. It’s a search. You can start it anytime. All you need is a little faith that your search will be fruitful. And I hope that my little article in Lion’s Roar will help with that. Check it out here and let me know what you think.