Quicksand, Serenity and Acceptance

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

We often think of the pains and difficulties in our life as “problems”. Just thinking about something as a problem might set it up in our mind as something that therefore needs to be eliminated, gotten rid of. The nasty boss, the illness, the past trauma – the voice inside growls, “That pain is not welcome in my life!”

In protest our mind chants, “Why did this happen to me?” Have we ever received a good answer to that question, “Why me?” We ask that question not because we want to know the cause and effect. It’s really more about how unfair and unwanted this pain feels.

What goes on inside when we protest and try to change what has already happened? As we gnaw away on the injustices, abuses, slights, betrayals, and hurts that life inflicts on us, we’re churning and stressing. But when we fight with our private experience, who is the fight with? Trying to get rid of a problem or symptom usually just creates more problems and symptoms, more suffering.

I don’t know if you’re keeping score at home, but this is something that we do all the time. Even so, the wise part of our mind, dressed in shimmering robes or, in my case, an old bathrobe, knows that we’re trying to achieve something we can’t – we’re trying to change history. The really gutsy, courageous, tough and quite healthy way to go is to practice acceptance. From the more trivial (to accept that you’ll never have a perfect body) to the more urgent (coming to terms with trauma or chronic illness), acceptance is a wise and foundational part of being well.

Remember those old Tarzan movies when the bad guy gets caught in the quicksand? If you struggle, which your survival instincts scream for, you’re a goner. But if you patiently accept that you’re in it and relax, you float on the surface.

And so acceptance can feel foreign and even wrong. On the surface of it, acceptance goes against the grain. It may seem passive, submissive or illogical. For physical changes to occur something physical must happen – the garbage doesn’t put itself out. But that logic may not transfer over to mind because there’s lots that gets hidden from our conscious awareness.

Mostly, what gets hidden is our massive wish to not feel pain, our wish for things to be other than how they are. Like a magnet, we’re pulled to what feels good and (with the magnet reversed) repelled by what feels bad. And so our mind might rant about ‘how unfair’ and try to get rid of the dirty deal, searching for who’s to blame – stressing ourselves into more suffering.

These habits of mind can make a bad situation worse. Our mind senses the original pain and then cranks out a whole pile of suffering.

The wisdom of acceptance is embedded in heaps of clichés (think of spilled milk) and offerings such as The Serenity Prayer – “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I’d pick at this a little. I’d argue that in life it takes alot of courage to accept what’s true. I’d argue that only when we accept what is true will we then feel some of that serenity, not the other way around.

So I’d change the Serenity Prayer (is nothing sacred?!) to a Serenity Practice: “I’ll suffer less if I change the things that I can change and intimately accept the things that I can’t, while practicing the wisdom to see the difference.”