“Ask not that events should happen as you will, but let your will be that events should happen as they do, and you shall have peace.” – Epictetus
For many people, the idea of opening their hearts and minds to painful or uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations seems like the last thing they wish to do. There is a natural human tendency to avoid things that are unpleasant and move towards things that are enjoyable. Much of the time, this strategy works… to warn us of dangerous situations best avoided and pleasurable activities or opportunities to seek out. However, problems can arise when people continually stuff down, avoid, and deny internal experiences.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) takes a mindfully accepting attitude towards all experiences by suggesting the importance of “laying out the red carpet” for unwanted feelings. Invite them in or else they will stay for a long time. Imagine that you have just had an argument with a loved one and you are experiencing a range of distressing feelings: anxiety/fear, anger, or sadness. Maybe you’re even feeling a bit guilty for something that you have said or done.
In this situation, it is understandable to have a deep desire to not feel these painful feelings. Some people react to unwanted thoughts or feelings by pretending they don’t exist, minimizing their importance, or avoiding the person/situation who activates the negative feelings. Do you notice that when you try to avoid thoughts and feelings, they really don’t magically go away? There must be a better solution than painful denial and avoidance.
There is a solution – welcoming what is. When we fully welcome and accept all thoughts and feelings, we are no longer caught in a struggle with them… we are no longer fighting what is. Remind yourself that in no way does acceptance mean approval any more than it means resignation or giving up. In fact, all that you are “giving up” is the choice to continue to struggle and suffer.
It is somewhat paradoxical that when we truly open ourselves to accept where we are, then we are open to change and grow. Through mindfulness practices, it is possible to learn how to welcome “what is” in the constantly unfolding present moment. In fact, you can even take things a step further in your acceptance-based mindfulness practice by expressing gratitude for painful and uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
If you have a tendency to push down, minimize, or deny unwanted thoughts and feelings, try meeting your next uncomfortable internal experience with a different attitude and see what happens. Imagine that you are still feeling those lingering feelings of anger, sadness, or fear resulting from an argument with a loved one. Rather than avoid those feelings at all costs, try something different: “I notice myself feeling anger/sadness/fear.” “I fully accept these feelings.” “These feelings are temporary.”
How to Practice Acceptance
“Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy” (Crane, 2009) points out the underpinning learning that supports acceptance:
- Be aware of sensations in your body to anchor you to the present moment
- Practice responding to these sensations from a connected place, rather than reacting from a disconnected place
- Move from “avoidance mode” to “approach mode” by cultivating an open and curious attitude towards all experiences
- See with absolute clarity the unnecessary suffering that avoidance causes
- Choose an attitude of allowing, rather than forcing things to be different than they actually are
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Crane, R. (2009). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. New York, NY: Routledge.
Featured image: Open your wings by Alejandra Mavroski / CC BY 2.0