When it comes to uncontrollable events and circumstances, are you more like a stone or a feather in the stream of life? A feather floats on the surface, riding the waves and eddies, allowing the current to carry it. A stone sinks into the mud where it is eroded; gradually worn away by friction until, it too, is inevitably taken by the current. In our culture it is considered admirable to resist or fight against unwanted things and to relentlessly pursue things we want. However, this approach can have problematic consequences when applied indiscriminately.
Acceptance is the decision to be a feather in the stream of experience, rather than a stone. It is allowing what is already here, rather than avoiding, pushing away or struggling against it. Sometimes it makes sense to take action in order to change our circumstances. Other times anything we do will only make things worse. Mindfulness provides space to discern and respond with wisdom.
When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow &, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. – from Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Wisdom comes from a willingness to see things as they are rather than the way we think they should be. A consistent practice of mindfulness, or non-judgmental observation of what arises in any given situation, allows us to gather information we might otherwise miss and to learn from it. This patient accumulation of knowledge creates a sense of trust in experience and cultivates equanimity – balance and calm amidst difficulty.
Meditation teacher Shinzen Young said, “Equanimity is a fundamental skill for self-exploration and emotional intelligence,” calling it a “balanced state of non-self-interference.” Instead of being mindlessly dragged around and dominated by strong emotion or pain, the wisdom and equanimity cultivated through clear seeing bring a calm, undisturbed space in which we have the opportunity to choose our response. We develop the freedom to ask ourselves, “In this moment, will I be a feather or will I be a stone? Will I feel the pain of one arrow or two?”
For a learned person who has fathomed the Dhamma (truth),
clearly seeing this world & the next,
desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.
His acceptance & rejection are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist.
Knowing the dustless, sorrowless state,
he discerns rightly,
has gone, beyond becoming,
to the Further Shore.
– Sallatha Sutta
Santosha is the second Niyama, or virtuous habit, which is the 2nd of the 8 limbs of yoga. It means contentment regardless or circumstances and its practice cultivates a joyful and serene mind that is free from craving.
From an attitude of contentment (santosha), unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction is obtained. – Yoga Sutra 2.42
Santosha is such a powerful state of mind because it facilitates all of the other yama and niyama. One who is free from wanting ever more is less likely to steal (asteya), hoard (aparigraha) or use things to excess (bramacharya). Being accepting of ourselves, others we meet, and our circumstances, we feel no need to lie (satya) or cause harm (ahimsa). When we don’t expend all our energy pursuing the things we think we want or trying to change others or our uncontrollable circumstances, we have more space to look inward, know ourselves and direct our attention toward the greater good.
It is quite a skill to be able to accept whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. When we open to experience, rather than denying it or pushing it away, we are more capable of responding with wisdom. We learn to be satisfied with no more and no less than what we really need. We cease to be distracted by appearances and that which is impermanent, instead taking comfort in what is already here within each of us – that which is eternal.
He whose mind is calm, who is endowed with the “Four Means” of salvation, who is free from defects and impurities can realise the Self intuitively through meditation… Shanti (quiescence of mind), Santosha (contentment), Satsanga (association with wise teachers) and Vichara (self enquiry) are the four sentinels (the Four Means) who guard the gates of Moksha (liberation). If you make friendship with them, you will easily enter the kingdom of Moksha. Even if you keep company with one of them, he will surely introduce you to his other three companions. – Yoga Vasishtha
Being content regardless of circumstances doesn’t mean we passively resign ourselves to mistreatment. Rather, it means we are better able to see things as they are, abiding calmly with whatever arises with an open mind. It is from this vantage point that we are better able to respond. How can we respond wisely when we the mind is agitated, driven by afflictive emotions such as passion and aggression, distracted by efforts to grasp and avoid, or blinded by denial?
In practicing santosha in our daily lives we can:
- notice when we are judging and comparing and instead do our best to adopt beginner’s mind, seeing each experience as new and unique – an opportunity for learning.
- experiment with letting go of likes and dislikes, allowing ourselves to truly be with what is here now regardless of our preferences.
- adopt an attitude of gratitude, giving more attention to the beneficial or useful things we receive every day from others and our environment.
- remind ourselves that all things are ever-changing and impermanent, so we can savor each moment knowing it is all that we really have and it is enough.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Freedom is an important human value. The US constitution defines it as a basic right. It can be tempting to think of freedom as being able to do or say whatever you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want. However, true freedom comes from within. We free ourselves when we question limiting beliefs and attitudes that constrict our world view – when we let go of unskillful behavior that keeps us trapped in harmful cycles. The freedom to choose one’s own path cannot be prevented by anything outside of us.
In light of this, freedom might be better conceptualized as unobstructed awareness and liberation from hinderances. In order to access this freedom within, we have to work toward understanding and transcending the things that most often hold us captive, such as ignorance, attachment and aversion.
Ignorance is not knowing – a lack of awareness or wisdom. We may not have enough experience for true understanding or we may lack mindfulness, being too distracted or not attending to what is here in the present moment. We can also be confused, misperceiving or misunderstanding reality through the projection of our own fears and desires. How can we be free if we are unaware of the very possibility of freedom?
Our attachments can be limiting when our attention is hijacked by things we like, that feel good, or that appeal to us. We relentlessly pursue the things we are attached to and we work hard to sustain them. In addition, we cling to ideas or beliefs about the way things should be. In this relentless pursuit of desires and preferences, we fail to notice much of what is here in the present moment – including the fact that nothing outside of us brings true lasting happiness. How can we be free when we are chained to concepts that define our reality?
Our aversions can be equally limiting, because we spend so much time and energy avoiding, pushing away, distracting ourselves from, ignoring, denying, or fighting against things we don’t like. When we are very irritated or annoyed by some thing or someone, we often fail to recognize that we are gazing into a mirror at some quality that we harbor in ourselves that needs some attention. How can we be free when we are perpetually on the run from perceived tormentors?
Fortunately there are ways to begin to transcend these limiting attitudes and behaviors. The most important step is to recognize them in ourselves and better understand them. This takes courage, curiosity and devotion. Self-awareness can be cultivated through mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga. Through these practices, we develop the skill of non-judgmentally observing what arises in us in any given situation, which eventually allows us some space to consider rather than to merely react. Mindfulness practices give us the opportunity to:
- open and gain insight into whatever is here now, rather than ignoring or pushing away things we don’t like, and
- let go of grasping at and clinging to things that do not serve us.
Wisdom comes through this willingness to see things as they really are, rather than filtering our experiences through a veil of fear, desire, preferences and concepts. Equanimity – a quality of balance and stability, even in difficult circumstances – arises from this increased understanding.
Instead of being mindlessly dragged around, dominated by strong emotion or pain, the wisdom and equanimity cultivated through mindfulness bring a calm, undisturbed space in which we have the opportunity to choose our path. This is true freedom.
The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are… There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first. ― Jim Morrison
Like anything that gains popularity and is consumed solely through the (often) superficial lens of the mass media, mindfulness has been mischaracterized and misunderstood. In this series, I will attempt to address some of the most common myths that I encounter around the practices.
Myth #1: The purpose of mindfulness is to relax & stop thinking.
Many new practitioners feel concern or frustration when they do not achieve relaxation, a sense of peacefulness, or a mind free of thoughts when they meditate or try any of the other mindfulness practices. In fact, there are some that are so attached to experiencing “bliss” that they quickly become discouraged and give up.
The real goal of mindfulness is liberation from suffering. By consistently directing bare attention to phenomena we gain insight into reality and free ourselves from the conditioning and habits that color our experiences.
To end internal human suffering, we must see through delusion and awaken to the nature of awareness, not just pacify the mind. – Robert Epstein
Many times we do indeed feel relaxed during practice and our minds become relatively still. At other times the mind is full of incessant chatter. Striving to “empty” it gets us nowhere. In addition, some of what we encounter in practice can be uncomfortable, unpleasant or unwanted. We may experience boredom, anxiety, restlessness, or sensations of pain in the body. Not all phenomena are peace inducing and insisting on bliss will only add to our suffering.
Instead, we set an intention to be open to and present with what is, whether pleasant or unpleasant, wanted or unwanted. We develop insight into and a new relationship with our thoughts, feelings, and urges to action. Over time we are freed from the grasping and aversion that initially drove our behavior and caused much of our suffering.
The take away: Don’t be discouraged when you encounter difficulty in your mindfulness practice. When it happens, it doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong. Instead, try to cultivate patience, beginner’s mind and a spirit of friendly curiosity so that you can see it more clearly and relate to it with greater wisdom.
Acceptance is one of the seven interdependent fundamental attitudes of mindfulness that are consciously cultivated during practice, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn. In his book Full Catastrophe Living, he calls these attitudes “the soil in which you will be cultivating your ability to calm your mind and relax your body, to concentrate and to see more clearly.”
Acceptance means opening to, rather than resisting, what is. We often confuse acceptance with resignation; however, resignation suggests hopelessness, a passive “giving up”, or quitting. Acceptance also doesn’t equal liking – we can accept what is without it being our preference. Acceptance is an active and intentional choice of allowing, rather than resisting or struggling against, that which is already here.
For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain. ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Finding acceptance can only happen when we recognize that much less is under our personal control than we believe. How can we have personal control when everything is interdependent and impermanent? Even the very cells of our bodies are dependent upon and influenced by the workings of other cells and organisms in and around us – and they are transforming every day! Being aware of the ever-changing, complex interplay of experience and existence allows us be more accepting of ourselves and others.
Acceptance is acknowledging what is already here without intention to change; however, it is interesting that acceptance often eventually leads to the most profound and lasting type of change human beings can experience – second order, contextual change which involves a shift in our very perceptions, fundamental beliefs, and approach to living.
Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. ― Lao Tzu
A fundamental attitude of mindfulness, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, is non-judging, which is an awareness of the tendency to be ruled by an inner critic. When we are running on automatic pilot, everything we encounter is filtered through our likes and dislikes – categorizing experiences along a continuum of good to bad, pleasant to unpleasant, desirable to undesirable. We can even find ourselves judging the tendency to judge.
It is a matter of survival that human beings make judgments and we have been strongly conditioned to do so. Our habitual response is to avoid or fight against things that we deem undesirable and to chase after or cling to things that we desire. The problem occurs when we are unaware of what is happening inside us and our reflexive responses create suffering for ourselves and others.
Cultivating a non-judging attitude requires a willingness to notice this habit of judging. Rather than trying to stop the judging, we can learn to become aware of it as it occurs so that we can make space to respond more skillfully. In meditation and in daily life, we practice observing the judging mind and its associated feelings and body sensations with openness and curiosity, without trying to change it in any way.
Over time and with consistent practice, we may begin to notice that the judging mind recedes into the background while a clearer awareness predominates. We notice a willingness to look beyond our initial judgments – to tolerate ambiguity and discomfort so that we are open to things we may have never noticed before. Space emerges for consideration over knee-jerk reactions.
Non-judging contributes to discernment, which is the ability to distinguish what is from opinions, assumptions, and preferences. When we see things as they truly are, we have the information we need to respond more appropriately.
Walk in harmony with the nature of things,
your own fundamental nature,
and you will walk freely and undisturbed.
However, when mind is in bondage, the truth is hidden,
and everything is murky and unclear,
and the burdensome practice of judging
brings annoyance and weariness.
What benefit can be derived
from attachment to distinctions and separations?
– The Great Way, Third Chinese Patriarch