Accepting Reality As It Is
As the Omicron variant continues to explode around the globe, the most common question I hear personally as well as in the media is, ”when will it end?” Answers range from next month to never, which means that no one knows. And that makes sense since this is new to all of us, layperson and scientist alike.
We resist what we don’t like, what feels uncomfortable or what feels uncertain. But it is in all of this resisting that we create much of our own suffering. I think acceptance is one of the most challenging aspects of mindfulness because we’re so conditioned to resist or avoid what we don’t want. That could range from being restricted from seeing family and friends to being hospitalized to losing a loved one. The difference of course is the intensity of the discomfort, but whatever level you’re experiencing, it’s painful and we don’t want to experience pain of any kind.
The problem is, we are in pain and there is no avoiding it. As much as we want the virus to go away, the odds aren’t in our favor that it’s going to anytime soon, if ever. Instead of adding a second layer of misery on top of the reality of our situation, we can learn to accept it. Acceptance doesn’t mean we have to like it, or agree with it, or condone it. It simply means that we release the resistance and accept that we are in this situation and we cannot change it.
We can change how we see the situation and how we respond to it. Acceptance benefits us because instead of spinning our wheels making up stories or expending energy judging or blaming others for the situation, we recognize that we could better spend our efforts in determining how we want to experience life under the conditions of this reality. It prompts us to stop waiting for external events to change and take actions now that serve us.
This is true with smaller painful events as well. I dread going to the dentist and since I have a lot of dental issues, unfortunately have to go quite a bit. My dentist and her staff are very gentle, but the situation is just awful to me. I’m physically uncomfortable with the positions required in the chair, the drilling sounds cause my stress response to pop up immediately, the occasional burning smells wreak havoc on my imagination and there’s frequently some level of pain involved somewhere at some point.
My resistance to this process used to start well before the actual appointment. I would start fretting about it as soon as I made the appointment. I allowed thoughts like “with all of our technological advances, why do dentists still manually scrape teeth with sharp objects?” Or, “if dental hygiene is so important, why don’t insurance companies fully cover it?” Or, well, you get the idea. Resistant, negative thoughts doing nothing but making me either angry about having to go or generating more anxiety. Then dentists started taking blood pressure and mine is always through the roof when they take the reading. Of course it is. I’m completely angst-ridden. So then I’d get irritated that dentists evidently don’t understand how stress-inducing it is to just step into the dentist’s office, at least for me. On top of that, I’d start worrying about what my blood pressure reading would be before I went for my next appointment and that would cause even more anxiety and resistance.
All of my resistance did two things. First, it prevented me from going as regularly as I should have for years, resulting in even more work that had to be done when I finally did make myself go. And second, resistance generates stress which not only releases stress hormones, but intensifies pain. That wasn’t really serving me at all.
I don’t know anyone who likes going to the dentist (no offense to dentists). But by accepting that I had to go if I wanted to keep my teeth and releasing my resistance to it, I found it wasn’t as painful as in my resistance days and I skipped the miserable days of dread leading up to the visit. I learned to use conscious breathing to reduce my dental-related anxiety and to get through my procedures emotionally calmer. I paid attention to what my body was telling me during the procedures. I would notice I had clenched my hands, for example, and would slowly relax them. Tension and resistance do not help eliminate pain. They either prolong it or intensify it, whether physical or emotional.
Think about everything you’re resisting related to our current global situation. I don’t just mean masks and vaccines and remote learning. I’m talking about resisting living this way. Being angry at the lack of service because of staff shortages. Feeling frustrated over the supply chain problems. Being furious with governments because of their slow response to citizens’ needs. Criticizing health agencies for not knowing more than they do. Getting annoyed over all of the things that you can’t do right now for health or safety reasons. Being enraged over travel delays. Think of the amount of energy you’re expending on all of those negative reactions, which are really just forms of resisting reality. Does it change the situation in any way? No, it doesn’t. Worse, it increases the stress hormones flooding your body, which guess what? Makes you feel even worse.
Resisting the reality of what is simply drains you of energy and wellness. A healthier approach is to accept whatever your situation is when it’s something out of your control. You might need to grieve what has been lost, change your goals or rethink how you’re living your life. But that’s moving in the right direction. Take all of that energy previously spent on resisting and use it to focus on what you can control, what you need to change and how you can maintain your health and well-being.
To move out of resistance and into acceptance, first acknowledge what you’re resisting. What aspects of reality are you fighting right now? Your emotions, other people, circumstances, experiences? Contemplate the ways this resistance is creating more pain and suffering for you.
If you’ve been resisting reality, you might have been suppressing or denying your emotions. Try talking to a friend or journaling about your feelings. If the emotions feel too big, consider talking to a therapist.
Allowing yourself the space to really be with your emotions frees you from being hindered by them. We can be with our most uncomfortable feelings by being kind and compassionate with ourselves and by recognizing that just like thoughts, feelings pass. Mindfulness and self-compassion both allow us to live with more acceptance and less resistance. Pain is a fact of life. Adding to that pain by resisting it doesn’t have to be.
I learned to do this by starting small. I first focused on a physical pain and instead of grabbing an aspirin or a glass of wine to numb it, I sat with it. I opened up to curiosity about what the sensations of the pain really felt like. I noticed that the more I focused on the sensations, the less intense they felt. After a few times of practicing on physical pain, I tried the same strategy with emotional pain. I can’t say that it’s a pleasurable experience, but after accepting that I was in pain and exploring what that really felt like, the intensity of the emotions began to dissipate. The amount of time varied depending on the intensity of the pain, but painful emotions that are explored instead of resisted are eventually released.
It's perfectly normal human behavior to resist pain, but again, pain is part of life. We can’t resist or avoid painful feelings, physical ailments or even thoughts without causing ourselves additional suffering, so why not consider shifting to acceptance and not only feel better, but build your mindfulness skills in the process?
I had to laugh when the annual lists of words and phrases to banish from our vocabulary came out for the new year. “It is what it is” was on one of the lists. That’s just another form of resistance. Removing the phrase from our vocabulary won’t remove the reality of the statement. The reality is, it is what it is, whether we like it or not. But instead of resisting, we can not only accept that this is how life is right now, we can begin imagining what it can become.