Radical Acceptance

Can you feel pain without suffering?  How about suffering without pain?  Although we often use the two terms synonymously, they are different concepts. 

A woman in labor might feel pain but not suffering because she is joyful about having a baby.  On the flipside, a mother might suffer because her child is in prison, but she is not having pain inflicted on her. 

This distinction is the key to the concept of “radical acceptance.”  Suffering arises when we wish things were other than they are.  We long for a reality that does not exist, and that difference between the reality we want and the reality we see is suffering. 

If we perceive these two realities to be very far apart, we experience intense suffering:  misery, agony, and torment. 

Radical acceptance suggests that we accept this reality exactly as it is in this moment.  Now, this doesn’t mean that we say everything in our present reality is “good” or “bad.”  Rather, we accept the reality of the situation to keep it from dominating our experience of the world. 

Sometimes this acceptance creates profound sadness, but it does not create suffering.  We can feel sadness and mourn the present without feeling regret or denying the reality that presently exists.  And once we allow ourselves to feel that sadness, we often feel a sense of release from the negative emotions we experienced. 

Radical acceptance also helps us by giving us clearer and more accurate information with which to make decisions. 

If we always experience the world through the filter of what we wish were true, then we are likely to distort or ignore information in our world that would help us make better decisions. 

Sometimes the best way to approach this idea is to “just state the facts.”  In any given situation, make a list of only what is proven to be true, not the story you’re telling yourself about how all the information is related. 

For example, I have seen so many people get in arguments because they took a couple of facts or events and extrapolated a story about how the other person doesn’t care about them, is trying to screw them over, or some other hurtful narrative. 

The truth is:  we can never truly know another person’s motivations, intentions, or goals.  We may hear words they say that indicate their perspective, and we may see actions that suggest certain motives or objectives.  But ultimately, we are creating a story from the limited and perceived facts that we know about that person. 

Pain in our life takes the form of facts:  we break our leg, lose our job, or witness the death of a loved one.  Suffering takes the form of the story we tell ourselves about the facts: 

We break our leg:  we’ll never be able to walk again and won’t be worthy of love.

We lose our job:  we’ve let down our family and have no identity without our work.

We lose a loved one:  we’ll never know love like that again.

This is the difference between “the Situation” and “the Story.”  The situation is pain; the story is what causes suffering. 

Some people are crushed by the pain in their lives, and other people are able to rise again and again every time they’re knocked down.  Your story and beliefs about the pain determine which one you are in any given situation. 

For one day, try to accept everything that happens.  Acknowledge when things “go wrong,” learn from them, and move on.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to change things for the better, but if something has already happened, you no longer have the power to change that past event.  You can work to prevent future occurrences, but you will experience more suffering if you reject your present reality. 

Have you accepted something difficult in your life and found peace afterwards?  I’d love to hear your story in comments below.  

Posted on October 16, 2014 .