The vast majority of the articles I’ve written are about how to heal and prevent disease. Of course that’s important, and what most of us are after. However, the reality of life is that sometimes, despite our best efforts, we can’t avoid illness or disease. And as I pointed out in a recent article, The Biggest Obstacle to Perfect Health is Your Mind, if there’s one thing we can be sure of it’s that we’re all dying from the moment we’re born. Morbid, perhaps. But it’s the truth.
When I first became ill back in 1998, all of my efforts were directed towards getting well. That was appropriate and natural. I spent tons of energy researching possible causes of my symptoms, I tried special diets, I took supplements, herbs and drugs, I saw numerous doctors and alternative practitioners of every possible persuasion, I read every book on health I could get my hands on. I even enrolled in Chinese medicine school in 1999 to learn how to heal myself with natural medicine. And yet mid-way through 2000 I was still sick.
When nutrition and medicine aren’t enough
At that point it began to dawn on me that there was more to living with and healing from chronic illness than endlessly tweaking my diet or exercise program. So I made the decision to drop out of school and move to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA. Esalen is a retreat center with classes and workshops on everything from meditation practice to music and fine art to personal development. My goal was to deeply explore the psychological, emotional and spiritual dimensions of the illness I was experiencing and uncover any hidden obstacles that may have been preventing me from healing.
I ended up getting a job there and staying for a little over two years. It was a profoundly supportive and nourishing place to live, and I gained valuable insight into the “immaterial” realms of my physical condition. But after two years of deep inquiry and exploration, my health was still not optimal.
I was alternating between periods of hope, where I would try some new diet, supplement, or plan, or despair, where I would give up the search and sometimes engage in self-destructive behavior (i.e. “Why not eat 6 cookies? Doesn’t seem to make a difference if I don’t.”) When I was hopeful, the future looked bright and I had faith I was going to beat the illness. When I felt despair, the future was bleak and there was hardly any point in going on.
I’d done enough Zen practice by this time to know that both hope and despair are simply states of mind based in an idea I had about the future. There was nothing inherently real about either of them. They were like the weather. Sometimes it’s sunny and warm, sometimes it’s rainy and cold.
The power of acceptance
This was when acceptance became the primary focus of my spiritual practice. I was tired of vacillating back and forth between hope and despair, of being tossed back and forth by the turbulence of my thoughts or “mental secretions”, as Kosho Uchiyama Roshi calls them in his book Opening the Hand of Thought.
I knew that despite all of my best efforts, I still hadn’t fully recovered my health. But I also knew that it was possible to be at peace regardless of the circumstances of my life. The truth is that not all problems are solvable. As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, we don’t have full control over the conditions of our lives. But the one thing we do have control over is how we relate to ourselves and the the world around us; specifically, whether we accept what is or struggle against it.
When most people (including myself at one point) hear the word “acceptance”, they think of giving up or caving in. But giving up is not acceptance – it’s submission. And there’s a crucial difference between the two.
Acceptance simply means the recognition that the moment is as it is. That’s it. It is not a value judgment. Accepting something is true in this moment doesn’t mean that we endorse it or approve of it. It just means we recognize it is in this particular moment.
Nor does acceptance mean anything about the future. If we accept something is true in this moment, that doesn’t mean we can’t work towards changing it in the future – in the very next moment. Acceptance transcends hope or despair, future or past. It’s simply seeing reality as it is.
Acceptance = freedom
Using my own experience as an example, accepting that I was ill did not make the illness go away. Nor did it stop me from continuing to pursue treatment in the hopes of improving my health. What it did do is remove an entirely unnecessary layer of suffering that came from continuously struggling against what was true in each moment.
I believe that it’s not possible to take truly effective action until we fully accept what is. But that’s not easy. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things we can do. Because to accept something means to let in all of the feelings and sensations that go along with that something. In the case of illness, it means feeling the grief associated with the lost dreams, the fear that we may never get well or that we won’t survive, and the isolation that comes from living with chronic illness.
Ironically, it is avoiding these feelings (i.e. not accepting them) that prevents us from taking appropriate action. Not accepting something doesn’t make it go away. It just distances us from ourselves and from reality in general, which ultimately leads to more suffering.
When we accept what is, we are free. Free to act in accordance with reality. Free to be at peace with the circumstances of our lives, no matter how undesirable or difficult they are. And free to continue to do everything in our power to improve the conditions of our lives (or of life in general) in the next moment.
Acceptance is a fundamental tenet of every major spiritual and religious tradition. In Christianity, acceptance is expressed as putting your faith in God or Jesus. In Islam, the phrase “insha’Allah” means “as God wills”. But whether you’re religious, agnostic or atheist, I believe that cultivating acceptance is absolutely essential for anyone living with chronic illness or pain.