Practice Makes Presence
Radical acceptance isn't complacency or resignation. It is consciously noticing and acknowledging the emotional weather of the moment, without judgment. Those two words "without judgement" are the hardest part. Our conditioning tells us to suppress, to resist, to run, and to hide from our emotional weather. Radical acceptance is sitting in the rain until the time comes to dance in it. To dance first is to form an active and repressive denial of reality. Sitting with feelings and then recognizing and releasing judging thoughts is the first step to willingly living life, just as it, just as we are, and exactly where we are. The next obstacle is to avoid using acceptance and willingness as a new method to control feelings. This is resistance with a new mask in disguise. The willingness that follows acceptance is sitting in the emotional rainy weather, welcoming the thoughts and sensations without owning or rejecting them, and then deciding that this is the time to dance in the moment of life, even if the rains have come for a brief visit.
I discovered mindfulness meditation in early 2016 and fully developed a daily practice this year. As meaningful as it is, it ought to come with a warning "Do Not Try This If You Are Not Ready to Work and Become Someone New." Sitting is the easy part, but staying seated and gradually opening space to become aware of the thoughts, feelings, and memories that come and pass is the hard part. This book helped me to develop new tools to offer kindness, care, and space for my experience in the moment.
As I have committed to my mediation practice over the past months, the most accessible analogy for the experience is to describe the practice as if you were developing an extra gear mentally and physically. Driving a stick shift is becoming a lost art, but in the late 90s I had as small Nissan pickup truck that allowed me to learn and enjoy this type of driving experience. Manual transmission have more "pep" when accelerating and that comes in handy getting in and out of tight or congested spaces. I used to wish that there was a gear between second and third on my truck, since I felt second was overworking while driving in residential areas and third made the truck drag. This type of extra gear would have made coasting without speeding require much less shifting. This is the feeling that began to emerge in the weeks and months after I committed to my practice. In moments of true anxiety, fear, and shame, following the prompts back to my breath became that coasting gear.
The book comes with practical examples of the meditations, sets of exercises, and encouragement through some of the common challenges. The author is psychotherapist and a Buddhist and his connection between both of these perspectives adds a great deal to the practice. With these tools, your reliance on external reassurances of safety slowly withdrawal and it's you and your acceptance and awareness that becomes the refuge. To borrow a thought, with mindfulness we can become "the ones we are waiting for."
Who is this book for?
I have heard that one of the most often repeated commands in the Bible is a version of the phrase "Do not be afraid." I have also never heard those words at a moment of personal fear and been able to appreciate them. In fact, I am so good at fear that I actually struggle with fear of strong emotions in general. I would like to propose we reinvent our fear language. Even though fear is a basic biological impulse designed to protect our safety, its daily presence erodes our enjoyment of life. My friends, what should we make of fear?
The strangeness of each of the accounts in the Christian sacred text leads me to think that the real issue behind our fear is something going on just below the surface. It is important to note the verb in "Do not be afraid" is "be" rather than the word "feel". The difference is regularly overlooked, but vital. Take a look at some of the accounts of individuals "being afraid", you'll find them running, hiding, collapsing, mute, catastrophizing, blaming others, etc. These are the same things that happen when we give away our sense of being and where we have been overcome by our darkest feelings.
Most of the commands to not be afraid come with a reason. When the truth is revealed, it's usually a unique combination of radical change and surprise. Let's reflect on that cause and effect relationship. The divine reassurance is provided exactly because the situation actually is terrifying. Why else would there be a need to give an explanation? It is senseless and even cruel to dismiss the fearful experiences of others, and even more cruel to do it to ourselves.
I suggest we make room for the feelings of fear, recognize its sense of alarm, and open our awareness to its source. We can make room by first recognizing the feelings present in our body. These feelings are the pit in our stomach, the quickening of our heart beat, and the sudden urge to fight or take flight. It takes real courage to sit (and only sit) and acknowledge these feelings in real time. As we make this our practice, something amazing happens - we can learn that our feelings are temporary. When we become a witness to their rise and fall, much like bobbing on the water from the safety of a boat, we allow temporary fear to switch places with a permanent peace that is laying just below our emotional surface. This is how we can "not be afraid" while still recognizing that our old annoying friend named fear has come for a visit.
Feeling fear without being afraid also means developing an awareness of true threat versus perceived threat. We cannot rid ourselves of fear, it is our body's alarm system and its warning can save our lives. For most, there have only be a few "life or death" fear inducing moments in life. The rest of these moments however, are often threats to our ego, despair over our lack of control, and frustration coming from our resistance to circumstances. Giving in and responding to these perceived threats can also fit the definition of "being" afraid.
When our sense of being has given over to fear, we have a choice. Living in constant reactivity to every ego slight or need for control does nothing more than induce more fear. A better choice looks like the process of accepting fear, re-framing our situation, and pursuing a new direction in real time (maybe this is what working out salvation with "fear and trembling" means). These choices will not remove fear from your life, and you wouldn't want that any more than having non-functioning fire alarms in your home. However, It will help you remember that there are real alarms and fake ones. The fakes ones are much more prevalent. Even as the alarms sound from time to time, it's possible to feel fear but not permanently overcome by it. When you doubt this check out some of my favorite fear encounters in the Bible:
Exodus 14:13 A time God followers feared that they were being led to their death by God
Deuteronomy 7:18 For the faithful and forgetful, a reminder to the same group who had already lived through the Exodus 14:13 incident
Proverbs 3:24 For the times the quiet of the night is what keeps you from sleep
Psalms 23:4 For the time it's your memory of God's previous acts that keep you alive
Matthew 1:20 For the time when one door shuts and another door doesn't open because God is removing the roof of the reality of your existence
Matthew 10:31 For the times we think we are invisible, inconsequential, and unimportant to God
Matthew 17:7 When you realize you had all the right facts but in all the wrong order
Matthew 28:5 A surprise reminder of God's opinion of nightmares like tombstones and mortal failure
Mark 4:40-41; 6:50 A surprise reminder of how God and nature relate
Luke 1:13 When a man named "Yahweh remembers" learns what the name means
Luke 2:!0 When good news became the victory of God
Memories are the picture frames of the mind. Both the good and bad scenes from our life can exist as vivid snap shots complete with a loaded burden of emotion. My negative frames always appear at the worst possible time. If things have been chaotic, depressing, or painful some of these framed memories come for a visit. Sometimes they appear randomly and other times they are recurring reminders. Some of the reminders are of mistakes made, regrets held, and others are of harm done to me by others.
How do we change our mental picture show? Is it possible? First, this type of change is possible but like Jack Kornfield has said of the mind "it's like a dark alley late at night, you best not go there alone"! If neglect, abuse, and severe loss are your frequent visitors this work should be done with a qualified therapist, someone with the confidence and skill to treat trauma.
Without being conscious of it, I have been living with mental pictures that were of two groups, traumatic memories and semi-processed pain. For the past several days, I have had visits from some painful scenes that are semi-processed. That is to say, they are familiar, have been shared, and have been discussed within a supportive network. Even though they appear infrequently and less painfully, they have not completely disappeared. The next step in my process is to re-frame them. This means taking our negative experiences and developing neutral statements about their meaning.
One example is my recent change in my life. For a list of reasons, my memories of the years spent within a particular group are painful and still make me angry. To work through this I had to develop a re-framed summary of that time and that entity. After my therapist suggested this, it took me four days of wading through judgments to come up with something neutral. Now, when my thoughts turn to that old hurt I insert that neutral statement e.g. "ABC is fun place for children to play." I repeat the neutral statement as much as is needed while I sit with whatever sensations exist in my body. I don't resist my feelings, I simply allow them to be. I am learning to let these mixed feelings coexist and I am becoming comfortable with holding a neutral sentiment where resentment used to live.
Now my quest is take other sources of pain, and even the ones where I resent a younger and more immature version of myself because of some painful. I can develop a neutral statement about myself, something like "I am evolving and developing, moving toward good in all of my relationships" and like my other old mentally frame, I let my thoughts and sensations coexist.
Perhaps the only way to make peace is to end the civil war that wages within our hearts. First, we need to see it's an endless war where we constantly supply both armies. Then we decided to fire the first shots from each side and get hit twice as much as we expect.
For me, Anxiety is like an annoying semi-acquaintance who knows exactly when it would bother you most to call and how to make that conversation as awkward as possible. Ring, Ring, Ring! Ugh.....
At first, I would mute the calls but Anxiety knew that I was there trying to avoid the calls. The calls would come in one after another, sometimes at odd and inconvenient time. First, I silenced the calls, then I put the phone on permanent vibrate, later I learned to turn off the phone. However, as soon as I turned the phone back on, a new call come in. Avoiding the calls only made more of them.
One day I answered the call and said "Hello" and heard only breathing on the the other side of the line. "That's creepy," I said as I hung up.
The next day I left the phone on and waited for the call. When it came I asked it to speak and tell me why it was calling. After a long pause anxiety said, "You called me." This made me angry and I responded by saying, "There is no way I called you, stop calling me" and I hung up.
A couple of days went by without calls. During this time I couldn't stop thinking about how Anxiety had thought that I called them first. It was time for a plan. Anxiety liked to call as much as I hated to hear or even see the phone. I decided to be proactive and call first with a list of questions that I hoped would close the matter. My questions and the answers were:
'Who are you?" Answer: I am your conditioning. Your thoughts have made a comfortable place for me to live. Remember how you decided that thinking was the only way to solve and avoid pain in your life?
"Why do you keep calling ?" I miss you if it has been too long, I grow weaker without reminding you of the pain that you ignore. Remember how you learned to stay level because it wasn't long before trouble returned?
"Why are you calling?" Because you keep ignoring me, we are connected and we need each other to survive. Remember what it's like to feel like you aren't going to make it?
"Why do you call so often and so randomly?" We have to keep up our guard, the world is hostile and other people are unstable and some of them want to hurt you. You need to be reminded that it is just us against them. Remember how many people have let you down?
I didn't sleep that night. Neither did Anxiety. All of my life I had felt something troublesome was always around the corner. It didn't help that anxiety told me that what I am afraid of most is me and my painful memories. The next day and the days after I called first. I decided to use my phone not to avoid, but to listen to my conditioning, to feel its hidden pain, and then speak back words of acceptance, respect, and love.
At first, these calls were very difficult and anxiety often screamed at me in return, only to crank call me later. As weeks turned into months, I learned to look forward to collecting my feelings and thoughts before the calls. My new experience taught me that how I think determines what I feel and how I behave. At its most destructive, this pattern had made me equally isolated and lonely. I chose to accept those feelings as being real and true and that living my life to avoid the calls from my conditioning only made them stronger.
These days I initiate the calls most of the time and fill the dialogue with commitments to gratitude and loving awareness - especially on the days when circumstances tell me I shouldn't feel those things. I even call some trusted friends who understand and now I listen when they call, too. Anxiety still calls sometimes but when it does, I greet it with love, respect, and understanding. With practice, it's possible create an environment for your life that turns down troubling noise of fear. We need only self-love and care supported by our allies.