Accepting reality as it is

Updated: May 15, 2021

What is Acceptance?

What is acceptance? I struggled (and I still do) with the idea. I am a DBT therapist. DBT teaches acceptance. And I don’t fully understand acceptance. I am still far from realizing the deepest meaning of acceptance, and yet today I would like to share my realizations thus far that I feel comfortable saying.

Acceptance is to see the reality as it is. Simple as it sounds, the more you think, the less you understand. “All things are perfect as they are,” the teachings continue to explain. When life is excruciatingly painful for someone, can you imagine saying to that person that life is perfect as it is? I couldn’t. It would sound so irreverent, cold and even cruel, I thought. “Accepting reality,” could also sound to the ears of people who are suffering as, “accept the misery.” It could sound like a message to give in and give up.

If I don’t understand this most basic idea, there must be some kind of misconceptions, I thought. Following is what I realized.

a) We have somehow understood the word “perfect” as something superior: the more beautiful, the more fun, the richer, the smarter, the faster. This sense of perfection comes almost always in comparison with one existence with the other, which resembles “what it is” and “what it should be.” And in this comparison, the perfect one tends to be what you don’t have in this moment.

b) The word perfection in our current context is almost exclusively used with the notion of flawlessness and desirableness such as “perfect score” “perfect weather” or “perfect body.” In this sense, what we do not desire cannot be perfect.

c) We get confused that the reality is eternal when our life is tough. When we say “accept the reality,” we jump to conclusion that the current suffering will be the norm for the rest of our life, and feels that it is unfair.

The definition of perfection in Zen teaching is starkly different from how we use the same word today. Perfection means there is nothing to be added and nothing to be taken out of. It is to say, perfection means that it cannot be anything different. Desirable or not desirable is not a question. Better or worse is not a question. Painful or not is not a question. It is simply what it is.

Psychological suffering is in the gap between “what it is” and “what is should be.” Denial of what it is makes the gap bigger. Holding on to what it should be makes the gap bigger. Insatiable desire that the reality is different from what it is increases the suffering. The suffering takes willingness to engage with the reality away from us. Non engagement with the reality deprives us of opportunities to influence the reality in future. So, if you want to have some level of control of what reality you will live in the next moment, you will inevitably have to come to terms with the reality in this one current moment.

This last idea is important because it tells us that acceptance is the opposite of giving in and giving up. Accepting reality does not mean that we are giving into the eternally unchangeable reality. It is like we stop fighting where the starting point is. Unless we accept the starting point, we cannot start. We get stuck at the starting point wondering if there might be a better starting point. At one point, we must accept that the starting point cannot be anywhere other than where we are now. And we embrace the idea that once we start, we can run the path in front of us however we like. Counterintuitive it may be, to run a marathon of recovery, healing and life, we have to accept the starting point. Accepting reality is accepting where you stand now as a starting point so as not to get stuck right there forever.

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