“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
Most of us recognize the serenity prayer even if we’ve never been to an AA meeting. It’s a beautiful sentiment, one on which to truly meditate and chew. The thoughts are quite similar to what I’ve learned about the practice of mindfulness, and it’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about lately.
In all our lives, there are things we desperately wish we could change, but which we cannot. When do we stop pushing against them, stop resisting, and begin the (sometimes excruciating) process of acceptance? Psychologists say there are five steps to grief: first is denial, then anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. In other words, a person sometimes has to go through this whole emotional process before finally reaching that end goal of acceptance.
Acceptance is hard. Sometimes it feels less like acceptance and more like failure, like giving up. If we keep fighting, we reason, if we keep resisting, we won’t have to accept that the thing we wish would change will never change. We’re not sure we’ll survive if we aren’t resisting. But if we do keep fighting-keep getting angry, keep denying, keep bargaining-we won’t ever be able to move into a place of acceptance.
My question then becomes, what does acceptance look like? In my case, it feels like emotional disconnection is what is holding me together, and keeping me from melting into a puddle all over the floor. But that can’t be the answer. Surely the path to serenity doesn’t include apathy. Apathy disconnects us from one another, and that’s not good for our souls. So how does one maintain acceptance without emotionally disengaging? Are the two mutually exclusive?
The practice of mindfulness tells us that our “ego” lies to us, making us believe that letting go of that resistance would cause us to slip into apathy or chaos. I’ve been talking to a dear friend who has practiced mindfulness for many years, and she has become my unofficial guru. As I struggled through all this a few days ago, she reminded me that “in a true, deeper state of being we are actually open to our suffering.” It makes sense, because vulnerability is what connects us to each other, and also to ourselves. Some of the world’s greatest art has been borne out of suffering, which tells us that only through vulnerability can we know ourselves and others. So our ego lies to us by making us afraid… afraid of letting go, afraid of truly feeling, afraid of opening ourselves up and being vulnerable.
In a world where emotions are feared, we’re taught to control and suppress. A good actor knows not to TRY to cry during a moving emotional performance, because real people don’t try to cry. Real people try NOT to cry. We use “over-emotional” and “over-dramatic” as insults. We say we respect a man who isn’t afraid to cry, but if he cries too much we slip into making a joke of it, or complaining about it to our girlfriends. Society teaches us to toughen up. It’s inappropriate to cry or show negative emotions in the workplace, so when we’re feeling overwhelmed we lock ourselves in the bathroom to cry in secret. We apologize for “losing it” when we do show any kind of negative emotion, even amongst our friends. Eight years ago, Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election in part because she lost “her cool” and dared to shed a stressed tear on live television, in a clip that was played over and over again and analyzed ad nauseum. Crying is vulnerable, and vulnerability is weakness. Our ego convinces us that suppressing that vulnerability is the only way to hold ourselves together.
Ego convinces us we must resist at all costs. Resist the pain and feel better fast. Resist acceptance. Deny what is. Of course, that denial doesn’t allow us to control anything, but does give us the illusion of control, which we feel is the most important thing. And ego tells us that if we let go of that control, we’ll either become robotic and soulless or be completely insane. But what if neither are true? Could we potentially let go of control, allow what is to be, get to that place of emotional acceptance, and instead of going crazy, actually achieve a more still, more peaceful, kinder and more loving state of being?
I’m worried about it all, because I’ve built walls up to protect myself. The walls have made my heart feel pretty apathetic, but I’m realizing how painful that is, how disconnecting from myself and others. There’s scar tissue underneath the hardness, like I’ve never actually healed. I’m worried to begin the painful process of tearing down those walls, truly allowing myself to be cleansed. I don’t know what it looks like to accept but not do so without emotion. I don’t know what it looks like to be calm in my heart and still open myself up to vulnerability.
I think maybe the first step is just allowing myself to grieve for what I wanted. Allowing myself to feel those negative feelings that come before acceptance: anger, sadness, loss. Reminding myself that these emotions are okay; I have the right to feel. Acknowledging those feelings and allowing them to exist. When fear comes, reminding myself to take it one day at a time, each instance as its own, not rushing myself to feel a certain way, but allowing my feelings to be there. Then, and here’s the most important part, letting go. Not staying in that place of resistance. In doing so, I have to believe I won’t slip into chaos, but that peace and loving kindness will envelop me. And after I’ve allowed myself to be vulnerable and open, acceptance will come. I mean a full acceptance, not one in which I am disengaged and cold, but one in which I am open, loving, at one with my true self and others, engaging and operating from a place of stillness and serenity.