“When we accept the present, we can forgive and release the desire for a different past.”
This is the fourth of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
I am probably at my worst when I am driving. I don’t know if I’ve always been this way, but I am impatient and aggressive. People who cruise at the speed limit in the left lane make my blood boil like nothing else. It’s completely irrational. So today, rather than cursing and gnashing my teeth, I tried to accept the reality of the situation. I acknowledged that the person in front of me was not going to speed up or get over regardless of my emotional state. My anger could do nothing to solve the problem (which, as it turns out, wasn’t even really a problem). I wanted to drive about 5 mph faster, but I was unable to. That’s all there was to it.
It worked. It actually made me less angry, less frustrated, and more relaxed. I could feel the physiological change in my breathing and my heart rate as the tension slowly released. Am I surprised? No, it’s pretty common sense that it feels better to calm down and not get riled about something beyond your control. Am I going to do this every time? No, probably not. Am I glad that I did it? Absolutely. It’s such a minor thing, but it illustrates just how much control we can have over our own experiences.
There’s something really soothing about accepting reality as it is. The Dalai Lama says many times in the book that much of our suffering is caused by our mental states. Physical pain is inevitable and not easily soothed, but the mental anguish we experience is largely optional. One particular Buddhist aphorism asks,”Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied? And what is the use of being unhappy if it cannot be remedied?”
This reminds me of the serenity prayer my mother had taped to the refrigerator for all those years. “God, please 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.” I grew up with that idea bored into my subconscious every single day during my childhood, and it’s as valuable now as ever.
Especially in the throes of recovery from an abusive relationship, survivors need to understand the importance of accepting their new reality. There are so many emotional traps that can hinder their progress, such as escape through drugs or alcohol, avoidance through overworking or heavy socializing, stagnation through anger or self-pity. The Archbishop warns that “We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin.” You cannot heal if you do not acknowledge that you are wounded.
Fortunately, acceptance is exactly the kind of step that can be taken at any point in the recovery process, and it doesn’t have to be a complete and total acknowledgment of all of your suffering at once. Today, I was in the middle of sending an email to my ex-wife that wasn’t necessarily mean or spiteful, but I was trying to argue a certain point with her. A friend of mine stopped in for a little bit, and as we talked, I mentioned The Book of Joy. He seemed interested, and we ended up discussing the importance of acceptance. When he left, I returned to my email and realized that what I was going to send was not only in vain, but probably counterproductive. I retyped the email using a more neutral tone and cut out some of the extraneous points I was going to make.
Her response was no less bitter or angry than usual, but it didn’t bother me because I accepted that I simply have no control over what she says or does. I can perhaps prevent things from escalating, but that’s about it. It made the exchange at least a little less unpleasant to know that I had done the right thing.
Because “stress and anxiety come from our expectations of how life should be,” according to the Dalai Lama, we have the ability to combat that kind of suffering by changing our mindset. I have long been fascinated by meditation, but my few attempts at it were predictably unsuccessful. Still, it is something I would love to explore further because of its benefits to mental and physical health. I like the way Abrams describes how it works: “Meditative practice allows us to quiet the distracting thoughts and feelings so that we can perceive reality, and respond to it more skillfully.” Clear away some of the clutter, and we can see what is really going on.
Next up: Forgiveness