Eckhart Tolle“Acceptance” seems to be one of those buzz words du jour – we have to “accept” one another; “accept” the current moment; and of course “accept the things we cannot change,” from 12-step literature. But what does acceptance really mean? And what does it look like?

Both Eastern and Western figures have been talking about acceptance for thousands of years – we know this from religious texts, philosophical writings, literary authors, and more recently from those who study psychology and personal transformation.

But we also know that while acceptance (perhaps like peace) is a widely talked about and aspired to value, humanity is quite off track when it comes to this particular practice. We know this because there is not a day that goes by where there isn’t war, climate change, racism, sexism, other forms of –isms, animal cruelty, and the list goes on. Our lack of acceptance shows up in the world in these various ways.

Our Culture Has It Wrong

Our current society is set up so that we are always reaching for what we don’t have – more money, more degrees, fancier cars, the job promotion, the better partner, more accomplished kids, and on and on. I think it was satirist Stephen Colbert who described our consumerist culture best when he said, “But if girls feel good about themselves, how are we going to sell them things they don’t need?!” And while striving for what we think will make us happy isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does take us away from where we are in the moment.

We use non-acceptance as a motivator – “I am not going to accept my kids’ low grades,” or “I am not going to accept that this beat-up car is mine,” or “I am not going to accept that this person doesn’t love me,” all in order to spur us into action to make our circumstances better. Because if I accept these things, the fear is that we’ll be resigned to a life of mediocrity. However, it turns out that by denying what is, we don’t achieve the desired outcome of spurring into action, the opposite occurs – we end up getting stuck.

Let me be clear – acceptance is not the same as condoning. Acceptance is being with “what is,” and condoning is “to regard or treat (something bad or blameworthy) as forgivable, allowable, approvable, or harmless.” Getting bad grades is not something to support, but if it’s happening, then we need to accept it to make change.

The Benefits of Accepting

What really happens when we accept our kids’ low grades? We can actually begin to do something about it. “Okay, my kid is getting poor grades. I can get a tutor. I can talk to her teachers. I can spend extra time finding out what is going on outside of her academic life that might be impacting her grades.” As long as I’m in denial about it, I am just putting my head in the sand and the negative trajectory escalates. What happens when we accept a beat-up car? We can start saving for repairs. We can start saving for a new car. We can begin to explore why having a beat-up car so offends our sense of self. As long as we don’t accept the beat-up car, we don’t pay it any attention, and it just gets junkier. And what happens when we begin to accept that another person doesn’t love us, perhaps like we love them? We can start to heal and move forward. We can learn lessons about ourselves. Accepting things as they are allows us to come up with alternate plans and creative solutions.

In the World

What if people had never accepted that Hurricane Katrina happened? Or 9/11? Then those in need wouldn’t have gotten help. Charities wouldn’t have been created. Preparedness for the next hurricane or terrorist attack wouldn’t be in the forefront. Try saying it to yourself, “Hurricane Katrina never happened.” Notice what happens in your body. How open are you to new ideas?

Have you heard people say, “Climate change doesn’t exist”? Or “The drought isn’t that big a deal”? What do you think happens from this place? Absolutely nothing. Believing these thoughts doesn’t will away climate change or the drought. It keeps us paralyzed, and consequently, makes things worse.

How to Work Towards Acceptance

What in your life are you not in acceptance about? It could be major issues with your health, or a bad marriage, or an unfulfilling job, but it could be smaller things like a busy schedule, mildly disrupted sleep, a friend’s behavior, or a particular trait you have. Take a few minutes in silence – I bet you’ll be amazed at what comes up.

Imagine accepting the parts of you that embarrass you – the jealous and envious feelings, the self-doubt, shame, embarrassment, the anger, impatience, and pettiness. “Wow, I’m feeling impatient right now, and that’s okay.” There’s something freeing about it – there’s a neutrality that comes along.

Spiritual author Eckhart Tolle writes, “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it… This will miraculously transform your whole life.” This takes “going with the flow” to a whole new level. At first, it may seem ridiculous, especially if you’re in traffic, in line at the DMV, or doing the dishes (some of my least favorite things, personally). It also may seem challenging, especially if you’re in the midst of a break-up, a health scare, or a layoff. But as in all experiments, just try it and see what happens. You may be surprised by the shifts that take place. And if not, you’re always allowed to revert back to your old ways if you so desire.

…and that’s okay!