Acceptance vs. Change: Working Through the Paradox of Mindfulness Practice

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There are a few aspects of mindfulness meditation practice and the theory underlying it that can be hard for people to wrap their heads around.

I know, because I’ve had to wrestle with some of them over the course of my practice, too. The other day one of my meditation students raised one of them again, so I thought I’d take a stab at clearing it up.

It’s related to acceptance, so let me set the stage. Mindfulness meditation involves cultivating more receptiveness to what is happening in the present-moment experience of your mind and body and just staying there with it and observing it.

That includes noticing your tendency to want to distance yourself from, or change, unpleasant aspects of your experience, cling to pleasant ones, and become bored with or overlook neutral ones.

Together, the non-acceptance of things the way they are and their inexorable change into something else causes us to suffer when reality confronts us: bad experiences are going to come, and things we like will come to an end.

So we practice and practice remaining present with what arises, and something can start to happen: we can come into contact with a part of ourselves that is above the fray. Ultimately we can begin to tense up less around the ebb and flow, allowing pleasant and unpleasant thoughts and sensations to come and go as they will, and have less distress about it all.

We can bear witness to our experience without taking it on as our identity. Without making the situation worse by hating negative experiences, or corrupting the pure appreciation of pleasant experiences with a desperate grasp that is bound to be broken.

The real-world benefits that tend to emerge from mindfulness practice are many, including a greater sense of ease and well-being, less emotional reactivity, lower stress levels (along with improved biological markers of stress), greater empathy, and improved quality of communication with others.

But it all starts with, and is maintained by, practicing letting go of the need to improve, change, or extend the individual moments of our life.

The Problem With Goal-Driven Mindfulness Practice

Meditation isn't always the serene experience depicted in popular culture and yoga magazines. The interplay of your body and mind with each other and the world is actually downright messy and frenetic a lot of the time. So, if you sit down to meditate with the goal of being less stressed, for instance, you may be disappointed.

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You may feel no better afterward and you might even feel more stressed out, especially if you’ve approached your meditation with the attitude of "Relax, damn you! Relax!" In either case, you'll have added the feeling of irritation, failure, or even hopelessness to what had been just stress. There's also a good possibility that you will feel better afterward. 

However, no matter whether you feel the same, better, or worse afterward, practicing with the goal of relaxing has come at a price: you’ve reinforced the notion that, beyond being merely unpleasant, feeling stressed is unacceptable and that it must go in order for you to be okay.

Now, the next time you feel stressed and are unable to sit down and at least try to make it go away with meditation, you’ll feel trapped in a situation you’ve convinced yourself is incompatible with ease. And that's more than just unpleasant . . . that's suffering.

Therefore, mindfulness meditation is best practiced without striving for a goal. You closely observe your experience, however you may feel at the time, with an attitude of curiosity. You just watch it come and go, and in the process transform your relationship to it. It so happens that practicing this way can yield both the short- and long-term benefits you seek—but not so much if you’re tensed up around trying to get them.

The Paradox

This is is where my student’s question comes in. Actually, it was more of a statement than a question. Essentially, she said that the idea of practicing meditation without a goal is a bunch of malarkey. If we didn’t have a goal of changing something, then we wouldn’t sit down to meditate in the first place.

And anyway, there are things within ourselves and in the world that should be changed, and what’s wrong with doing that? Are we just supposed to accept everything and do nothing?

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She’s right. This paradox is real; it’s often discussed in mindfulness research literature, and among texts and teachers in the Buddhist tradition from which secular mindfulness practice was derived.

First of all, it helps to recognize that, no matter how ugly or beautiful their behavior, people are generally motivated by the desire to feel good, or find relief from or avoid discomfort in one way or another.

So, resolving the paradox isn't about figuring out how to take action without the intention of improving our experience, because we can't. What matters is the wisdom of the action, which often has to do with what's best in the long term; what's for the greater good.

For example, if you’ve become sick, then you should probably take your medicine in order to feel better and avoid the unpleasantness of becoming sicker, even if the medicine doesn't taste good in your mouth.  

If your obesity is keeping you from being healthy, feeling well physically, or feeling good about yourself, then the wise thing would probably be to lose weight. The decision to just accept your obesity and feeling bad about it would probably be motivated by short-term gratification: perhaps to keep eating snacks or avoid the weight loss effort that you expect to be unpleasant.

Importantly, neither approach precludes noticing the sensations of your body in its current configuration and the emergence and passing of the negative thoughts you may be having about yourself right now.

Doing those things will help you suffer less in the long term regardless of what you do about your weight, because they will ease the friction between you and the facts as they are today. What you do going forward is a different matter. You have the choice to maintain the status quo or take the wise action that will reduce the production of negative thoughts and feelings in the future—by taking better care of yourself.

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For a more more macro-level example, we know that there is much injustice in the world, but bringing mindfulness to that reality doesn't mean accepting injustice as an appropriate state of affairs.

It just means accepting that right now, today, the situation is unjust and produces unpleasant emotions and physical sensations, perhaps.

It's possible to have that acceptance and also work to change things. In fact, the awareness and wisdom that comes from mindfulness practice will probably help you be more effective in your efforts.

In mindfulness, when we talk about letting go of trying to change your experience, we’re talking specifically about the urge to change, avoid, or cling to your present-moment experience. This is different than encouraging the wholesale acceptance of all circumstances of your life or what’s happening in the world and never trying to make changes. It’s more about saying “in this moment, this is what it’s like” than “it is what it is—get used to it!”

Many people who practice mindfulness meditation try to bring present-moment awareness and acceptance to their daily lives, and also have a long-term goal of changing things. For me, it’s to alleviate suffering when possible, and reduce as much as possible the amount of new suffering that I cause to myself and others.

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That's essentially how I gauge the wisdom of any act I'm contemplating or have committed, and those criteria keep me moving toward being as happy, fulfilled, and true to my core self as possible. In my book, it’s okay to practice with those kinds of goals.

If you're on fire it's okay to put yourself out, and better yet is to stop playing with matches.

What You Can Do

  • Practice mindfulness meditation regularly—daily, around the same time, if possible—so that you aren't only doing it when things are difficult and you're seeking relief. Practice every day, and you're bound to meditate through the whole range of human experience and emotion. You'll break the association with short-term gains and begin to see the benefits of closer contact with your life experience, which are far greater than just immediate gratification
  • Mindfulness practice is about cultivating a state of mind which, over time, can infuse your whole life, so don't limit your meditation practice to sitting quietly in a chair or on a cushion. Try walking meditation at home or as you go about your day. Play mindfulness games, like bringing awareness to the feeling of your hands on the steering wheel at red lights, or making sure to enter rooms mindfully. Again, this will diversify your practice across a wide range of experience.
  • Remember that mindfulness is all-inclusive, so you can meditate any time, any place, in any situation. You don't need to take a time out to sit in a corner. Therefore, the belief that you can be too stressed-out to meditate is a fallacy. In fact, at those times you have an object begging for your mindful awareness: the physical sensations that accompany stress.
  • All of this being said, it’s healthy and okay to use mindfulness as a tool to help yourself calm down when you’re anxious—say by bringing attention to your breath or the feeling of your feet on the ground. I have my clients do this all the time. You just have to make sure that you approach the effort with the right understanding and intention.
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You’re not using your mindfulness practice as a trick to get rid of your anxiety. You're using your anxiety skillfully, as a reminder to turn toward and explore it, along with the myriad other parts of your present-moment experience.

You're learning to see the bigger picture: that your experience at that moment is more than just a bundle of tension and moreover, that you are not that bundle. In the bigger picture, you're practicing giving yourself some breathing room and ease in that moment, and in your life, and that's a fine goal to have.