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Getting Past Go

In our rush to make our pain and problems go away, few of us ever explore the potential of acceptance. Who knew it could be such a powerful force for change?

Cheri Huber teaches the art of acceptance, but she suspects that if she called it that, no one would show up for class – or read her upcoming book on the topic, When You’re Falling, Dive (Keep It Simple Books, 2003).

“In our success-oriented, self-improvement culture, the idea of “learning acceptance’ is a bit of a turn-off,” explains Huber, a Zen teacher and personal development expert who counsels individuals, couples and organizations. “We tend to equate acceptance with failure, loss and settling.”

Many people naturally relate the word “acceptance” with the idea of “accepting defeat,” she notes, and so they resist it – strenuously. But in Huber’s vocabulary, acceptance has little or nothing to do with defeat. On the contrary, she sees it as a springboard to lasting, positive, quantum-leap change.

“Whether you are trying to transform your body, save your marriage, or reinvent your career,” Huber asserts, “acceptance is the first and most important stop on the train line: It’s where you get on.”

Arguing for Acceptance

Of course, not everyone is so eager to hop on the Acceptance Express. In fact, Huber regularly encounters people who reject the whole concept of acceptance because, as she puts it, “on some level, they believe accepting themselves will cause them to become lazy and complacent.”

Ironically, she notes, these are often the very same people who have been wrestling with a particular issue for years without having achieved any kind of healing or equanimity. “They’ll be frustrated and exhausted from the effort of beating themselves up. They’ll openly acknowledge that whatever they’ve been doing isn’t working, but still they’ll insist that the whole idea of acceptance is inherently dangerous to their progress.”

Part of the problem, it seems, is that the word “acceptance” means different things to different people. “Whenever I present students and clients with this concept, I have to explain that there really isn’t even a word in English for what I’m talking about,” says Huber. “I have to redefine the whole notion. I have to make a case for it.”

Huber starts by encouraging people to understand this: “Acceptance is not at all an ending or final resolution, as we’ve come to believe. Rather, it’s a beginning.”

In essence, she explains, acceptance is a deep, receptive, honest reckoning – one that comes out at a peaceful, self-respecting place. It’s not a moral or self-help to-do item. Nor is it some filmy mental construct lacking practical application.

“Acceptance is really pure pragmatism,” she says. “It’s about clearly and compassionately acknowledging what is right now – nothing more, and nothing less.”

Simple as that may sound, it doesn’t always prove easy, especially for beginners. But whether or not we take to it naturally, learning the art of acceptance is crucial, argues Huber. Because until we allow ourselves to fully accept things as they are – right here, right now – virtually all the steps we take to change them only perpetuate our problems.

Staying With Yourself

In Huber’s view, acceptance is mostly a matter of being a good, honest friend – to yourself. When your close friends have problems, she notes, you do your best to help them work things through. You don’t insist that they have all their issues perfectly sorted out before you agree to be loving and supportive toward them. But you also don’t ignore their desire to change for the better.

“Acceptance,” she explains, “is not saying, ‘Hey, this is the way it is, and the way it will be forever, period.’ It’s more like saying, ‘I love you just the way you are, and I’ll help you be any way you want to be.’

“Once we get to a quiet and more compassionate place with ourselves, it’s amazing what we can discover,” says Huber. Best of all, once you develop habits of nonjudging observation, you can put them to work proactively. “Rather than madly processing and reacting, we can use acceptance to stop all the noise and self-loathing midstream.”

From there, she adds, “we can take off in a more productive, more conscious direction.”

To understand how acceptance can help us accomplish positive change, says Huber, it’s helpful to examine the way that we typically process our daily life experiences. She breaks the evolution down into five steps:

First there is MOVEMENT: Some-thing happens in our lives, something shifts, slips, advances or evolves. It may be a big event, a tiny incident, someone’s passing comment or a nearly imperceptible change in the environment.

Second, there is SENSATION: We feel or experience something physically – a twinge of pain, a flood of heat or cold, a clenching or emptiness in our body, a vibration or fluctuation we can’t name.

Third, we have A THOUGHT: We consciously or unconsciously identify the sensation and assign some kind of reason or meaning or value to it.

Fourth, we have an EMOTIONAL REACTION to the thought: It may be a flash or wave of a certain feeling or it may be a combination of them – grief, fear, anger, irritation, shame, nervousness, hurt, desire, relief, etc.

Fifth, there is BEHAVIOR: We take some kind of action or reaction, verbally, physically or attitudinally – either to stop the feeling, escape it, or to do something else about it.

Of course, in real life, this evolution is not so neat and ordered. All these events may seem to occur at once, or in a confused jumble. Also, the impacts of our behavior invariably set up new movements and new sensations, thus initiating new cycles.

There’s nothing inherently good or bad about any of this, explains Huber. It’s just the way life happens. The hitch, she says, is that most of us have been conditioned to spend the vast majority of our active time and energy working exclusively in the final three steps. Acceptance is what teaches us to more masterfully observe the first two.

“We live in the world of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors,” says Huber. “Basically, we watch and react to the world ‘out there,’ and ignore the subtle movements and sensations that set all these personal cycles in motion.”

Until we are willing to come to terms with (i.e., accept) these sensations as they present themselves, insists Huber, we inevitably go off on a lot wild-goose chases trying to fix and resist certain situations, or trying to anesthetize ourselves. We evolve painfully through our emotional dramas, depending mostly on stop-gap solutions to get us through. In the process, we miss opportunities to derail our unconscious patterns before they derail us.

Back to Square One

When we are not in a place of acceptance, explains Huber, our experience goes something like this: We feel a desire; we act; we develop some type of story about what happened, and generally, we find ourselves right back where we started – confronted with the same (or a very similar) desire.

She offers the example of a person who is trying to stop smoking. “Let’s say something stressful happens to me at work. I immediately get a tense, nervous sensation in my body. Then I get a quick flash of thought: I’m stupid, I’m a failure and I’m going to lose my job.”

Whether or not that thought is conscious, explains Huber, it will likely trigger one or more uncomfortable feelings: grief, anxiety, shame, worthlessness.

“Probably, it will be a familiar feeling – one I’m not eager to dwell on. Suddenly, the tense sensation starts registering as a desire to smoke, so I light up. A moment later, the original sensation is gone. I may not even remember the incident that preceded the desire to smoke, or the thoughts of failure, because at this point I’m already occupied with hating myself for being weak-willed. I make firm plans never to smoke again. But the next time I find myself wanting a cigarette – and there will be a next time – my feelings of grief and worthlessness will be stronger than ever.”

With a little acceptance and willingness to feel (vs. resist) underlying feelings, explains Huber, this scene can go very differently, eventually interrupting a deeply engrained cycle, and perhaps even leading to the transformation of some flawed root beliefs. As a result of this sort of internal adjustment, a person may eventually (or immediately) lose the desire to smoke. But initially, there’s really no need to set out to stop the smoking – or eating, or procrastinating. The key, says Huber, is to practice seeing what happens before and after the behavior occurs.

“If I start watching,” explains Huber, “I might see that trying to hold my emotions in is a strong trigger for my desire to smoke. But what’s triggering those emotions in the first place? Looking at that, I might discover a pattern of habitual, negative thoughts. And what’s the trigger for those? How does that process start? What does it feel like? How can I recognize it the next time it happens?”

It’s important to learn to willingly accept this whole cycle of triggers and responses, emphasizes Huber. In the absence of calm acceptance, many of our observations will be colored or compromised. “The point is not to try to judge or change or stop the cycle at any particular point,” she clarifies. “It’s just to look at it and go, ‘Okay, what’s that about?’ The desire, the action, the story we tell ourselves afterward – all of it has to be ‘okay’ before any of it can change on a deep level.”

As we regard ourselves with gentle compassion instead of frustration, avoidance, and denial, ensures Huber, the rest of healing will happen very naturally.

“We all instinctively know this is the right answer,” asserts Huber. “When we love someone, this is the kind of compassionate witnessing we naturally provide for them. Doing it for ourselves may come less naturally, but that is conditioning we can change if we choose.”

Side Effects

Warning! Healthy doses of self-acceptance have been known to result in:

Feelings of relief, hope, gratitude and generosity
Major insights and breakthroughs
Improved self-esteem
Higher energy
Reduced stress
Tendency to be less judgmental and more forgiving of others

Ask yourself if a trial prescription of self-acceptance is right for you!

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