“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
-The Serenity Prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr
Many of us are familiar with the Serenity Prayer. It deals with the dialectic of Acceptance vs. Change. This dialectic may be illustrated as follows:
One of the skills we develop in the practice of mindfulness is the skill of acceptance. Acceptance allows us to experience emotions and thoughts without feeling obligated to react to them. This is done by noting the emotion or thought, and then letting go of the thought and feeling processes that the emotion generates. Acceptance teaches us that thoughts and feelings are not facts. They are simply processes of the mind.
Mindful awareness teaches us the art of acceptance. Emotional reactions to our circumstances are natural, but that doesn’t mean that we have to respond to these emotions. The mindful skill of acceptance teaches us that we can experience these emotions without engaging in cycles of behavior, thought or feeling that lead us to negative consequences. Acceptance teaches us that we are not our thoughts, and that we are not our emotions. At any time we can choose which thoughts and emotions we wish to respond to, and which to let go of.
“Never underestimate your power to change yourself; never overestimate your power to change others.”
-H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
Some things in life that cause us stress, anxiety and depression are things we can change. Others are things we cannot change, but must learn to accept. As Niebuhr reminds us, true wisdom lies in knowing the difference between the two. In Being Mode, we come to recognize the fact that true happiness can only come from within. There’s good news and bad news with this realization. The bad news is that nobody can change your life circumstances but you. The good news is that nobody can change your life circumstances but you.
Mindful Acceptance includes, among other things, the idea that you can only change yourself. If your problems involve other people, then you can only accept that they are who they are. You cannot change anyone but yourself.
The art of Mindful Acceptance can best be described as the Art of Letting Go. Once you have done everything in your power to solve a problem, you have done all you can, so at that point worry and stress is counterproductive.
Note that letting go of the stress and anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean letting go of the problem itself. For example, suppose you have a car payment coming up, and you don’t have the money to pay it. This would naturally cause you anxiety. If, after brainstorming for solutions, you find that you still don’t have the money to pay the car payment, then at that point you’ve done all you can do. So at that point, you let go of the anxiety associated with the problem.
That doesn’t mean that you let go of car payments altogether. You’ll make the payment when you can. In this instance, letting go just means that you won’t worry about not being able to make the payment. The energy you might have used worrying about the situation could be put to better use in trying to come up with solutions.
Let’s try another example, this one a bit tougher. Imagine you’re in a relationship. You feel that your partner doesn’t spend enough time with you. You offer suggestions on activities you can do together, only to be met with a blank stare or excuses about why your partner doesn’t have the time to participate in an activity with you.
Once you’ve done everything you can do to persuade your partner to spend more time with you, if you still aren’t getting the results you want, it’s time to practice letting go. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you let go of your partner. It just means that you let go of the anxiety associated with the problem. Once you let go of that anxiety, you may find that your partner will actually want to spend more time with you, because you are less stressed-out. But even if this is not the case, you’ve let go of the stress associated with an emotionally distant partner.
Mindful Acceptance is looking at the thoughts and feelings that cause you anxiety, worry, or stress. As you examine these thoughts, ask yourself which of these thoughts concern things you have the power to change. Make a conscious decision to focus your energy only on those things in your life that you have the power to change. If you focus on those things that you cannot change, you are not using your energy to change the things that you can.
Decide right now that you will not feed your negative thoughts by giving in to them. Realize that it is natural to have negative thoughts, but having those thoughts does not mean that they have to control your life. Learn trust your own inner wisdom. While negative thoughts may come, you do not have to let them rule your life.
Another key to Mindful Acceptance is to understand that anxiety has a useful purpose. It is nature’s way of letting us know that there is something wrong. Your anxiety protects you from harm, but sometimes it may do its job too well. Ask your anxiety if it is trying to protect you from something that you cannot change. Picture yourself thanking your anxiety for protecting you, and say to your anxiety, “I am now using my own inner wisdom to make positive choices in my life.”
Mindful Acceptance teaches us that each mistake is an opportunity for growth. Each mistake contains a lesson. If you never made a mistake, you would never have an opportunity to learn and grow. In Mindful Acceptance, you learn to accept your mistakes as signs that you are becoming a stronger and wiser individual.
Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. D. (2002). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: A new approach for preventing relapse. New York: Guilford Press.