One of the biggest delusions that we are up against when we start practicing mindfulness (and there are many) is the delusion that we can (and indeed ought to) ‘accept ourselves’. This erroneous belief translates into a lot of frustration, a lot of suffering. It is therefore crucially important to realize – before we move on to anything else – that accepting ourselves is not something that we can ever do on purpose.
The very idea that we can or ought to be able to accept ourselves (or accept anything else for that matter) is self-contradictory – if I am trying to accept myself then clearly the reason for this is that I am not accepting of myself and so what I’m actually doing here – as Alan Watts says – is that I am ‘rejecting my own non-acceptance of myself’. So what I’m actually doing isn’t acceptance at all – ‘its non-acceptance flying under the flag of acceptance’. The way that I actually am is not-accepting and rather than accepting this non-acceptance of mine and seeing it in an impartial or unbiased way I am rejecting it – I’m rejecting it because I’m trying to change it. What I am really doing here is ‘rejecting myself as I actually am’ and this is – of course – exactly what I normally do anyway. Nothing has changed therefore – I’m at my old tricks again (as usual) and yet I’m hoping that things will somehow work out differently this time.
Acceptance can never happen as a result of a deliberate action or strategy on our part. Deliberate or purposeful action always comes out of our thinking and anything that happens as a result of thinking always comes about as a result of our non-acceptance of the way things actually are. Thought can never accept and acceptance isn’t a thought! We only think when we are interested in changing the way things are – if we were happy with things being the way that they are then where’s the need to think, where’s the need to control? If we don’t want to change anything then where’s the need for a method or strategy? Leaving things as they already are doesn’t require any strategizing, after all. There’s no problem and so there’s no need to intervene. Things can be ‘left as they are’ and so where’s the need for striving? Thought isn’t acceptance. Thought is resistance and resistance is thought, and this is all we ever know, generally speaking. We are all ‘addicted to control’ and if there are problems we automatically assume that this is because we’re not controlling effectively enough…
‘Acceptance’ has nothing to do with control – the one is the antithesis of the other. We can of course try to control ourselves to accept – we can try to control ourselves to accept until we’re blue in the face but it won’t do us any good! It won’t do us any good because we’re caught up in a self-contradicting struggle; we’re in a loop – we’re trying to control ourselves to stop controlling. So what can we do then? How do we free ourselves from the self-contradiction of trying to ‘accept on purpose’? The key to this apparently impossible dilemma is simply to notice the way things are, and getting better at leaving a gap between us ‘noticing the way things are’ and our automatic reacting, our automatic attempt to ‘do something about the situation that we have just noticed’. We’re can’t create a gap on purpose because control (or purposefulness) always ‘closes the gap’ – purposefulness is all about closing the gap between the way things are and the way we want them to be. What we can do however is to take an interesting in noticing the process that is taking place when we ‘automatically react’. Normally we don’t ‘notice ourselves reacting’, we just react and that is it. All of our energy, all of our ‘interest’ goes into the reacting and there is none left over to notice anything!
There is always a gap there between the awareness of what is going on and our automatic reacting to it (which is our thinking) and so just as soon as we do take an interest in the proceedings we will sooner or later notice it. The noticing itself is the gap, when it comes down to it – whenever we are aware of something there must always be a gap because without a gap between the noticing and the reacting there actually isn’t any noticing! This means that we aren’t creating a gap but rather we are just taking the time to get in touch with our own awareness, the awareness that was there all the time. Our awareness is never not there – it is just hidden beneath all the thinking, beneath all the reacting, all the compulsive goal-orientated activity. Another way of making this point is to say that the ‘key to everything’ is simply to be open to the truth. We simply have to notice the truth of what is going on without needing to worry about either accepting or not accepting it. So instead me of trying to ‘accept myself’ I just see the truth of the matter, which is that I do not accept myself. I own up to the fact that I am not at all accepting of myself and so there is no contradiction here. There is no contradiction and there is no needed for any sort of straining or striving. ‘The seeing is the doing’, says Krishnamurti.
What is really happening here is that we are taking back our freedom not to have to be scheming and calculating all the time. Only we’re not ‘taking it back’ because we had never really lost it in the first place. We’re just reconnecting with it. Somehow what happens to us is that we get ‘taken over by our own cleverness’ (so to speak) and as a result of being ‘taken over’ in this way by the rational faculty we think that cleverness (or rationality) is the answer to everything. We don’t have anything else but our cleverness – it’s as if we are our cleverness, it’s as if we are the rational intellect, whilst the truth of the matter is that we are much, much more than this. We are far more than just our rational-computational faculty – what we really are is this ‘capacity to unconditional accept’ that we have been talking about. The rational mind is a system of limitations, it is the ‘incapacity to unconditionally accept.’ whilst who we are in our essence is unlimited. It could be said that the thinking mind is a structure, whilst who we are in our essence is the space within which all structures exist. We are this ‘all-accepting, all-facilitating space’, not the events that happen within it…
It sounds peculiarly passive (and therefore irresponsible) to say that we are our true nature ‘accepts everything’ – that sounds to us like being a doormat, as the expression has it. But awareness doesn’t accept in the sense of ‘passively going along with things’, it accepts in the sense of not being afraid of anything. Whatever is there it sees unflinchingly, in other words; it has no ‘preference’ about what it sees. When we put it like this therefore we can see that being ‘all-accepting’ isn’t a sign of weakness at all but rather it is an indication of tremendous strength. Our true or inherent nature is this tremendous strength therefore – it is the quality of strength that doesn’t need to ‘do something about it’. It is our false ‘cleverness’ that always needs to be ‘doing something about our situation’, that always has to have tactics and strategies ready at hand; it is our cleverness or trickiness that is weak and which, because of its weakness, always has to ‘go along with things’. It goes along with its own need to control, its own need to ‘prop itself up’. The thinking mind accuses unconditioned consciousness of being weak when in reality it is completely the other way around! Thought is always resisting because it always has a position to defend; awareness on the other hand has no need to resist because it is not tied to any precarious position that it needs to protect.
If we think that we ‘have to accept ourselves’ then this impression or belief is coming out of weakness rather than strength. If I feel that I need to ‘do something about my situation’ then this feeling comes out of my weakness not my strength. It is coming from my false idea of who I am, not who I actually am! Resistance (and also fear) always comes out of a false idea of who I am! ‘How then do I overcome my weakness?’ I might ask. I most probably will ask this. But the glitch here is clear – as soon as I feel that I have to do something about my situation and try to act on the basis of this impression then I am acting on the basis of weakness. Trying to remedy my weakness is a manifestation of weakness just as trying to overcome my fear is a manifestation of fear. We’re only going around in circles here. I’m not making things better no matter what I do; I am making problems no matter what tack I take. I am compounding weakness with yet more weakness, I am trying to overcome fear with more fear and this is just not going to help me…
When we see this glitch everything tends to seem utterly hopeless. How can I possibly get out of this? Every time I try to do something about my situation I am acting out of weakness and if I try to do something about that then I am still acting out of weakness. And yet at the same time I can’t not react; I am powerless – it seems – not to try to ‘do something about it’. I am compelled to try to fix or correct my situation. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of cope here therefore. There doesn’t seem to be any scope – the situation shows every indication of being a dead loss! What’s ‘hopeless’ however isn’t the situation but our distorted understanding of it; what’s ‘hopeless’ is our proposed ability to purposefully get things to be the way we want them to be. That’s a ‘no go’ for sure but nothing else is. Everything else is working just fine, just as it always did, just as it always will do. The insurmountable problems only exist in our rational/purposeful understanding, in other words.
Who we are in reality isn’t the idea that we have of ourselves; who we really are isn’t the limited and brittle concept we have of ourselves and so it doesn’t really matter that resolving the problem in the way that the mind-created image of ourselves would like to see it resolved is a ‘no go’. That doesn’t matter at all. It seems to matter an awful lot when we are identified with the mind-created image of who we are but because the impression that the mind-created self has of the situation is entirely illusory, entirely without substance, the fact that we think that there is an insurmountable problem isn’t a genuine obstacle! It’s just the illusory appearance of an obstacle – it’s the illusory appearance of a problem that is taken very serious by the imagined idea of who we think we are. The view that the self-concept has of the situation is illusory (just as that imagined self is) and this brings us to the crux of the matter. The concept of ourselves which is who we think we are can’t accept anything unconditionally – it simply doesn’t have the capacity to do so since it itself is a ‘conditional’ entity. But this doesn’t matter because it was never up to this fragile sense of self to do the ‘accepting’ – only consciousness, which is who we really are, can unconditionally accept.
As we cease to believe so much that we are this narrow and brittle little ‘idea of ourselves’ our capacity to accept (or be present with) our situation increases. This ‘capacity’ increases because we’re not relying upon an illusion to do the accepting, because we’re not relying on an illusion to be present! Unconditioned awareness accepts everything because it is its nature to do so not because we are requiring it to do so, or because we are instructing it to do so, and this shows the essential difference between the self and awareness:
The self operates on the basis of being told (or instructed) what to do and its nature is to resist (or judge), whilst awareness does what is in its nature to do (without the need to be directed or controlled) and its nature is to be impartial to everything, just as the sun shines impartially on everything or just as the rain falls impartially on everything.
Awareness and the conditioned self ‘run on two very different principles’, so to speak.We often hear the definition of mindfulness or being mindful as ‘being aware of what is happening as it is happening without judging what is happening’ and this is fine – the only thing about this is that the self can never refrain from judging, any more than the rational mind can refrain from analyzing or classifying things. To ask the self not to judge (i.e. to require the self to ‘unconditionally accept’) is to ask for the impossible. But we can clearly see that the conditioned self can never ‘not judge’, and this is a basic psychological insight. This is something that we can ‘get’. When we do see this then it could be said that we are ‘accepting ourselves as we are’, or that we are ‘accepting ourselves for what we are’. But the point about this is that the self is not unconditionally accepting the self here (that could never happen, as we have said), but rather we are being aware of the self and its nature (without judging it for having the nature that it does have), which is a very different thing.