First, a video for you to watch.
So the idea is we love to mock people for “struggling against reality”. Doesn’t the concept sound absolutely ridiculous? But I have an assertion to make here. We all do it all the time.
Perhaps the most iconic version of this is in the game of bowling. Has any of us ever bowled without at least slightly leaning to the left or right as if it will affect the ball? We know it won’t, but we do it anyway. Another example: currently there are a lot of politics happening. Presidential primaries are being run in both major parties, and they’re taking a long time to get through all the states. Those of you into politics, do you ever find yourself thinking so hard about the results and wanting a particular result so bad that you might even say you’re trying to will your candidate into victory? I’ve done that. Now, let’s get personal. Do you ever find yourself thinking about something that happened in the past that you desperately wish hadn’t happened or had gone differently. Maybe you fantasize about it being different, or perhaps you try to hide from it in your mind, but it hunts you down. Every last one of these situations of thinking have happened to me and I rather suspect they are fairly common to humanity as a whole (except those who have never bowled, if such people exist.)
Now I ask, how do you feel when you dodge reality like that? To be honest, even in the bowling example, it’s pretty stressful for those couple of seconds. Some of us enjoy the suspense. I on the other hand don’t care for it at all. Bowling isn’t stressful in itself, but fighting with the reality of where the ball goes is kind of like suffering. Real suffering happens when we fight against actually painful realities. Like bad memories. Having a difficult past hurts either way sometimes, but trying to will it out of existence is true suffering.
So how do we stop fighting against reality? Simple. Cut it out. I’m serious, it is that simple, but if you’re like me, that doesn’t make it easy. There’s something within us that seems to think that if we accept reality, then we must approve of it. I’ve shared this skill with people who have been very badly hurt, and some of them are simply unable to realize the difference between acceptance and approval. We have to fight this on a very deep level. Images help me in this. I picture my grip on fighting reality as a grip on some small object, like a racquetball or something that represents my pain. To symbolize my acceptance, I mentally drop that ball. When I’ve done this, I find the temptation to pick it up again, but by strong willpower, I resist the urge and leave it on the ground. Some people have developed rituals like this such as writing things on paper and burning them.
When I first practiced this skill of ending the struggle against reality, I used it on very difficult areas of my life. I remember that before I applied the skill, I felt a suffering tension all over every inch of my body. When I dropped my struggle, the tension left, but there was still a sharp pain as if stabbing through my heart. I hadn’t even noticed that before. The reason is I spent so much time avoiding that pain and put so much effort into it that I was suffering greatly from the denial. The suffering from the denial was strong enough to drown out the relatively minor pain that I was trying to avoid. The tension was unbearable, but the sharpness in my heart was totally manageable.
The Buddhists call this skill Radical Acceptance. What I described is only the very beginning of Radical Acceptance. It goes far deeper, but this is enough for the current discussion. I, of course, am a Christian, and not a Buddhist, but I think they’re on to something here.
I want to point out that Radical Acceptance is not always the best way to handle a situation. In a way, it’s really a last resort kind of skill. There are three other ways of handling extreme distress. One is to change the situation. Honestly, if you can just change what’s making you feel so bad, do it. Don’t waste time on accepting what there’s no need to accept. On the other hand, there is much we cannot change. Especially the past. The second alternative is to change how you think about the situation. I once made a comment about someone to my friends, but I worded it all wrong and it sounded as though I were making a terrible sexual comment. I was purely ashamed of it for years, despite the fact that I had not meant to say anything of the sort. Later on, I realized that, actually, what I said was a hilarious double entendre and these days it just makes me laugh, even more so because I had said it in such innocence. If neither of these two work, you always have the option of remaining miserable. It’s your choice, but failing changing the situation or thinking about it differently, I’d prefer to accept it than be miserable.
This skill is difficult. I’m curious to hear if any of you Gentle Readers have tried it or are considering giving it a try. What works for you in dealing with difficult truths?