It seems that many of life’s negative emotions originate from resistance of what is. Whether it’s the sense of being trapped in a job we hate, anxiety and worry about our finances, the self-loathing from having done something embarrassing or shameful, or even the rush of fear from flashing lights in the rear-view mirror, the cause is all the same: we don’t want to accept the present situation.
I hate pointless paperwork, for example. Absolutely despise it. Why should I waste valuable time on something that doesn’t affect the efficacy of a workplace or the success of an outcome? During my time with Teach For America in Kansas City, for example, I spent countless hours on forms and plans that nobody used and I seriously doubt anyone even read. It was all mandated somewhere, naturally–“improvement plan” this and “turnaround plan” that. Of course some would say it was my job and I just had to do it, and they’re probably right, but that doesn’t mean it was anything more than a waste of time and resources.
Even now, when I’m assigned a stack of paperwork, it gets under my skin if I’m not careful.
But once I open that door, the tide of negativity comes pouring through. I wouldn’t have to do this if I had a better job, I’ll think. And I’d have a better job if someone had sat me down and given me an honest explanation of how the world works instead of just sending me off to college with this bullshit idea that all I have to do is work hard, get a degree, and voilà–success follows. And then, perhaps I’m expecting too much. I’m the first in my immediate family to go to college, and maybe they believed the bullshit rhetoric themselves. But why should I pay a price for that while Joe Schmoe gets to live a lavish lifestyle for no reason other than his family had connections that led to a great job after graduation?
And just like that, I’ve gone from being angry about paperwork to becoming downright pissed off about life itself.
But this happens because I resist what is. Or rather, it happens because I resist the present moment. In doing so, I turn to the past with regret and look at the future with fear, longing, and anxiety. The result is that right here, right now, I’m miserable.
It’s totally silly, of course, but it’s a problem that many of us know all too well. And even if folks don’t understand the thought processes and the reasons for feeling this way, they’re familiar with the end result–the constant, nagging, negative emotions about the past and the future. For many, it’s a standard part of their day-to-day experience.
Alan Watts often discussed this issue. As mentioned in his book, The Wisdom of Insecurity:
The human organism has the most wonderful powers of adaptation to both physical and psychological pain. But these can only come into full play when the pain is not being constantly restimulated by this inner effort to get away from it, to separate the “I” from the feeling. The effort creates a state of tension in which the pain thrives. But when this tension ceases, the mind and body begin to absorb the pain as water reacts to a blow or cut.
But how do we cease the tension? How do we stop trying to get away from the present when it’s is something that we don’t even want?
In my experience, it begins with recognizing that acceptance of the present and being okay with the present are two different things. I don’t like that I have to get a job doing something I’d never do if I didn’t need a paycheck, but I accept that it’s my situation. I’m not happy about it, sad, mad, or whatever. It just is. I’ll do what I need to do for eight to ten hours a day and then spend the rest of the time doing what I want to do. One day–maybe–I’ll be in a different situation, but I’m not going to dwell upon that or allow the longing to pull me away from what’s right here, right now. Nor will I make my happiness and tranquility contingent upon fulfilling that goal. It’s just a goal, and it can help direct and steer my actions–that’s it.
Similarly, I didn’t like it when I arrived at the Atlanta airport later than I intended and discovered a massive line in security. Instead of becoming unhinged and stressing myself half-to-death over what happened–the long drive from Raleigh due to flight cancellations, the four hours of sleep, and looking at a watch that was set for the wrong time zone–I just accepted my predicament. And in doing so, I became free to focus on the present situation and consider my options. I looked at the estimated time for security, asked the TSA how long it would take to get to my departure gate, and once they were finished with me, I ran as quickly as I could. I monitored the time and, if it came down to it, was prepared to cancel my flight before it was too late to get a refund.
Did I like my situation? No. But I did accept it. If I instead spent my time resisting the memory of past events and feeling anxious about the future, then I’d have been a mess.
And these are small problems, for sure. I can also talk about my stepfather collapsing into the passenger side of my car with a massive heart attack and having to focus on the present moment, stay calm, and fight to save him. But that’s an extreme example. What ravages the tranquility of most folks, I believe, are the small issues–not the big ones. It’s the day-to-day troubles that really get under our skin and infect us. The gap between “I hate paperwork” and “I hate my life” is, unfortunately, rather small.
In fact, the very act of resisting the present moment produces a special sort of pain itself. Left alone to bloom and intensify, it’s like the feeling of being trapped in a cage or stuck in a hole with no way to climb out. I’ve experienced this many times. It produces, I believe, something akin to a fight or flight response. Encounter a raccoon in the woods, and it’ll probably leave you alone. Back it into a corner or attempt to trap it, however, and it’ll do what it can to tear you apart. We’re animals too though, and let’s face it: things like constrictive economic circumstances, debt, and jobs we hate…well, it’s not so different.
Alan Watts wrote about this form of pain:
To remain stable is to refrain from trying to separate yourself from a pain because you know that you cannot. Running away from fear is fear, fighting pain is pain, trying to be brave is being scared. If the mind is in pain, the mind is pain. The thinker has no other form than his thought. There is no escape. But so long as you are not aware of the inseparability of thinker and thought, you will try to escape.
Sometimes, when resistance ceases, the pain simply goes away or dwindles to an easily tolerable ache. At other times it remains, but the absence of any resistance brings about a way of feeling pain so unfamiliar as to be hard to describe. The pain is no longer problematic. I feel it, but there is no urge to get rid of it, for I have discovered that pain and the effort to be separate from it are the same thing. Wanting to get out of pain is the pain; it is not the “reaction” of an “I” distinct from the pain. When you discover this, the desire to escape “merges” into the pain itself and vanishes.
And that’s why the answer is to learn to accept the present. If you stop resisting and just accept what is in a way that’s free of value judgment, then that changes everything. For me, at least, it produces clarity of mind and releases me from the chains of negative emotions.
As Epictetus said: “seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.”
This isn’t like the vapid, hippy-dippy and woo-woo platitudes that are passed around social media, and it’s not the sort of thing that you’ll find delivered at a local yoga franchise to Lululemon-clad folks between Starbucks and the commute to work. Rather, it’s a lesson for difficult times that actually holds up. There’s substance here.
Of course, I think many people know this to be true intellectually. It makes sense. But it’s hard to actually understand. A major reason for this, I believe, is that we believe acceptance is somehow synonymous with losing–a form of giving up and accepting a lesser lot in life than that to which we’re entitled. If we resist and fight the present, then we can change it, right?
But that’s not what acceptance is about. It’s okay to want better–I encourage it, actually–but accept what’s here, right now, at this moment. This is you. You are this. It simply is what it is. You can focus and narrow your subsequent actions towards a goal, and that’s wonderful. But to resist and struggle is to invite the pain of the past and the anxiety of the future to corrupt the present. In some circumstances, it’ll transform the moment into a private hell.
And it may be that the real problem is not the present itself, but rather our opinion of it. Our expectations, beliefs, and ideas about the world and our place in it may be the reason why so many of us can’t accept what’s happening right here, right now. Often times, I discover that the problems in my life aren’t external things, but rather me. I’m the problem. Perhaps I resist a job not because there’s something inherently wrong with it, but because I have certain beliefs about what constitutes respectable work–or I believe I’ve worked too hard and done too much to accept something that’s incommensurate with my past. Or maybe I just worry too much about an imaginary competition with those around me.
That’s why the key is to accept the present and move on with life. But to do that, I often come up against deeply-anchored ideas, concepts, and belief systems that don’t want to change.
I didn’t want to work at a restaurant. I felt small and weak having to go there and ask for an application–as if I’d somehow failed and now had to engage in a walk of shame. I was embarrassed, stressed out, anxious about the future and wondering if anyone I knew would see me and what I’d say to them. I was full of regret and thought about all the times when I should have said or done something different–or those moments when I’d had opportunities that I didn’t recognize as such. I’d known about “living in the moment” and all that, but to accept my situation felt like being okay with something that I didn’t think was okay. I had this idea of the typical “yes man”, that ubiquitous, wide-eyed person who navigates life using company mantras and value systems as his map–always coming off as a tool who’s incapable of thinking for himself. That’s not me. I didn’t want to take even one step in that direction.
But I’ve learned that’s not what being present is about. I don’t have to be okay with my situation; I just have to accept it. It’s not good, bad, or anything–it simply is. And once I stop resisting that, I’m free to live life and move in whatever direction I desire.
There’s strength in acceptance. And besides, anything else is simply delusional.