The sixth attitudinal foundation of mindfulness that Jon Kabat-Zinn presents is acceptance which is also (as the name suggests) a significant aspect of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Acceptance is about experiencing things as they actually are in the present; whether that be pain, difficult emotional states or anything else that is not how we would ideally like it to be. Our natural tendency as human beings, in the face of unwanted experiences such as a cancer diagnosis or the death of a loved one, is to go through periods of denial and resistance initially and this can be part of the process of healing and coming to terms with situations. Ultimately, and this is likely to take a long time for significant tragedies, acceptance is the stage we need to reach to feel some peace with the situation and it is defined as the final stage of the grief process proposed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying.
In everyday life we frequently waste a lot of energy denying and resisting what is already our reality. We try to push situations to be the way we want which unfortunately just creates tension and prevents positive change from happening. So much of our energy may be taken up with denial and forcing that there may be little remaining for healing and growth. And the small amount that is left might be dissipated by our lack of awareness conscious direction.
We need to learn to like ourselves as we already are rather than waiting to become as we think we should be before we allow ourselves to do so. Otherwise our self-dislike will hold us back from developing and prevent us achieving optimal wellbeing. When you start to like yourself anyway, change becomes less important and much easier. As Carl Roger’s asserted “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
Sometimes acceptance becomes confused with ideas of having to like everything, taking a passive attitude, resignation, tolerance or a lack of desire to grow. True acceptance is based on a willingness to see things as they really are. So there remains scope within it for us to be a catalyst for positive change within ourselves and in the world around us. We can be accepting and still move towards breaking free of destructive habits or campaigning against injustice. An attitude of acceptance provides a context for taking appropriate actions in response to whatever is happening in life. We are far more likely to have a strong sense of what to do and the inner confidence to follow through when we have a clear picture of what is actually going on than when our vision is obscured by the mind’s desires, fears or judgements.
In mindfulness meditation, acceptance is cultivated by being with each moment fully, just as it is. As best we can, we put aside our ideas about what we should be thinking or feeling and instead remind ourselves to be open and receptive to whatever we are experiencing in our thoughts and feelings and to accept it because it is already here. In Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) the theory suggests that if people with recurrent depression can be open to and accepting of sadness without moving into thinking about how it’s not how they want to feel and without ruminating on previous times they’ve felt depressed then they will be more likely to remain well. If we keep focusing our attention on the present, we can be sure that whatever we are attending to in the moment will change, bringing us a further opportunity to practice accepting whatever arises in the next moment. There is an inherent wisdom in cultivating acceptance.