Originally posted on Elephant Journal
I first began learning acceptance through the experience of suffering.
The pain of suffering and the desperation to take myself out of it feels urgent in such a way that it demands I do anything I possibly can to escape it. I'll curse the past that led up to the pain I'm in. I'll argue with everything that is happening. But no matter how much I argue with my circumstances, my logic offers me no reprieve.
My only chance then is to look within, to ask, "how can I interpret this another way so as to not experience it as suffering?" Acceptance of what has happened, what is happening and what will happen have been my only relief. Because when suffering cannot be alleviated through any of my efforts, it demands that I just accept it, let it move through me at it's own pace, use it well and let it use me in whatever way it will.
In that way, suffering is an elegant tool for self-discovery. It cracks us open and reveals us. It humbles and tenderizes us in ways little else can. And when we learn to accept it, we get to feel a sense of serenity no matter how dire our circumstances. It seems natural then that those of us seeking self-improvement and personal-empowerment would grow to revere suffering, that we'd grow to trust that if we are suffering, we are leaning into an experience which will yield new freedom on the other side.
By the same token though, we can also grow to distrust the absence of suffering. We can tend to become suspicious of joy.
Some time ago I found myself in an unfamiliar situation. I'd experienced a deep, painful loss that pulled me far down into myself and gave me a chance to rebuild my foundation from the bottom up. I'd committed to learning from the experience, and over time it had left me a more courageous, open and loving person. And for the first time, I was thoroughly happy with the way everything in my life was going. I left a soul-crushing corporate career to train for and build my coaching practice, which was taking off. I was in the most connected and loving relationship of my life. I was living in a city that inspired me constantly. I was in good physical shape. Everything was wonderful.
And I was scared out of my mind that if I accepted my good fortune, I would lose all of it.
For most of my life, joy had been more difficult to accept than suffering. My experience of joy had always been tainted by distrust. So in my quest for acceptance in any circumstance, I had to learn to accept that the joy I feel now and the suffering I may feel later are equally legitimate and equally important. I had to learn not to discount my joy in an attempt to protect myself from the disappointment of losing it. For me, accepting joy in the present moment goes hand in hand with accepting that one day the circumstances bringing me joy will change. They just will. They always do. And I will still be ok.
And for that reason, joy has taught me just as much, if not more, about acceptance as suffering has.
Being blessed with so much happiness, I was sure I would sabotage the good in my life in order to return to a state I was more familiar with; a state of restlessness, of discontent. In fact, I had grown to believe that's what I deserved. An internal voice told me that if I enjoyed what I was doing, I must be doing the wrong things. I remember having a big career dream almost within reach and nearly throwing it aside to do something I hated because I thought that would be the responsible thing to do. I had always learned that increasing my capacity to withstand suffering was the marker of increasing my strength but I never thought of increasing my capacity to to be joyful as a sign of strength. Joy, however, requires incredible fortitude to hold. My capacity to receive and hold joy in my life requires that I'm in approval of my joy and I believe I deserve it. If I don't believe I deserve it, the part of me that doesn't approve will sabotage the good in my life.
But something in me had already caught a glimpse of how it felt to treat my joy as important and right. This time was different than before. I'd always thought that being joyful was fool-hearted and naive and that my rejection of it demonstrated that I was intelligent and realistic. This time I saw my distrust of joy for what it really was: fear of loss.
So I came to see enjoyment as a courageous act of acceptance and I promised myself that no matter how afraid I was, I would not let my fear stop me from being present to the joys of my life.
I'm happy to say that this perspective has serve me well. Letting joy all the way in, finally letting it permeate every crevice of my being feels really, really good.
Sometimes painful, scary things happen and I allow myself to feel them. As always, I use them for self-discovery... but even in my darkest times, I remember that I will always return to joy eventually, that it's always available no matter how certain it seems that I will never have it again. Ironically, accepting the certain return of joy means I have to let go of the way I preemptively reject joy by bracing for and expecting the worst.
So now my practice of acceptance is more well-rounded. I let in the suffering and the joy and I fully experience them both, valuing neither of them above the other.
For some, accepting joy may come naturally, but for many like me, it's an underworked muscle. I work that muscle by getting lost in joy, by letting it consume me fully with no caveats, by receiving it as a gift and accepting it graciously.