Why Compassionate Acceptance Is Key to a Healthy Mindfulness Practice (and How to Do It)

Why Compassionate Acceptance is Key to a Healthy Mindfulness Practice (and How to Do It)

In Buddhist mythology, it’s said that the night the Buddha attained enlightenment he was assaulted repeatedly by Mara, a demon who represents unhealthy impulses and the “death” of spiritual life.

As the Buddha sat in a state of deep meditation, mara tempted the Buddha in every way imaginable. It was precisely when the Buddha had defeated Mara and had overcome those unhealthy impulses such as greed, fear, and lust, that he attained enlightenment.

Some time after the Buddha attained enlightenment and became a revered teacher all across ancient India, Mara decided to visit the Buddha once again. Only this time, Mara wanted to speak with the Buddha.

It was the Buddha’s attendant and cousin, Ananda, who first identified that it was Mara approaching the Buddha’s dwelling. Ananda was fearful of allowing Mara to see the Buddha because he knew of his mischievous deeds and of how he treated the Buddha the night he attained enlightenment.

But when the Buddha noticed he had a guest, he welcomed him with open arms. “Mara, my friend! Come have tea with me!”, he said. He did not send Mara off, hurl insults, ignore him, or attempt to push him away. The Buddha accepted him with open arms, much to Ananda’s dismay, and invited him to have tea.

In Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha, meditation teacher and Vipassana practitioner Tara Brach speaks of this second and very important aspect of mindfulness practice. To see Mara, to notice that he has come and to recognize him, is the first step of the Buddha’s mindfulness practice. But to accept him openly and compassionately is a second and also very critical step that allows us to overcome many difficult challenges.

I've talked a lot on the blog about specific daily mindfulness practices. Those definitely are the core of any mindfulness practice and much beyond that often unfolds naturally. But mindfulness practice as a whole is about more than just waking up- it’s about opening up, too. Opening up to your demons, and inviting them to tea with an open and compassionate acceptance. And that needs to be learned.

This is a fundamental shift compared to the surface-level way we’re used to dealing with our problems, which either involves avoiding them, pushing them away, or assuming we know the answer (without any form of introspection to confirm our assumption) and acting blindly, never getting anywhere because the source of the suffering we’re experiencing runs much deeper than we think.

To accept your demons openly and compassionately- whether that be some form of fear, anger, a limiting belief you have about yourself or life in general, or something else altogether- may seem to be a bit of a simplistic solution for dealing with our problems. But the reality is, in most cases this complete and unrestrained acceptance is all that’s needed for us to transform our relationship with said challenge. Don’t be mistaken, though, it’s simplicity doesn’t correspond with ease of implementation. To openly accept your demons can be a very difficult task, one that takes time and patience.

To accept something openly, without running from it, pushing it away, or trying to change its fundamental nature (impossible, but a common effort by us trying to avoid further suffering), is to come face-to-face with it and say, “I see you. I know that you’re there. I know what you are, but I am not afraid. I accept you with open arms and an open heart which sees you for what you are (understanding).”

At the heart of this open acceptance is compassion, and at the heart of compassion is understanding. To understand something deeply is to love it deeply and have great compassion for it. To notice and identify your demons with your awareness is itself an act of compassion made possible by the clarity we gain through our mindfulness practice, so it’s mindfulness which makes this open acceptance possible.

Without the clarity gained through our practice, we would not understand our demons and see them as the naturally occurring phenomena that they are. We'd continue to treat them as “flaws” or “defects” and turn to one of a number of unhealthy behaviors to push them away. Our daily mindfulness practice breaks this cycle because the clarity we gain through our practice helps us cultivate deep understanding. And so it’s this deep understanding, gained through mindfulness practice, which allows us to cultivate this great open acceptance for our challenges.

L.O.V.E. meditation

The Buddha laid out a set of instructions for helping deal with that which arises within our practice in a simple set of steps:

- Recognition - Acceptance - Embracing - Looking deeply - Insight (with insight we know what to do, and what not to do to change a situation)

These are less so steps than they are stages, especially considering the last, insight. At the end of the process it's then that insight which allows us to live more skillfully with our challenges, more peacefully, and more joyfully in our lives moving forward. I put together a simple exercise called L.O.V.E., based partly on these set of steps, which is also about ultimately utilizing the power that exists in realizing that we’re all together in our challenges.

L.O.V.E. is an acronym which stands for:

  1. Loving recognition
  2. Open up
  3. Value the experience
  4. Embrace (or expanded embrace)

All words in the LOVE meditation exercise connote warmth and perpetuate that feeling of warmth and friendliness throughout the entire practice. This is great for stress, anxiety, even depression, chronic pain, and any difficult bad habits that are taking a toll on you. This is also a great practice for strong emotions as well and can also be used to recall a difficult experience.

Loving recognition

The first step, loving recognition, is a modified take on the act of simple recognition. Because this technique is centered more around developing a sense of self-love and loving-kindness, we begin by recognizing the challenge or suffering in a loving, compassionate, and caring way. By doing so, we set up the rest of the exercise to be much more effective.

To practice loving recognition, instead of simply recognizing something with your awareness, imagine sending feelings of love and caring to your object of concentration. If this is a kind of fear, after becoming clearly aware of the fear imagine yourself looking upon it the next time it arises in just the same way as a parent would look upon their child.

See the fear as a naturally occurring phenomenon due to a combination of conditions as opposed to some integral part of your identity. This is really what gets us. That is, when we think that “we” are the fear, that we have an anger problem, or that we’re not good enough.

Open up

Now that we’ve recognized the fear as a friend and not an enemy out to get us, we can move on to opening up and welcoming it. This is the acceptance stage of the L.O.V.E. exercise, and I felt that opening up best described it given the difference in direction for this specific exercise.

In this second stage, you’re welcome the feeling not in the spirit of the limited “I”, the state of mind which is fearful (“I fear” "I accept this fear"), but rather with the state of mind that is your true expansive self. The fear is simply something which is naturally arising based on a set of conditions, and is not attached to nor makes up any particular identity. You don’t need to have realized this yourself yet either, you’re just accepting the fear from this imagined state of mind. In this way, you shift perspectives and change the way that you relate with the fear. It’s not longer “my fear”- it’s simply “fear".

Also, because you’re welcoming this fear into the moment- this space- which “you” currently inhabit, both fully and unconditionally, it takes courage. Shifting from “my fear” to “fear” helps, but that doesn’t magically allow you to transcend your ego. Because of this, you’ll still feel some pushback, some level of discomfort when facing the fear (or whatever challenge you’re working with). If that sounds a little scary, sometimes it is (and sometimes it isn’t).

But the cool thing is, courage doesn’t require the removal of fear- it only requires that you stand up and face it. Even a single moment of courage is worth its weight in gold, so don’t think you need some monumental effort. Each effort proceeding a moment of courage is progressively easier, so just make your best effort in each moment and you’ll make your way.

Value the experience

This step is very much like the investigation step in the last exercise, but it's less investigation and more being home with it (in this case, the fear) and weathering it. It’s about appreciating the parts of it so that you continue to send feelings of love and compassion as opposed to dealing with it from a sort of cold detached place.

Take time to be mindful of everything that arises with it. What is the essential quality of the fear? Its source? Its various characteristics? What are its triggers? Don’t so much actively delve into the feeling as you do simply pay attention to it as it arises. Make friends with your challenge and continue to imagine it inhabiting this space with you in much the same way as a friend would sit next to you, you appreciating each other’s company in quiet conversation.

Expanded Embrace

Next is what I believe to be the most powerful aspect of this particular meditation exercise. Now, you’ll expand your perspective from this moment, this challenge, and your relationship with it outward to include all others.

Imagine the faces of others experiencing the same or similar challenge as you and realize that you’re not alone in this. Others are experiencing challenges just like you. And many the exact same challenge as you, no matter what you’re facing. Feel their suffering and the compassion that arises as a result.

Now, in much the same way as you would do during the last stages of loving-kindness meditation, imagine those feelings of love and compassion you’ve cultivated throughout the meditation expanding out to others who are going through the same thing as you.

Living Skillfully

It’s a mistake to think that accepting our challenges, or suffering, openly is the end of the line. The intention of living mindfully, with both an open awareness and an open acceptance, is to put ourselves in a place where we can act more skillfully throughout our everyday lives. This is the point of our practice.

By fully accepting our demons, by inviting them to tea with us, we can see very deeply into them and not only deepen our understanding of them but also discover ways to overcome them. So it’s from this place of open acceptance that we can live our everyday lives with greater skillfulness, and this leads to greater peace and happiness consistently.


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