Practice Acceptance for Mindfulness the easy way

Published by Olivier Devroede on

Acceptance is one of the core attitudes of mindfulness meditation. But, like any other skill, it needs to be practiced. This post will give you the necessary exercises and tools to perfect this subtle art.

What is acceptance?

Acceptance is a very active process, there is nothing passive about it, it’s not passive resignation but an act of recognition that things are the way they are… Acceptance doesn’t mean we cant work to change the world, or circumstances, but it means that unless we accept things as they are, we will try to force things to be as they are not and that can create an enormous amount of difficulty

Jon Kabat-Zinn

As Jon Kabat-Zinn states, acceptance is not something passive where you allow other people to treat you badly without you stopping them.

It has nothing to do with that.

Acceptance is something far more heroic. It is the act of completely and totally seeing the the situation for what it is.

Why is this heroic?

Because many people keep on lying to themselves about many things. Here are just a few examples:

  • This noise makes me go crazy
  • As long as I do not have the perfect conditions, I cannot meditate, exercise, …
  • I do not drink to much, I’m just a social drinker
  • I cannot cope with this pain
  • I will never be happy unless …

Now, do not get me wrong. Each of these examples can be true within a certain range.

But the problem is that they are used as excuses to just try to ignore the problem without doing anything about it.

Acceptance in mindfulness is trying to see the situation as it is now, without adding our own interpretations.

So, we notice we are sad. We notice we are broke. We notice we drink too much or are in pain.

We notice and we acknowledge the fact.

‘Accept yourself’ by Fawad Khan

Why is it foundational?

Acceptance is a fundamental skill in mindfulness, but why is this so?

Here are the two main reasons:

First Reason

The first reason why acceptance is core to mindfulness lies in its application to relief of pain and suffering.

Through the application of acceptance, we find the courage to look into what is the real problem. We stop looking away from our problem and confront it head on.

That is no easy task. It takes courage.

A lot of courage.

But it is not all doom and gloom.

Acceptance is like a physician that looks carefully at the patient in a loving, caring, but objective way. He does this in order to be able to make a correct diagnosis.

Once he found what the patient has, a cure can be prescribed and administered.

Looking with acceptance at the state we are in has this same effect. Since we stop running from whatever troubles us, we can identify its true causes.

And once we identify the cause of the problem, we can apply remedies.

Second Reason

The second reason is very much related to the first one, but differs in its details

This reason is … in Buddhism by the tale of the two arrows. It goes as follows:

The Buddha teaches that refusing to see the things as they are is like a soldier that gets hurt in the battlefield by an arrow.

But the soldier does not want to acknowledge that fact that he got shot. And the Buddha says that this is very much like taking a second arrow and sticking it in our own flesh, next to the first one.

The first arrow is symbolic for life and its inevitable pain. We cannot escape this. But the second arrow is self inflicted. And this stands symbolic for the suffering we bring upon ourselves for not accepting life as it is and taking the actions based on facts.

Buddha Shakyamuni

Letting go of the second arrow can lead to tremendous feeling of relief. I experience this first hand when I was suffering from an illness with fevers and a lot of muscle pain.

When I looked closely at the pain, a lot of suffering went away. My self-pity stopped and I was able to be, well, happy. For the record, the pain did not go away. As far as I can tell, it stayed the same. But my relation to it changed. The pain simply stopped bothering me so much. In fact, I could handle the situation much better. For a more detailed account of my illness and how to practice mindfulness when being ill, check out my article on the subject.

How to practice acceptance

As I hopefully convinced you in the previous sections, practicing acceptance has many advantages. Let’s no turn our attention to how we can hone this skill. Time to do some exercises to train our acceptance.

A warning upfront

Before we start, I want to warn you. And ask you to try to remember one thing when you try the exercises.

I would like you to try to accept the fact that that you will fail in accepting some things that you think you should be accepting.

It looks silly, but I cannot count the number of times that I forgot this very important fact: we need to come to terms with the fact that we are all beginners and part of a training program. We are not perfect.

For some of us, this is difficult to accept.

So there is your first challenge, and I agree it is not a small one. It is actually a big one, since many people thing they ‘should’ be perfect and then compare themselves to the ideal they thing they should be.

Luckily for us, we just need to take this one as a reminder. We will see that sometimes we can accept this fact, and sometimes we cannot.

And that is fine. If can move on from there, we will be fine.

Acceptance, a photo by Juan Manuel Cruz del Cueto

Baby Steps

Although I started with a difficult point, we will now take small baby steps.

Actually, the whole of meditation is really an exercise in acceptance. From the moment you start to the moment you end. There are small and great challenges, the trick is to not forget that we are practicing the skill.

Acceptance exercises in formal mindfulness meditation

We will now dive into practices for you to strengthen your capacity for acceptance.

Now, every meditation is an exercise for all the 9 attitudes, but zooming in on any one of them during a practice can be beneficial. The most important thing is to set an intention that if the occasion presents itself, you will hone into this skill and practice the best as you can.

In order to set your intention, I recommend a having a starting ritual, you can read more about this in my post on tips to improve your meditation.

Accepting external distractions

Especially in the beginning phases of your meditation journey, sounds can be a huge distraction. Moreover, we often have this ideal of a monk sitting in the forest with no distractions at all.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, there are a lot of noises in the forest. Wind blowing, wildlife, you name it.

But no jackhammers or noisy neighbors, I’ll give you that.

But the thing these noises have in common, is that you do not need to act on them. You can safely ignore them and move on with your meditation.

Sure, I also prefer a quite space, but hey, we are here to learn acceptance. I never said it would be easy ;-).

All joking aside, the truth of the matter is that you can safely ignore most of the noises around you. So you can make this you new practice.

Exercise: Next time a noise arises and captures your attention, reflect in the following way: Is this noise threatening to me? I mean really threatening? Can I do something about this noise? More often than not, we have no control over the noise.

So, if those 2 conditions are met: you are safe and you cannot do anything about it. Why not try to bring acceptance to the situation. Just try, to the best of your ability to accept the situation for what it is.

Do not forget that you might be very annoyed with the noise. Do not ignore this feeling! Again, to the best of your ability, try to accept the fact that you are annoyed.

And now, to underscore the fact that you accepted the situation, turn your attention again to the breath and forget about the noise. Well, as good as you can, focus on the breath. You will still hear the noise, but it no longer a concern.

Practice like this every time some noise intervenes with your meditation. This exercise is the beginning stage of training in acceptance.

Accepting physical discomfort

The next thing that can seriously disturb your meditation is physical discomfort.

The most noticeable of these is pain that can arise due to a longer sit.

But, that is not the easiest and most common one for beginners. No, the most common physical discomfort experienced by beginning meditators is the itch.

Annoying, isn’t it?

But what if we gently bring our attention to it and try to observe it as it is. Maybe it is really annoying. And maybe it increases in power (it often does with me, especially when it’s an itchy nose). And sometimes it becomes so ‘itchy’ that my hands move without my control.

So it is a great object for mindfulness. But also a great one for acceptance.

The interested attention we brought it excellent. But what if we added something on top of it. Accepting the itch as it is. Accepting that it is, in fact, really annoying.

When our annoyance becomes on the foreground of our attention, see if you can bring some acceptance to that too.

Accepting an imperfect meditation

Let’s face it, our meditation are not perfect. We will lose the object of meditation … many times during a session.

And what about the instructions to not interfere with the breath? Who is able to do this? Well, you will see that as you have been meditating for a longer period, you will too, but in the beginning (the first year or 2), bringing the attention to the breadth will make you change the breath.

These are two perfect examples of things you can practice acceptance towards. And, if you anything like me, you will have your hands full with these

Accepting difficult emotions

‘A story called hope’ by Kira Westland

And now we come to the point were our practice of acceptance starts to improve our well-being.

We will start applying acceptance towards difficult and disturbing emotions.

Just one caveat.

You need to be very gently with yourself. Under no circumstance should you force yourself. And if you have a therapist, you should consult with her or him if this is appropriate for you to do.

In any case, when the emotions becomes overwhelming, I recommend that your come back to a safe haven. Like the breath. But if this is still too intense, bring your awareness to your feet. Far from where your emotions are normally felt. Or even firther away, towards a tree in the distance. Usually, these tachniques help quenching the intensity of the emotions.

Now, working with difficult emotions is not that different from the other things you can bring acceptance towards.

A disturbing thought might come up during meditation and then you should treat it as any other distraction: look at it with interest and try to accept the fact that it is there in this particular moment.

But we can go further. You might have trouble with your spouse or coworker, or lost somebody. And we can make this situation the focus of our attention.

We can bring itup in our minds eye and look at it. Usually, this will stir up a lot of emotions that associated with it. And now we have an extra opportunity to deal with the situation.

We can now accept our anger or sadness at it presents to ourselves. Or we can come to terms with the situation as it is. At that moment, we will open up and hopefully something opens that gives us a choice. Well, it often does for me.

The important thing here is to not expect it to be like this. We should practice acceptance for the sake of acceptance.

That might sound fluffy, but the truth is that it works best this way. I’m only being pragmatic here. It worked for me in the past, so I apply it whenever I can.

Should I really practice all of this in my meditation?

Well, yes and no.

Acceptance should be a basic attitude in our mindfulness practice. So yes, you should add it whenever you can.

But, especially in the beginning, I recommend having session dedicated only to acceptance. Here you can hone this important skill until it becomes second nature.

Acceptance exercises in daily life

Nobody meditates for the sake of meditating. Certainly not in the beginning. After some years, the meditations sessions become much more pleasant, but in the beginning, let’s face it, it’s hard.

So why do we meditate? In general, to become a happier person. So we practice all these exercises on acceptance so that when we need them in daily life, we can apply them.

I agree that this is easier said than done.

That is why the exercises in the formal meditation are so important.

So how do we practice in daily life? I hihgly recommend you to do a small practice every evening where you try to find the most imperfect moment of your day. Whatever imperfect means for you.

When reviewing this moment, see if you were mindful or not. And see if you can accept the fact that this moment was not perfect for you.

Then, resolve to try to be more mindful where such a situation to occur again. Also resolve to practice accepting this moment, in the moment, when it appears again in your life.

Up to you

No it is up to your to practice. Here is a guided meditation on acceptance. Set aside some time and get into the practice. I hope you will enjoy it.

Featured image by Patrick.

Olivier Devroede

Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009. Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.


Ron Passfield · at 6:41 pm

Acceptance is critical and yet so difficult in these times of the Coronavirus. Physical distancing brought on by lockdowns, social distancing and social isolation can lead to boredom, loneliness, anxiety and panic (particularly in a deteriorating personal finance situation). I’m finding sung mantra meditations particularly helpful at the moment because they can get you out of your head and transport you to a place of acceptance and calm.

    Olivier · at 8:16 am

    Interesting what you say about mantra meditation. I have been experimenting with it but, as in the case of mindfulness, I appear to be a slow learner. I’ll definitely have to look deeper into it.

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