Getting Buddhism Right: How to think about Acceptance and Suffering.

From Roman Krznaric’s “How to find fulfilling work”:

“Buddhism, which upholds the belief that all life is suffering. […] The message of the ‘grin and bear it’ school of thought is that we need to accept the inevitable and put up with whatever job we can get. [..] The best way to protect ourselves from all the optimistic pundents pedalling fulfilment is to develop a hardy philosophy of acceptance, even resignation, and not set our hearts on finding a meaningful career.”

Sadly, the author grossly misinterprets the Buddhist ideas of suffering (dukkha) and acceptance. And he’s not alone, the association of Buddhism with the idea that “life is suffering, just accept it”, is everywhere. This sounds like “just take it, there’s nothing you can do, life sucks, get over it”.

But this is not what Buddhism holds.

Buddhism claims “Everything in life is temporary, arising and falling away.” Buddhism proposes a model of reality as a stream of events rather than a thing.

Buddhism further claims “Clinging to temporary states causes suffering”. The problem is our tendency to cling to the past being different from the present, or cling to a view of the future that’s different than what we desire.

Buddhism proposes a solution of acceptance: Come to terms with the past being gone, and the future being different from what you might desire. Accept it fully and eradicate suffering.

From the standpoint of the present moment, you can absolutely activate your consciousness and your willpower to wisely respond to the current moment in a way that moves you towards a realistic and positive future.

Our misunderstanding might come from the multiple definitions of acceptance. Acceptance can mean “a willingness to tolerate a difficult or unpleasant situation”, similar to “resignation”. Acceptance can also mean “consenting to something offered”. Buddhism takes the second definition. Consent to the world as it exists, don’t resign yourself to it, eradicate your suffering by aligned to the reality of the world, and work from there to wisely move into the most ideal future you can create.

Buddhism doesn’t say “suck it up”, it says “start with where you are”. Or, as captured in the Serenity Prayer:

Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Buddhism further proposed a solution of radical acceptance: The cycle of Suffering, Acceptance, and Happiness repeats at different scales. I’ll steal the “poisoned arrow” story commonly repeated in Buddhism to demonstrate:

Say we’re walking through the forest. Next thing we know, someone shoots us with a poisoned arrow. Pain hits us, we recoil in denial, and experience suffering: “NO!”. Quickly we accept that we’ve been shot: “Woah, that’s a real arrow! I’ve been shot!”. We experience a little less suffering. Now we act, pulling the arrow out of us. One cycle of suffering, acceptance, and happiness completed.

We’re likely still in a lot of pain, and we respond with “I didn’t do anything, this is terrible, why did this happen?!”. We’re doubly-suffering, one from the physical pain, and one from the mental turmoil. We accept the mental turmoil, it’s natural for the mind to reel, but I don’t have to engage with these thoughts. I reduce my suffering a little bit. “OK, let’s get out of this place, and get this wound dressed.” Another cycle of suffering, acceptance, and happiness.

Years later, perhaps we see the scar, and we go “the person who shot that arrow was a giant asshole, fuck that guy. ugh. actually what if I was in the wrong place without knowing it, and it was my fault? Ugh”. All this mental rumination means we’re again creating more suffering! We respond with amused acceptance, “ok, that happened, my mind is going off about it again, silly mind”, and decide whether we want to investigate these questions our mind is bringing up, or whether we’re happy to let these thoughts arise and fall away.

Hold suffering with a deeper level of nonjudgemental acceptance and kindness. In this deeper level we might find more suffering, to which we respond with an even deeper level of nonjudgemental acceptance and kindness. The cycle of Dukkha and Sukha continues.

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