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Know the Ideal, Accept the Actual
The New Year is a natural time for reflection and the setting of resolutions. This is a valuable process, for it’s all too easy to get lost in the details of life and forget one’s direction. At this time of year, people will often renew their commitments to a meditation practice, an exercise regime, giving up smoking, and so on. If you wish to journey on the path of mindfulness, at some point you must look at how you are living your life off the cushion, so New Year’s resolutions are a natural companion to this practice. How we walk in the world is of grave importance, and resolutions can influence how we walk our talk. Whether we feel inspired to be reconciled with loved ones with whom we have quarreled, to get help for an addiction, or to simply take up a hobby that brings joy to our lives, resolutions can help clarify our intentions and give us energy to make them happen.
But, from a Buddhist perspective, resolutions can also be a trap. The more we try to improve ourselves, the more easily we can get stuck in self-hatred. As Pema Chödrön writes, “We may think meditation will improve us, but it’s really about accepting ourselves as we are right now.”* If we are looking to our resolutions and our meditation practice to save us from our bad habits, it will never work. If we feel that we need to change ourselves in order to be worthy, acceptable, or lovable, then any good intentions will just perpetuate the habit of looking for happiness outside—including turning to meditation and exercise, which sound like wholesome sources of happiness.
Of course we want to change the painful things within ourselves—they’re painful! But fueled by the energy of avoidance and repression, our efforts to change ourselves end up blocking transformation instead. We may change some habits temporarily this way, but no healing can come from conditional self-love, as in “I love myself because I’ve exercised every day for two weeks.” What happens when you miss a day? Or as much as a month? Do you fall into despair? Do you deny the disappointment and shut down completely? Or do you succeed in fulfilling your resolutions, only to run on to the next goal, and the next and the next, never actually enjoying the benefit of what’s already been achieved?
In her book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha, Tara Brach notes that “The renowned seventh-century Zen master Seng-tsan taught that true freedom is being without anxiety about imperfection” (Brach 2004, 21). It sounds impossible, but it is not. We are clearly imperfect human beings, and the good news is that this isn’t a problem! It’s only in fighting our imperfection that we run into difficulties. Brach later asks, “What would it be like if I could accept life—accept this moment—exactly as it is?” (Brach 2004, 45). This is an important question. Take a moment right now and ask yourself how you would feel if you accepted yourself completely, just as you are. See if an answer arises and welcome it. If you see a large gap between your normal state of being and a state of total acceptance, welcome that. If resistance arises to the question or to what you find in asking the question, welcome it too. Does it seem bizarre not to set anything in front of yourself that needs to be achieved before you’re willing to be happy with yourself? Before you’re willing to just be happy? Whatever you find, welcome it. Partial acceptance, with practice, leads to mastery of acceptance.
When we think of acceptance as a passive state of complacency, it seems an unlikely starting point for transformation. But if we can see acceptance as the foundation of ahimsa, the principle of non-violence that inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., to go out and literally change the world, then acceptance is clearly a power we can cultivate, within both our darkness and our light. In his book Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes: “As any good therapist will tell you, you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge, and what you do not consciously acknowledge will remain in control of you from within, festering and destroying you and those around you” (Rohr 2011, 39). Most people can see this with regard to the traumas of life, but it’s true for the petty trials and tribulations as well. Acceptance is the ground of healing and transformation. It is essential to a path of awakening, far more than any external “perfection.”
Roshi Jiyu-Kennett, the first Western, female, Soto Zen priest, who trained in Japan in the 1960s, was told, “You must know the ideal; you must accept the actual” (Jiyu-Kennett 2002, 286). She later realized, “I must be content and satisfied with me at all times thus, and thus only, will peace be completely mine” (Jiyu-Kennett 2002, 122). What if we started our New Year’s resolution process here, already content and satisfied? Could there be any better way to start a new moment or a new year?
So, if you take on the practice of writing New Year’s resolutions, first take the time to slow down and breathe deeply. Look at your life and look deeply into yourself. Some things you see will be beautiful, and, if you look long enough, some things will be downright shocking. See if you can accept and welcome whatever you find. Ideas will arise around what and how you want to change. Accept and welcome the ideas, then let them settle down. Imagine accepting yourself and your life just as they are. What would it feel like to offer no resistance to the way things are? To waste no energy getting frustrated or fearful over what you can’t change? Find a place of tenderness and love within yourself. Then, if you want to set loving intentions for the year, go ahead and do it, grounded in acceptance. Resolutions then become games to enjoy playing rather than hoops to jump through. Remember that your capacity to achieve these goals in no way affects you inherent worthiness, your radiant Buddha Nature. That is something that nothing can tarnish.
Brach, Tara. 2003. Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha. New York: Bantam Dell.
Jiyu-Kennett., Rev. Roshi P. T. N. H. 2002. The Wild White Goose. Mount Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press.
Rohr, Richard. 2011. Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Cincinnati: St Anthony Messenger Press.