I have for many years been haunted by a Zen parable about a man being chased by a tiger. Here it is in full:
There was a man walking across an open field, when suddenly a tiger appeared and began to give chase. The man began to run, but the tiger was closing in. As he approached a cliff at the edge of the field, the man grabbed a vine and jumped over the cliff. Holding on as tight as he could, he looked up and saw the angry tiger prowling out of range ten feet above him. He looked down. In the gully below, there were two tigers also angry and prowling. He had to wait it out. He looked up again and saw that two mice, one white, the other black, had come out of the bushes and had begun gnawing on the vine, his lifeline. As they chewed the vine thinner and thinner, he knew that he could break at any time. Then, he saw a single wild strawberry growing just an arms length away. Holding the vine with one hand, he reached out, picked the strawberry, and put it in his mouth. It was delicious.
There are many lessons to be drawn from this parable, but the one I’d like to focus on here is that of acceptance.
ACCEPT (v) late 14c., “to take what is offered; admit and agree to (a proposal, etc.),” from Old French accepter (14c.) or directly from Latin acceptare “take or receive willingly,” frequentative of accipere “receive, get without effort,” from ad “to” (see ad-) + capere “to take,” from PIE root *kap- “to grasp.”
The challenge of acceptance, which is already implicit in the etymology of the word is not only to sanction, tolerate, accede to something we’d rather not have to take or put up with, but at the same time to “take or receive willingly”. As an act of choosing, of volition (from the Old English willan, wyllan “to wish, desire; be willing; be used to; be about to”).
The character in this Zen fable models different forms of acceptance. There is the choiceless acceptance of running away from a genuine danger (not to be confused with running from imaginary tigers, which is more often what we do); the choiceless choice of taking a risk, a metaphorical leap into the dark in order to reach a safer place, or hanging tenuously onto a lifeline. But then there is also the kind of choice at the end of the story which feels very ACT-like: focusing, even in the midst of stress, and strain, and genuine anxiety or terror, on a valued action. Depression and anxiety tells us that in the midst of our struggles we must either give up (freeze), or escape in some way (fight, flight). And sometimes these are helpful responses. But often we cannot make significant changes to our lives or ourselves swiftly enough to rid ourselves of all the tigers (real, or imaginary) out there. What we can do, however, is focus moment-by-moment on self-care, on pleasure, as well as those things that are meaningful to us. The strawberry represents both of these I believe.
Recently I’ve been thinking about the word “grant” in the Serenity Prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” There is in that word the recognition that a certain level of patience with ourselves is required to reach this state of allowing, assent, surrender. Or that maybe it is not fully in our control to accept. We pray, we plead, we recognise how much we cling to having things (people, the world, ourselves) how we would like them as opposed to how they frustratingly present themselves to us, and see the pain that clinging generates. And then we wait for our bodies, as much as our minds to let go. Which more often than not, they don’t, do they?
It sounds so easy when presented in poetry or in a self-help book. Like Mary Oliver does here in her poem “In Blackwater Woods”:
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
I sometimes ask someone who is struggling with acceptance and letting something go (and we’re all struggling with this in one form or another) to do some sentence stems with “God grant me the serenity to accept…”, focusing on all those things we’d like to accept, to “let go of” in a fluid, Mary Oliverish way, and yet our fingers continue to tightly gripping, gripping, tightly gripping.
This recent piece of writing from Gail* expresses this so well.
God, Grant Me The Serenity
To accept that my attractive (married) Romanian neighbour with the hooked nose and brown eyes that turns me fiercely on will never be mine. To accept that my plantar (right foot), anterior tibialis (left foot) and ankle bone (left) don’t always play ball like they used to. To accept that 99% of the men I have access to on Bumble, Hinge, OKCupid, Badoo, and Tinder bore the pants off me. To accept that the one man I dated for a while this year who didn’t bore me, doesn’t want to be in a relationship with me; to accept that I maybe bore him, or am too needy for him, or something. To accept that it gets dark every afternoon at 4pm, and this will continue in earnest until Friday, the 21st of December, shortest day of the year. To accept that my notion of a romantic partner, a soulmate, a friend&lover needs to be downscaled in terms of what others are willing to offer me, at least initially. To accept that I am of value to others as a kind friend/hand-holder/carer rather than as a maker of things. To accept that I am addicted to [redacted] and can’t imagine my life without it. To accept that the planet is being destroyed by our greed and selfishness, but I don’t want to give up on my greed and selfishness. To accept that I struggle with acceptance.
Resistance and clinging are not a problem per se. “The whole notion of resistance,” writes Adam Phillips, “implies that there could be acceptance.”
But how to get to that place of acceptance without waiting for God, or some Higher Power to magically “grant” it to us on a whim?
What Gail is struggling to accept, and she is not alone in this, is desire and longing: for a partner, for more light in a day, for consumer goods that don’t come with an environmental price tag. “From the urgent way lovers want each other to the seeker’s search for truth, all moving is from the mover,” writes Rumi. “Every pull draws us to the ocean.” And what does the ocean desire, other than to be, and to be fully itself, expressive of itself, inhabiting the space it needs to inhabit? This is a primal desire, and one which moves everything in existence, including us. The same universal force of attraction that gathers atoms into molecules and holds solar systems spinning in galaxies also joins sperm with eggs and makes us swipe left and right on each other on our dating apps.
While often uncomfortable, desire is not bad—it is natural. The pull of desire is part of our survival equipment. It keeps us eating, having sex, going to work, doing what we do to thrive. Desire also motivates us to read books, listen to talks and explore spiritual practices that help us realize and inhabit loving awareness. The same life energy that leads to suffering also provides the fuel for insight and interest. Desire becomes a problem only when it takes over our sense of who we are.
As human beings our desire for happiness focuses on fulfilling our needs. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, our needs range in a hierarchy from basic biological drives to spiritual yearnings. We need security, food and sex; emotional recognition and bonding; mental engagement and creative activity; communion and self-realization. Meeting these needs of body, mind and spirit gives us satisfaction and pleasure; denying them leaves us feeling deprived, frustrated and incomplete. We seek out experiences that enable us to survive, thrive and be fulfilled.
If our desires are simple and can be temporarily satisfied, our way of responding is straightforward. When thirsty, we drink. When tired, we sleep. When lonely, we talk to a friend. Yet, as we know, it’s rarely this uncomplicated. Most of the time our wanting is not so easily satisfied. Often our desires fixate on soothing, once and for all, our anxieties. We strive to tie up all the loose ends and to avoid making mistakes, even though we know both are impossible.
The Latin root of the word desire, “desidus,” means “away from a star.” One way to interpret this is that stars are the energetic source of all life and an expression of pure awareness. This aliveness and wakefulness is what we long for most deeply—we long to belong to our star, to realize our own true nature. Yet because our desires habitually narrow and fixate on what by nature passes away, we feel “away from our star,” away from the life, awareness and love that is the essence of who we are. Feeling apart from the source of our being, we identify ourselves with our wants and with the ways that we try to satisfy them.
Often our desiring selves are also our most shameful selves. For this is often the cloying, under-the-radar of consciousness feeling, when our basic needs to be loved and understood are frustrated. If, like Gail, our needs for connection are consistently ignored or misunderstood, our wanting grows stronger, and we seek even more urgently the attention we crave. We spend our lives trying to get away from our painful feelings of fear and shame, disconnecting from and numbing our body, getting lost in self-judgment and obsessive thinking. But this only serves to increase our wanting and shame. As the cycle of reactivity repeats itself over and over, our identity as a wanting self—fundamentally deprived, isolated and unworthy—deepens.
Most mainstream religions—Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Confucian—teach that our wanting, passion and greed cause suffering. While this certainly can be true, their blanket teachings about the dangers of desire often deepen self-hatred. We are counseled to transcend, overcome or somehow manage the hungers of our physical and emotional being. Audre Lorde tells us, “We have been raised to fear . . . our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for . . . many facets of our own oppression.”
We are unable to give ourselves freely and joyfully to any activity if the wanting self is in charge. And yet, until we attend to the basic desires and fears that energize the wanting self, it will insinuate itself into our every activity and relationship.
Willa Cather tells us, “There is only one big thing—desire. And before it, when it is big, all is little.” We can honour desire as a life force, but still see how it causes suffering when it takes over our life. Our natural hunger for food can become an ungovernable craving for food—ice cream, sweets, potato chips—comfort food or food to numb our feelings. Our longing for sex and affection can become an anguished dependency on another human being to define and please us. Our need for shelter and clothing can turn into insatiable greed, compelling us to possess three houses and closets full of unworn shoes. Our fundamental longing to belong and feel loved becomes an insistent craving for substitutes.
If we have been acutely frustrated or deprived, our fixated desire becomes desperate and unquenchable. We are possessed by craving, and our entire life is hijacked by the force of this energy. We feel like a wanting self in all situations, with all people, throughout the day. If we are taken over by craving, no matter who or what is before us, all we can see is how it might satisfy our needs. This kind of thirst contracts our body and mind into a profound trance. We move through the world with a kind of tunnel vision that prevents us from enjoying what is in front of us. The colour of the autumn leaves or a passage of poetry merely amplifies the feeling that there is a gaping hole in our life. The smile of a child only reminds us that we are painfully childless. We turn away from simple pleasures because our craving compels us to seek more intense stimulation or numbing relief.
So how to bring ourselves back into a Healthy Adult or Wise Mind headspace where we can experience some of the above not just as concepts but as ways of being, ways of freeing ourselves when trapped in the craving, deprivation-driven grasp of our inner addicts? Here are a couple of things you might like to try. I’m presenting them below as a kind of guided practice. I find these are more effective when we listen and give ourselves up to the experience of these exercises, rather than just try to digest them cognitively as ideas on a page. Ideas can form the basis of prayers, poems and mantras, but in order to feel the benefits of a practice, it’s best we give our bodies to them, as much as our minds.
ACCEPTANCE OF CORE NEEDS PRACTICE: Dropbox link to MP3 file
ACCEPTANCE OF THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS PRACTICE: Dropbox link to MP3 file
[All names and some significant details of the above piece have been changed in order to safeguard the anonymity of those involved.]