The Nature of Acceptance by Richard Sell
Imagine you are standing on one side of a river and you want to reach a spot on the other side. You dive in and start swimming but you have forgotten to take the river’s current into account. You step up your efforts but no matter how hard you try you cannot quite overcome the currents. When you finally touch the bank on the other side you are quite some distance away from where you intended to be.
We may not like to admit it, but our life follows a similar trajectory. People and events act upon our life, diverting us from what we think is our chosen path. The world’s marketing machine of self-help gurus tells us that simple grit, coupled with positive thinking will overcome all. But as the ancient philosophers argued, we should instead make peace with the fact that life is dynamic and changing and we cannot control everything. Knowing what we can overcome and what just must be weathered is the art of viveka (discrimination).
Why is this so? As human beings, we seem hardwired to want to control the environment around us. This stems from a fear of the unknown, of change that will bring the unknown closer to us. Change is one of the few constants and we readily accept the phrase ‘this too will pass’, without actually believing it. We somehow think things will remain the same.
In the Secret Doctrine we hear about the ‘Law of Periodicity’, the ebb and flow in all departments of Nature; so too in the human department. The temporary appearance and disappearance of happiness and distress over time are like the coming and going of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception; and our task is to keep ourselves equanimous through the disturbances of mind and emotions.
Acceptance has a significant part to play in how we perceive life and its impact on the outer person and Inner Self. Instead of fighting against the currents in our life, we can begin to live in harmony with them, taking the opportunities for growth from them as intended by life. It is not so much what happens to us that matters, as our attitude towards the happening --- we can in fact be content under circumstances which would make many other people miserable.
But this is not so easy at first. Our feelings take over, our thoughts do not stop, driving down the same old grooves and patterns that they have driven down over countless lives.
To change, we have to make a conscious effort and apply our Will power to ourselves, bringing acceptance into the equation. This does not mean turning into a passive doormat and accepting everything that comes our way.
In our spiritual quest we walk the narrow path between wise tolerance of others, acceptance of people and situations that we may not wish for, but we also hold fast to our principles concerning the right conduct of our life. I heard some sound advice many years ago that goes like this --- ‘Give way in the small things but hold fast when matters of ethical principles are involved’. In Madame Blavatsky’s ‘Golden Stairs’, we hear three lines that go like this:
a courageous endurance of personal injustice,
a brave declaration of principles,
a valiant defence of those who are unjustly attacked,
Let us explore these statements a little. ‘a courageous endurance of personal injustice’--- what does this really mean?
On one level it will mean gritting our teeth to get through the unpleasant experience, but on a deeper level she might be talking about accepting our personal karma without getting riled up and resentful about it. By accepting karma that is due, which is better faced now than put off into the future, we can reap the benefit of the intended lesson now, rather than fearfully trying to avoid the circumstances and learning nothing.
It is after all an opportunity to learn more about the current personality, our push buttons, our levels of patience and tolerance. Importantly it is a chance to put into action our theosophical principles. It is an opportunity for achieving spiritual growth. One might say it is like the butterfly that has to push against the shell of the chrysalis to get blood pumping into the wings, strengthening them as it does so. These trials are like our strengthening, pushing against the shell, of our current spiritual limitations. The Soul may well have prearranged such trials before our incarnation.
H.P. Blavatsky said: ‘Do not be afraid of your difficulties. Do not wish you could be in other circumstances than you are. For when you have made the best of an adversity, it becomes the stepping stone to a splendid opportunity.’
When so called bad things happen to us, especially those that we feel are a personal injustice, we can reflect on this and hope to endure the experience, learn from it, rise above it and grow.
To help us succeed in this task is where ‘a brave declaration of principles’comes in. Will we barter our principles away at the first sign of trouble or will we stand by our principles knowing it may very well end badly for us? What are these principles she speaks of?
In Madame Blavatsky’s Key to Theosophy, the enquirer asks, ‘Have you any ethical system that you carry out in the Society?’ and the Theosophist answers:
The ethics are there, ready and clear enough for whomsoever would follow them.
They are the essence and cream of the world’s ethics, gathered from the teachings
of all the world’s great reformers. Therefore, you will find represented therein
Confucius and Zoroaster, Laotze and the Bhagavad-Gita, the precepts of Gautama
Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth, of Hillel and his school, as of Pythagoras, Socrates,
Plato, and their schools.
When we adhere to living life according to the principles and ethics that we aspire towards we remain true to ourselves. Are we prepared to declare them and live by them even when faced with hostility and rejection? We also know the good opinion of the crowd, that fickle barometer, is rarely worth having. Master Serapis in a letter to Colonel Olcott wrote: ‘Brother mine, he who cares for the opinion of the multitude will never soar above the crowd.’
This brings us to the 3rd line: ‘a valiant defence of those who are unjustly attacked’.
In The Voice of the Silence we read ‘Let not the fierce Sun dry one tear of pain before thyself hast wiped it from the sufferer's eye. But let each burning human tear drop on thy heart and there remain, nor ever brush it off, until the pain that caused it is removed.’
So in daily life for example, perhaps we see bullying in the workplace and speak up. By putting our head above the parapet, we risk getting it lopped off. If we do suffer for holding fast to our convictions, then we fall back on our first line: ‘a courageous endurance of personal injustice.’
This line, ‘a valiant defence of those who are unjustly attacked’, is a call to action (being Karma Yoga), a recognition that each person is a brother or sister. We are fellow pilgrims on this planet and linked as one. New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, famously said after the Christchurch mosque massacre in 2019,‘They are us’, which I think describes well the theosophical principle of the Oneness of all Life.
One of the biggest errors we make is seeing others as separate to ourselves. We focus on the differences, often not liking them, and this breeds a certain level of contempt and therefore intolerance. Intolerance is the act of not accepting people as they are or things as they happen. We try and shape them to our own views instead of letting people find their own way. We each have our own lessons to learn and we learn in different ways --- some faster, some slower. Ours is not to interfere with the development of others, unless asked.
Voltaire asked, ‘What is tolerance?’ He replied: ‘it is a necessary consequence of humanity. We are all fallible, let us then pardon each other's follies. This is the first principle of natural right.’
Some quotes about intolerance may help us here:
‘In the practice of tolerance, one's enemy is the best teacher.’―Dalai Lama
‘Tolerance isn't about not having beliefs. It's about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you.’―Timothy Keller
‘Tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil.’―Thomas Mann
Less well known is the paradox of tolerance, expressed by philosopher Karl Popper:
Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.
Intolerance is often based on fears. Our attitude towards acceptance is not only just based on things that are --- or have been. What of the future? One of the biggest threats we face is our mind’s ability to make up all sorts of ‘stories’ which play on these fears. For example, we have a small disagreement with our boss and we think we will be fired and start fretting how we will pay the rent. These fears can take hold of us, taking us out of living in the now, and forcing us to live in some made-up world, where the future is bleak leading to worry, anxiety and so on. I am sure we all do it to an extent. The best advice I have learned to deal with this comes from the Master Kuthumi:
Indulge not in apprehensions of what evil might happen if things should not go as your worldly wisdom thinks they ought; doubt not, for this complexion of doubt unnerves and pushes back one’s progress. To have cheerful confidence and hope is quite another thing from giving way to the fool’s blind optimism: the wise man never fights misfortune in advance.
We cannot escape suffering however and it is something we all experience, probably at many points in our life. Our attitude to dealing with suffering helps shape our ability to voluntarily move beyond it and bring acceptance into our life. Suffering is resistance to what is and is created only by oneself. Suffering deepens us and starts to erode the sense of self-importance.
Some say that the soul grows through suffering. This is not exactly so. It is by making mistakes and in the way we meet difficulties that we learn. Suffering invariably comes as a result of the mistakes; yet the growth does not take place during the suffering, but afterwards. A person may be better after an operation, but the improvement does not take place while the operation is being performed.
As we hear in Light on the Path, it is in the silence which follows the storm that the flower blooms. We must have gone through the turmoil of battle before we gain the reward, the real unfoldment of the soul. HPB said: ‘Woe to those who live without suffering. Stagnation and death are the future of all that vegetates without change. And how can there be any change for the better without proportionate suffering during the preceding stage?’
Moving beyond suffering and sense of personal injury, leads to forgiveness. Forgiveness can be very hard at times but ultimately, it is necessary for healing and moving forward. It helps to remind ourselves that those who do us an injury are really just messengers of our own karma, deliverers of experiences we need to go through in order to learn and grow. Nurture forgiveness, for it is very powerful, and the Mahābhārata states:
One should forgive, under any injury. It hath been said that the continuation of the species is due to man’s being forgiving. Forgiveness is holiness; by forgiveness the universe is held together. Forgiveness is the might of the mighty; forgiveness is sacrifice; forgiveness is quiet of mind. Forgiveness and gentleness are the qualities of the Self-possessed. They represent eternal virtue.
One of the biggest barriers to true acceptance is ‘regret’, which can be very powerful in self-reflection. In this process we aim to understand where we can do things differently. For example, if someone's feeling regret that they haven't used their time well, that they have been too caught up in their career, realising they don’t know their children well and their marriage is on the rocks, then having regret in that moment can be a trigger to making positive change in their life patterns. Regret has then done its job and can be let go. Wallowing in regret without positive change is harmful.
Our ability to let go and accept is always filtered through the lens of our own worldview. When misfortune comes our way and hits us hard at times, how do we respond? Do we respond with negativity such as hate, revenge, and a strengthening of mistrust in others, or do we allow it to develop within us compassion, love, humility, and acceptance. Which road we travel on depends on how we view things --- our worldview, if you will. Wayne Dyer put it well:
With everything that has happened to you, you can either feel sorry for yourself or treat what has happened as a gift. Everything is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to keep you from growing. You get to choose.
By acceptance of things as they are, not as we would have them, we can begin to live lives that are in harmony with Nature and the universe. We will witness a change in own our fundamental nature. Unhappiness slips away and contentment pervades. The true nature of acceptance enriches both the Soul and outer ‘personality’ of the man or woman. We become that calm centre in the whirlpool of life.
Understanding the nature of acceptance is of immeasurable aid to the seekers as they battle courageously on and eventually stand in awe, in the deep silence on the threshold, reaching out towards the light.
Vol. 142. 3 December 2020, The Theosophist