Third Eye

What does it really mean to accept and how to do it with ACT

Acceptance isn’t about the outside world. It’s about making more room for the inside world – the private events that show up under your skin. Kirk Stroshal, one of the co-founders of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy uses the acronym TEAMS to describe them:

T – Thoughts
E – Emotions
A – Action Urges
M – Memories
S – Sensations

You don’t have to “like” your mother-in-law, your body, or a different political viewpoint, but you can work towards accepting the feelings, thoughts, and memories that show up in their presence. If the word “acceptance” makes you cringe, try some other words like:

● Allowing…
● Making space for…
● Getting curious about…
● Opening to…
● Being brave with…

I was recently at a workshop with Jack Kornfield where he gave some great advice on what to do if you feel restless during meditation. Start by labeling it, “restlessness” and returning to your breath. But if your restlessness gets too loud, screams in your ear distract you to the point of suffering, you can say, “Take me now! I will be the first person to die of restlessness in meditation!”

Restlessness is pretty benign, but what about the middle of the night worry, grief, or embarrassment? What if we responded in the same way? I have never met a client who died of anxiety, but I have met many who have lost years of their lives trying to control it with substances, avoidance, or rigid rule-following.

I believe that acceptance requires “wrap-around services”–we need to do it with our mind, body, and behavior to get its full benefits. When you radically accept on all three levels, you are on your way to grace and the freedom willingness brings. As Jack Kornfield alluded to in his teaching, as soon as you are willing to die of restlessness or any of your inner experiences, they no longer have a hold on you. Letting go of control gives you the freedom to stay longer with what is. To explore letting go of controlling your breath, and being present with what is, try out this simple breath meditation in Insight Timer.

How to Accept with your Mind, Body, and Behavior

Accept with your Mind: The Yes Brain

One practice I took up during the pandemic was Wim Hof Breathing. Eager to boost my immune system, I tried this breathing method because it’s supposed to activate hormesis (good stress) that in turn, strengthens your body. I don’t know if holding my breath had health benefits, but it did wonders for my capacity to accept discomfort. I learned pretty early on that if I resisted and hated holding my breath, I was not able to hold it as long. But when I turned toward my breath with a “yes brain” it was much less effortful.

I first learned about the concept of a “Yes Brain” from Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson in their approach with kids. A “yes brain” is a brain that is flexible and curious, and adaptable and willing to try new things, even make new mistakes. It’s open to the world and relationships. Saying “yes” does not mean you don’t set boundaries or become engulfed in emotion, but rather you are opening up to what is present right now. As long as you are resisting what is, you cannot work with it or change it.

Try this out: Imagine something you have difficulty accepting and say “no..no..no” in your mind as you imagine it. What happens? Imagine it again, and this time say “yes…yes…yes” in your mind. What happens?

Next time you are faced with discomfort, silently say “yes” to the reality of the present moment. Open your mind to the full range of emotions and sensations that exist in every moment.

Accept With Your Body: Open Up

The first thing they teach children when learning to swim is to get into starfish pose and float. Part of the reason they teach this to kids is that if they fall into the deep end of the pool, we don’t want them to exert all of their energy and drown. The same is true for you. Often when we face discomfort we clench, resist, fight, tense up with our bodies and expend a lot of our energy in non-acceptance. It’s exhausting to not accept.

You can practice your own version of starfish pose when faced with discomfort. Try letting go of your belly, unclenching your jaw, dropping your shoulders, opening your hands and heart. Taking an accepting stance with your body sends signals to your brain that you are safe and ok. This worry meditation on Insight Timer, offers you a chance to explore the sensations of acceptance of even a difficult emotion like anxiety in your body.

Try this out: The next time you are faced with something that you are having a difficult time accepting, allow, open up to and make space with your body first. Notice how this changes your relationship with that thing…

Accept With Your Behavior: ACT on your Values

Often in therapy, I’ll tell my clients we can’t wait around for their heads to get on board with the idea of acceptance. We have to move our bodies in that direction and hope that our minds will be able to catch up! Sometimes accepting with your behavior can mean doing the opposite of what your mind is telling you to do. There’s a term in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy called Opposite to Emotion Action. Opposite to emotion action may mean approaching a stranger, even when you are anxious, quitting your job, even when you feel uncertain about it, or getting out of bed, even when you are depressed.

There’s a beautiful song by Lyla June Johnson who’s an indigenous public speaker, artist, scholar, and community organizer of Navajo and Cheyenne and European lineages, called Water is Life. In it she sings, “you can say water is life, but can you live it?” Acceptance with your behavior is choosing to live from your values instead of living from your avoidance.

Try this out: Identify a value that you want to pursue, but that involves some degree of discomfort. Accept with your behavior by making a move toward that value.

When you accept with your mind, body and behavior, you can begin to live a “towards values” lifestyle. You become free to sit in meditation or hold your breath a little longer, but are also better to stay in difficult conversations, pursue meaningful work, or open up to the impermanence of life.

For more on Acceptance, listen to this podcast episode on Insight Timer or try out my online course, Foundations of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

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