clear seeingI recently had a couple people raise doubts to me about the Buddhist idea of “accepting what is.” Isn’t it too passive? What if we’re in a situation that’s really unacceptable?

I’ve come across a few things recently that speak to this. Each makes a slightly different point, but they all basically say the same thing. “Accepting what is” does not mean passive acquiescence. Far from it, it’s the first step in making real and lasting change.

San Diego-based therapist Leonard Noel wrote in a recent blog post:

“Acceptance does not mean that we agree with what is happening or that we believe it must continue… Acceptance means that we are able to gaze into the face of the present and say, ’You are in front of me, and I acknowledge you are here.'”

He says that when we avoid things we find unpleasant or fearful, they generally come back bite us. (And often in the most inconvenient way, at the most inconvenient time.) But facing and acknowledging them brings us greater awareness — which creates space for other perspectives to arise. His very practical post covers many points relating to how to face our personal difficulties.

According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a highly respected Buddhist monk, acceptance means to accept responsibility for oneself. We can’t blame anyone else for our situation. So it’s about getting real. It’s about not covering things up with excuses and avoidance tactics, and facing our situation squarely as it is. And taking up the challenge to do something about it.

“Many people think that self-acceptance means celebrating what’s there already: that you’re good enough, that you don’t have to make any changes. That’s not the case at all.

Acceptance means accepting the fact that you’re responsible for a lot of your experience right now. You can’t blame anybody else. And ultimately that’s a good thing. If other people were ultimately responsible for shaping your experience, what could you do? You’d have to go around pleasing them all the time. But the key fact is that you’re shaping your pleasures and pains here in the present moment. Some of your experience comes from past actions, but a lot comes from the way you shape things with each present intention.

So learn to be open and honest about the role you’re playing in this moment.”

Joanna Macy, a Buddhist scholar and philosopher of ecology, approaches this topic from the angle of social change. She’s not one to sit quietly and accept the state of our world today. In this interview, she addresses the BIG questions of our time (e.g. climate change, war, the world financial crisis) through the lens of her work as a translator of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. To her, “acceptance” means to show up and offer our loving presence. If our mother is, say, dying of cancer, we wouldn’t turn away, would we? If nothing else, we’d want to at least be there for her. Though it’s painful to see someone we love suffering, we do our best to face our own fears and worries, and do the best we can to help.

By extending the dying mother analogy to the broken state of our world, she said,

“The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. That was what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.”

This is a beautiful interview by the way. If you have an hour to spare, I’d encourage you to listen to it.

If we go back to the words of the Buddha, he never used the phrase “accept what is.” I think the notion probably comes from a reinterpretation of his teaching to a man named Bahiya.

“Herein, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: ‘In the seen will be merely what is seen; in the heard will be merely what is heard; in the sensed will be merely what is sensed; in the cognized will be merely what is cognized.’ In this way you should train yourself, Bahiya.” (Udana 1.10)

Whether we’re talking about facing our own difficulties, or those of our loved ones, or of the whole world, “acceptance” boils down to the same thing. To stand firm and be willing to look reality in the eye. To face our fears and doubts. To quiet our impulse to run away or distract ourselves in hopes they’ll go away.

As I think about all this, it seems like this teaching is pointing us in a similar direction as the famous serenity prayer from the Christian tradition:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

So “accepting what is” is not about passivity at all. It’s about clear seeing, and the “wisdom to know the difference.” Paradoxically, it’s when we take responsibility for our own failings and difficulties, or those of the world around us, that the real process of change can begin to take place. I see it as an essential starting point for anything we take on in life.