The following reflection originally appeared in the twice-a-month newsletter I sent out on October 16th, 2023. Just for fun, above is a photo of myself and a friend in one of the communities I talk about visiting below.
*** For easy reading, feel free to just read the bold points and skip the rest ***
Today, I’ll share a two-part strategy that shows how acceptance & action aren’t opposing forces, but are actually two important qualities that go together.
However, before I get into the heart of it, I wish to share a story of my coming-of-age, which on top of providing a good example for the subject, also gives a peak into my life’s journey as a dharma teacher.
If you would like to jump right to the two-part strategy, feel free to skip to Part II.
Part I – Angry At The World
When I was 21 years old, I did a 5-month study abroad program in Central America, which was focused on economic development, social justice, and grassroots movement for change. The semester was filled with some classroom study, but much more so emphasized going out into local communities, meeting with people, hearing their stories, and learning in a more hands-on way.
It was an intense and emotionally turbulent semester, to say the least. Nearly every other day, I heard some story that broke my heart. Sometimes, it was tales of economic hardship, like the farmers who couldn’t sell their corn due to international trade agreements destroying their local markets. Other times, it was the impacts of violence and war, like the Guatemalan woman who recounted a story from her early childhood, when she innocently asked her mother, “mommy, why do all my brothers and sisters keep dying?”
In the classroom, among other things, we studied the history of Latin America, from the conquistadors in the 16th century to the modern-day democratic governments. That whole span is basically a tale of mass genocide, enslavement, and in the post-colonial era, civil wars and intense meddling by foreign nations.
It brought me into a more sobering look at contemporary capitalism, wealth inequality, and the global structures that keep some people rich while others stay poor. Of course, I’m aware that I’m presenting a pretty dire outlook, which is just one way of looking. I could equally turn this semester into a narrative on love, ingenuity, resilience, contented joy, and the power of community.
However, the reason I’m emphasizing the pain is because the above experiences and learnings were the beginning of a massive shift in my life’s direction. For the couple of years before that semester, I was beyond excited to learn about the world, about myself, and about what it was to live well. I was wide-eyed and optimistic, and held a blissfully ignorant view of reality.
As it happened, there was a distinct moment during that semester when I hit my overwhelm point and became very angry. I just couldn’t handle it anymore.
Why were people so terrible to one another? Why was there so much inequality in the world? Why were there wars? Why were people still starving in 2006? Why were there entire social systems so broken that massive amounts of a population felt compelled to join violent gangs or to take on the extremely dangerous and improbable-to-succeed journey to try to sneak into another country, knowing their life would still be very difficult, but maybe just maybe their children’s would be a little better?
Sitting with all of this, even though deep down I had become very mad and upset, for the most part, I didn’t really know how to channel that or what to do with it; in turn, I shut down. I mostly spent the next couple of years in a place of disconnection and apathy about the state of the world. I paid zero attention to the news, didn’t vote, and just focused on my own life. I kept myself very busy with school, work, socializing, lots of partying/drinking, and oddly enough, continuing to learn about healthy living and Eastern spirituality.
Of course, it’s not really possible to completely repress emotions, and so stray bouts of anger would occasionally shoot through the cracks in my numbness. A snide remark. A random argument. An exaggerated and impassioned refusal to meet someone at a Starbucks or Qdoba when we could just go to the local coffee or burrito shop down the block. The list goes on.
I went on like this for two or three years before I had a big spiritual opening that changed everything. While I didn’t have words for it at the time, in reflection, I can see that I stumbled into the Buddha’s Middle Way.
Part II – The Middle Way
Basically, the middle way means cutting through extremes and walking the path of wisdom.
In this case, in response to my pain and the pain of the world, I had been bouncing between the extreme of “overwhelm” and the extreme of “disconnection.” Overwhelm means being swirled around by the anger, identified with it, or caught in its grasp. Disconnection means avoidance, apathy, depression, or dissociation.
In contrast, the middle way of wisdom means facing the pain head-on without being caught in it. It means a willingness to see it, to feel it, to be in the uncertainty and discomfort, and to not necessarily have an answer.
It would take me many more years before I really understand the fullness of the middle way, but in this context, I think it’s well put in a two-part model:
- Radically allowing what is
- Taking action (or abstaining!)
Part III – It’s Not Either/Or
The most fundamental teaching in Buddhism is that suffering is caused by grasping and resistance. In turn, we find peace and well-being by radical allowing what is, without needing it to be any different.
The objection I get from people all the time is that there are actually problems out there that demand action; that we can’t just accept them as is. For example, people might say:
- In meditation, my rampantly wandering mind is a problem.
- In meditation, this knee pain is a problem.
- In meditation, all these icky feelings that come up, like lethargy and restlessness and shame, are problems.
- In daily life, my pervasive anxiety and worrying are a problem.
- In daily life, my stressful and high-demand job is a problem.
- In daily life, my bad habit of spending hours a day on my smartphone is a problem.
- In the world, the way people treat each other meanly, like how my sister talks to me, is a problem.
- In the world, the massive pothole on the street in front of my house is a problem.
- In the world, all the various social issues, from racism to poverty, are definitely problems.
Of course, the thinking goes that problems require solutions, not acceptance. But this is based on the wrong belief that acceptance means “resignation,” or sitting around and doing nothing, just wallowing in this terrible experience that won’t go away.
In reality, true acceptance/allowing is considerably more radical and profound than this. I think of it as just the first step of a two-step process.
Part IV – Step One: Accepting What Is
Let’s return to 21-year-old David, who was mad about the state of the world, economic inequality, war, violence, racism, and on and on.
What I eventually came to realize is that to allow what is most importantly means accepting my inner world, right now. To plainly see, “anger is happening.” To get out of my thoughts and to simply feel the anger moving through my body sensations, impulses, and mind. To allow it to be present and to even welcome it, like welcoming an old friend into my living room, “hello anger, have a seat!” Or, similarly, to feel and be with the apathy and disconnection, “apathy is here.” To meet it with simple awareness — with the middle way of neither overwhelm nor disconnection.
As I began to approach my inner reality this way, I started to see deeper layers underneath the anger and apathy, such as immense sadness and collective shame. At times, there were big waves of emotion, weeping, or acting out. The acceptance was to just keep allowing all of that to arise and move through.
The process of allowing/acceptance I’m describing isn’t a therapeutic process of going into the storylines behind those feelings. Instead, it’s a meditative process of giving them profound permission to be present and to see they are just feelings; they are not me; they are natural processes moving through, similar to how clouds move through the sky.
And yet, sometimes unraveling the storyline can be helpful, like finding an explanation or seeing what interpretations/beliefs we’re holding onto that are leading to these feelings, but none of this is essential. The core Buddhist meditative insight is to just see-feel-understand it is what it is, without any overwhelm or disconnection.
Curiously, when we can have this radical allowing towards our inner reality, it’s about a thousand million billion times easier to be with whatever external difficulty we’re facing, whether that’s social injustice, a stubbed toe, the loss of a loved one, or anything in between.
If you look closely, you’ll see that the hardest thing to face about “external situations” is the feelings they provoke in us. In turn, when we can see that inside, it is what it is, it carries over and we can see that outside, it equally is just what it is.
The key to realizing this sort of acceptance is meditation — radical acceptance isn’t something we can think our way into; it’s something we meditate our way into. It’s awareness that allows, not our thoughts. It’s awareness that shows us just how much pain is caused by being stuck in resisting and grasping.
Of course, it’s not like if you meditate every day for a month then you can all of a sudden radically allow everything. It’s a long-term process where change comes gradually. We usually have to slip into the extremes of overwhelm and disconnection many many times before we can reliably stand in the Middle Way. Again, the key is to just keep meditating; trust awareness.
With the state of the world, it took me many years, but through the above process, I got to a point where I don’t really feel any noteworthy anger or apathy around the various social issues or atrocities. Those feelings arise sometimes, as well as the subtler sadness and shame, but they seem to be minor and not so consequential. In my being, awareness immediately meets them like old friends on The Middle Way.
Importantly, this doesn’t mean I don’t feel a lot of care and compassion, which starts to become the basis for step two.
Part V – Step Two: Taking Action (Or Consciously Abstaining)
Of course, there are actually things that need to be attended to — all nine of those examples I listed in Part III are worth addressing and applying skillful action toward resolution.
However, most people tend to skip over the first step of radical allowing and then jump into action from a place of compulsion, of control, of needing a certain outcome to be okay within themselves.
In turn, they take solace in doing something, even if it’s not very useful and ultimately causes more stress. For example, imagine you have a big work presentation coming up, and rather than prioritizing rest, relaxation, and focusing on the key points, you spend a lot of time worrying, doing excessive research, and slipping into perfectionist tendencies.
Yes, your work presentation needs some attention, but if you just slip into all those latter behaviors, it’s likely to lead to stress and burnout. In contrast, if you can start from a place of profound acceptance and ease, clearly looking the presentation in the eyes, your actions can come not from compulsion or fear, but from wisdom.
More generally, we ask ourselves, “is there an action to take? If there is, we take it. If there isn’t, we abide peacefully in non-action. Sometimes what we find is that there is an action to take, but the time isn’t yet ripe. In these cases, my teacher would simply note, craving wants to act immediately, but wisdom can wait for the appropriate time.
It’s also not a totally linear process of step one and then step two — we don’t need to spend 10 years learning how to allow things as deeply as the Buddha before we take wise action. Instead, in any given situation, we channel whatever allowing we can and take whatever degree of wise action we can. As we keep meditating, keep experimenting, keep paying attention, and keep learning, the whole process becomes much more intuitive and natural.
Part VI – Experimenting
While it’s important to keep grounding over and over and over in radical acceptance, when we engage with step two, there often aren’t straightforward or satisfactory solutions. And that’s okay. If nothing useful occurs to us, we peacefully wait until something does, radically allowing the discomfort of inaction, and when something useful does occur to us, even if it’s not the perfect solution, we experiment. This is to say we try things and learn from the results!
Going back to young David’s anger and despondence with the state of the world. As I grew in my spiritual practice, radical acceptance became a big part of this process, but equally important has been experimenting.
Early on, a big experiment was spending a year on social justice work in Southern Mexico. Many of my smaller experiments are somewhat embarrassing in retrospect, like wearing all around town a commandante cap and Che shirt. Eventually, as my wisdom became more fine-tuned, I started to notice significant shifts in how/where I’ve shopped, how I’ve voted, and my work choices, among other things. Some of my experiments dropped off, but many others have turned into a lifestyle.
Most prominently, my experiments in “taking action” have led me to devoting my life to helping others mostly with step one of radical allowing. I’ve seen it happen in myself and I have great faith that when people really do profoundly accept what is, they don’t actually become resigned; rather, they become increasingly mobilized to create a more beautiful world.
Interestingly, as much of my early anger was in response to exploitation, repression, and economic inequality, I’ve given exorbitant amounts of thought to how I can work against that. Early on, one experiment was spending about five years working and volunteering with co-operatively owned businesses. This experiment dropped off, but I still do nearly all my grocery shopping at local co-ops.
In regards to capitalism, my big experiment that continues to go on is supporting myself on “The Gift Economy,” which is to say that about 98% of my income comes from free-will donations. I do not charge anything for 1-on-1s, courses, classes, writings, and all my other work.
While there are many reasons I do this, one of the main ones is to help create a culture that steps outside of capitalism, that steps outside of turning everyone and everything into a commodity, that shows a way to live from generosity rather than craving. While maybe I don’t make as much money as I would otherwise, my spiritual reward is infinitely greater than a few extra bucks.
I’ve had many people write me and say that seeing me operate this way transformed the way they thought about money, inspired them to bring more generosity into their communities, and one entire organization even said I inspired them to shift their entire business model from profit-maximizing to a generous sliding scale!
Obviously, I’m not solving poverty or the woes of inequality. However, it’s delusion that says it’s all or nothing; wisdom knows that what you do matters, and that every little bit counts. Nowadays, at least on this matter(!), wisdom has much more real estate in my mind than delusion.
Part VII – Conclusion
Please just throw away the idea that either you accept what is or you take action. From a deeper perspective, they absolutely go together.
This go-together is the middle way between overwhelm and disconnection. As we embark on our meditative journey, little by little we develop the capacity to be deeply okay with what is, and from that place, we may take action or we may realize that no action is needed.
I invite you to consider a difficulty or challenge in your life — how might you apply to that situation these two steps of firstly radically allowing and secondly taking action (or consciously abstaining!)?