In mindfulness practice, we often emphasize accepting experience as it is, simply observing what is happening, without holding on to or pushing away experience. Yet, sometimes unseen beliefs or views can creep into “accepting”. So it can be useful to explore subtle, perhaps hidden beliefs even within the practice of accepting.
Accepting is the possibility of opening to things as they are. To things as they already are. So often we want to get rid of, to change, or to fix, or to hold on to experience. When we like something, we want it to continue. When we don’t like something, we want to get rid of it.
In my own practice, particularly being mindful of challenging or unpleasant experience and aware that I don’t like it, I’ve sometimes seen a subtle belief that an accepting attitude means that not-liking should be replaced by liking. That is, a belief that when there isn’t not-liking, liking will be present, and vice versa.
An example from my daily life practice from a few years ago: I didn’t particularly enjoy going to the gym, yet I understood it was helpful, so I went. While working out, I sometimes found a part of my mind trying to convince myself that I liked going to the gym! “I like being here, this is good for me, it’s making my body healthy.”
Accepting is not about either liking or not-liking. Our minds don’t usually orient towards this middle ground: what does it mean to neither like nor not-like an experience? We might begin to get a taste of that middle ground if we are simply willing to be with the experience of not-liking itself. Patiently aware of the experience of not-liking, we might have the opportunity to notice the ending of not-liking.
At the gym, seeing the mind trying to trying to change not-liking into liking, the mind let go of trying to convince itself that it liked being at the gym, and simply noticed what was happening: “At the gym, and not-liking is happening.” And for a few moments, not-liking vanished. There was simply the activity of being. The ending of not-liking wasn’t the arising of liking! This is a middle ground that we don’t usually orient to: neither liking nor not-liking, experience simply unfolding.
Another subtle belief that can be hidden within our idea of acceptance is that acceptance, or allowing, means non-action. So many of our actions come out of liking, not-liking, greed, aversion, confusion or delusion. When those mind states are active, they cannot fathom that action can come from any other place. It can be hard to understand that there are other sources of action. We might believe that allowing means sitting back and not taking action. We might think: if the mind allows or accepts what is, why would I ever do anything?
Yet, opening to that middle ground opens a new possibility that is hard for us to conceive of. Wholesome action, equanimous action, compassionate action, wise action: these are a natural response of the heart that not contracted. From the middle ground of neither liking nor not-liking, wisdom acts, compassion acts. It’s a very different place of response. When the uncontracted heart sees suffering or injustice, the natural response is to respond, to take action to alleviate that suffering, without a hint of aversion or greed.
Exploring the possibility of this middle ground of neither liking nor not-liking, perhaps we can appreciate that the teachings of the Buddha are not pointing us to creating anything or accumulating anything, but rather, endlessly letting go. Letting go, letting go, letting go.