Living

The power of acceptance

We can learn from monks to remain calm, untroubled and focused, whether things go well or badly

Sometimes, when the pressures of work pile up, I think about monks.

In his book, Buddha: A Very Short Introduction, anthropology professor Michael Carrithers from the University of Durham in England recounts his experiences of doing fieldwork with forest monks in Sri Lanka.

He recalls that some of the monks poured enormous amounts of time and energy into long-term projects, such as founding forest hermitages, and were very successful in these endeavours.

Yet they remained relaxed about their work and even "relatively indifferent to the results of their efforts".

I often think about those monks. Their attitude is one to which I aspire.

They were committed to their work. Wholeheartedly so. But they understood that even their best efforts may not guarantee success. And so, whether things went well or badly, they remained calm and untroubled.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

They understood the power of acceptance.

Acceptance, in the Buddhist sense of the word, is not passivity. It is not accepting what happens without an active response, merely shrugging one's shoulders and declining to engage.

Rather, it is looking clearly and calmly at a situation, seeing it for what it is and working with it as it is.

The Buddhist writer and teacher Jack Kornfield, in Bringing Home The Dharma, Awakening Right Where You Are, puts it nicely.

He says: "Acceptance allows us to relax and open up to the facts before us. It does not mean that we cannot work to improve things. But just now, this is what is so."

This non-passive acceptance of tough circumstances is not an easy trait to acquire.

It is far easier, when things go wrong, to allow oneself to become frustrated and discouraged than it is to remain focused and engaged.

I know this from experience.

Like many people, I take my work seriously. Whatever I do, whether it is teaching English, working on a new book or writing this column, I try to do it well.

But, of course, I do not always succeed as well as I would wish. And so I live with a nagging sense of anxiety; a mild but constant fear of failure.

I used to think that these negative emotions were necessary, that I needed them in order to stay motivated.

But I no longer think that way.

Acceptance... is not accepting what happens without an active response, merely shrugging one's shoulders and declining to engage. Rather, it is looking clearly and calmly at a situation, seeing it for what it is and working with it as it is.

Now, when I look inside myself, I see that if the anxiety were to disappear, the motivation would remain. I would still regard my work as worthwhile and would still try to do it well.

In fact, I now view those negative emotions as counterproductive. Because, at the very times when I most need focus, energy and enthusiasm - for example, when a lesson is not going well or a piece of writing refuses to come together - they distract, de-energise and deflate me.

There is more power in focused acceptance than there is in panic.

One of my favourite ancient philosophers, Epictetus, preached the virtues of acceptance.

He says: "Some things are in our control and others not."

The trick to life, he says, is to focus our energies on the things we can control and accept patiently the things we cannot.

Despite our best efforts, things can and sometimes will go wrong. We need to accept that, and press on calmly and cheerfully anyway.

•Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2017, with the headline 'The power of acceptance'. Print Edition | Subscribe