Accepting life, and our experience within life, as it is, is a spiritual practice. It doesn’t come naturally. Naturally, we’re selfish and self-concerned. After years of alcoholism and a self-centered culture to boot, acceptance feels like being given a ragged, previously used handkerchief to wipe your tears with. Like being given someone else’s bowl to eat from. Like being responsible for things you’ve never even seen, let alone have some control over. And it is those things. It is hard, and messy, and asks hard questions about social justice.
But it is a spiritual practice. Articulated in every major faith tradition, the aim of meditation, the art of a still heart and open eyes.
It begins in respect. It challenges us to deeper listening. And it ends in conversion.
In the early days of my sobriety, I found myself writing “first the gesture, then the grace” all over the place. On napkins in diners. On meeting lists during meetings. Over and over and over again in my notebooks. I think this was writing advice I picked up somewhere, years previously. The idea being that in order to write well, one had to first show up at the page, be willing to write the worst doggerel in the world for a long time, and know that the ‘art’ would one day appear. The idea being that you had to work for the gift. The idea being that you had to act as if a thing were true before it were true.
It seemed to apply to my sobriety more than it did to my writing, as in those first months I wasn’t writing a damn thing at all. Just scribbles. Just phrases. I was too scattered.
But it holds: in order to find peace, you have to practice acceptance. In order to find courage, you have to show up. In order to recover, you’ve got to do an hour at a time, until you have a day, and then you have to do another hour.
Re-incarnation is the belief that after our physical death our souls are born again in another time, another place, another form. The purpose is the mastery of spiritual laws. The laws are so serious, so hard, so goddamned stubborn that it takes us millenia to get through the course.
But acceptance cuts through the layers and accelerates space time, brings everything to a head in the right here, right now. Acceptance is how the Buddha attained enlightenment. Acceptance is the core teaching of every spiritual path there is. It isn’t easy, the sages say, but do this. Acceptance is about waking up.
Taking a third step, doing one’s best to hang on to that openness and acceptance of whatever comes as right, turns us from anxiety to gentleness. It develops qualities of wakefulness and readiness. It is tied to that sense of longing and dis-ease so many of us know, but changes that longing from a sense of lack or discouragement into a birthright of love.
I don’t want to continue struggling against the fear, anger, shame and loneliness of being human for lifetimes to come. I may very well have to. I lack the prescience to know how all the cosmic stuff works, and certainly lack the emotional intelligence to master all of my lessons at once. But I do know, when the pain crops up, when I seem to be struggling with the same battles over and over again without reason, that there is a lesson in the thing somewhere. I know that recovery began when I became willing to learn its lessons.
It takes courage and strength to say “I am willing to live this for the last time. I am willing to learn what it is I have to know.”
That is the gesture that opens into grace.
Maybe I don’t even care about the karma. I lack the foresight to imagine lifetime and lifetime and lifetime to come. I only know that low self-worth fear, panic, depression have wracked me most of my life, and I am tired of those things. I know, in recent days of hurtful words and tense judgments and bitter critiques, that I have to figure something else out.
“Listen for the messengers,” I wrote, “the eagle. the whale. Smooth//hard-bodied angels. They say what angels always say://do not//be afraid.”
It is a strange new place for me to be, to feel an insult or a loss or an urge to fight back, and realize I’m feeling that way. And then, further, to breathe a bit and say “I’m willing. I am. Show me.”
As in “Here I am, Lord“. Or “captain, my captain“: it isn’t a place of retreat or passivity. It’s an offering. Like Isaac. Scary as hell. I don’t know what I’m offering myself to, or what I’ll have to let go of, take up, change. I don’t know who I’ll be on the other end of the process. This is a profoundly counter cultural place to be, as we spend most of our time goal-setting and identifying ourselves with accomplishments or dreams.
They promised me it would be good, not that it would be easy.
Sometimes you come to a place like this. Uncomfortable as hell. Not what you wanted. A very strange and un-like-you place to be. But you know, somewhere in your gut, that it is a place you need to be, you have to pass through.