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Word of the day: Eudaimonism

The greatest form of pleasure is happiness. Great minds from East to West have tried to pinpoint what lies at the heart of happiness. Many Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama, believe that the very purpose of our existence is the pursuit of happiness, and that the key to finding it is training the mind.

Human happiness has also become an increasingly popular topic among researchers. Happiness researchers have pondered the paradox of why, despite all we do know about happiness, people aren’t much happier today than they have been in the past.

In fact, we may even be a step behind out forefathers. Captain Cook, who became acquainted with the Australian Aboriginals over the course of his travels, made a similar observation in his journal. According to Cook, the Aboriginals might have looked like the most miserable people in the world, but in many respects they were actually much happier than their European counterparts. They knew nothing of the spoils and luxuries of the European lifestyle, and as such literally didn’t know what they were “missing”. They lived a peaceful existence free from the trappings of the civilized world.

But envying the simple lives of indigenous or agrarian societies would be a waste of time, especially since history has shown us that life was no picnic for most of them. In the case of the Aboriginals, life was pretty simple, but that’s mainly because most of their attention was focused on dealing with one very major challenge: staying alive.

When things get tough, the mind gets focused. It has neither the time nor the energy for making mountains out of molehills. And in the midst of misery, pessimism and negativity have the potential to be as lethal as any epidemic out there.  

Let’s assume that the trappings of modern life are here to stay, and that modern man’s job is to seek out ways to make the absolute most out of them. 

By 1980, Phil Jackson had a stellar 13-year career in basketball behind him. The seasons he spent playing for the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets earned him a reputation as a bull-headed, aggressive and a brilliant defense player. In the 1974-1975 season he tied for the league lead in personal fouls. He had 330 of them over the course of a single season.  

Jackson’s style on the court was violent and sometimes downright unsportsmanlike. In his memoir, Sacred Hoops, he talks about a heated argument he had with a referee during one of his games. Jackson berated the referee, furious over what he considered a bad call.After he had calmed down, Knicks coach Danny Whelan asked Jackson if he would have shot the referee if he’d had a gun. It stopped Jackson in his tracks.

Jackson experienced an even deeper awakening at the end of the 1972-1973 season. The Knicks won the NBA Championship, beating the L.A. Lakers. After two straight days of celebrating in Los Angeles, the team returned to New York. Their fans and families gathered at Tavern on the Green on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to celebrate their victory. Some of the biggest names in Hollywood were there, too, including Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.

In the midst of all this, Phil Jackson felt a strange sense of emptiness: “Is this it?” His childhood dream of winning the NBA Championship didn’t feel anything like he thought it would. Two days of celebrating and it was over. Back to reality. Achieving his lifelong dream hadn’t changed anything. 

If you think there is an event or object out there that has the power to help you achieve a permanent state of happiness, you’re wrong.It’s impossible to achieve a state like that by any external means. Phil Jackson learned an important lesson back in 1973. True happiness has nothing to do with money, women or winning basketball games. That’s not euphoria. Achieving a goal you’ve set for yourself feels amazing immediately after you’ve achieved it, but, as Phil Jackson discovered, it only takes a couple of days for that feeling to fade.

It’s amazing how many people still believe that true happiness manifests itself in that intense euphoria you feel when something great happens to you. But all those people are wrong, because maintaining a state of euphoria is neurologically impossible.

Euphoric experiences are the result of the release of neurotransmitters in the brain, like endorphins, dopamine and oxytocin. When the level of these neurotransmitters drops, so does that intense feeling of elation. When something that once elated you becomes mundane, that neurotransmitter fireworks display inside your head fizzles out. Even if you could produce more, your neurotransmitter tolerance would increase and you’d be left chasing an unattainable high.

So why do we look for happiness in all the wrong places: in objects and events? Why, in spite of all we know, do we continue to pursue happiness through various forms of external pleasure?

One reason for this might be that the experiences that most closely resemble happiness tend to be external things like relationships, winning a game, mind-blowing sex, dancing, the birth of a child, getting a new job, buying your first home or paying off your last mortgage payment. And most us also have an arsenal of smaller tools that we use to cheer ourselves up when we’re feeling bad, like eating, drugs and alcohol, entertainment, gambling and shopping.

Perhaps we’ve tricked ourselves into believing that constantly indulging in small pleasures will steadily increase our general level of happiness. And they do make us feel good. Temporarily. You might not want to hear this, but all the external pleasures and achievements I just mentioned are only fleeting sources of happiness.

Epic fail

A higher standard of living and the abundance of sources of pleasure haven’t made people in the Western world any happier than their third world counterparts. We went into pleasure overload a long time ago.

In his book, Happiness, the economist Richard Layard claims that economic happiness peaked in Western societies in the late 1950s and early 1960s. According to Layard, when it was discovered that economic growth was actually not a significant factor in increasing personal happiness, it was assumed that self-realization was the true key to happiness. It wasn’t. External events and objects can’t make us happy because they have no role at all in helping us achieve presence or peace of mind.

Positive psychology is a recent branch of psychology that has made some exciting and promising findings. Happiness isn’t a one-time achievement or an endpoint. It’s a pursuit. According to the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, people should forego pleasure and focus on satisfaction, which comes from achieving an important goal or engaging in an activity they find meaningful.

The difference between pleasure and satisfaction is that we derive pleasure from external and often passive stimuli, whereas the pursuit of satisfaction is an activity. The feeling you get from the pursuit of satisfaction is much more rewarding and generally lasts longer. 

Most people don’t believe that it’s possible to actually achieve a permanent state of happiness, despite the fact that the pursuit of happiness is the driving force behind most of what we do everyday. Happiness isn’t an end. It’s a choice and a lifestyle.

So what kind of choice are we talking about here? Happiness literature has been focusing more and more attention on the practice of meditation. Perhaps instead of the endless pursuit of happiness we should focus on trying to achieve deeper, longer and more frequent periods of being truly and fully present in our own lives.

These periods of presence have nothing to do with euphoria, the avoidance of unpleasant feelings or escaping the trappings of the modern world. To me, being present (which is the path to true and enduring happiness) means being able to achieve peace of mind at will.  

Mindfulness is just one of many forms of meditation out there. And remember what I said before, peace of mind isn’t something you achieve (for example by winning the NBA Championship). It’s putting aside all the thoughts and feelings in your mind and focusing your entire being on what’s happening in the present moment.

Unlike euphoric experiences, presence and the mindful state that follows are physically possible to maintain because your tolerance for them actually decreases the more you experience them.

But you have to be careful when it comes to dealing with your thoughts and feelings. There are at least two ways of dealing with them. The first way, which is much healthier in the long run, is to accept your feelings for what they are and to train your mind to keep your thought from getting in your face. The dynamic of a healthy mind seems to be the ability to allow thoughts and feelings to come and, more importantly, go. They transmit their little signals and go along their merry way.

The other way to push thoughts out of your mind is to deny that they even exist, which, as we’ve known for thousands of years already, leads to both physical and psychological problems. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche warns us not to fool ourselves: ”Deluding yourself that you are liberating thoughts and emotions, when in fact you are nowhere near being able to do so, and thinking that you are acting with the spontaneity of a true Dzogchen yogin, all you are doing is simply accumulating vast amounts of negative karma.” In other words, you’re so stressed out that instead of sleeping in your bed you’re hiding under it.

Although most of us are well aware of this, we still find it hard to handle negative thoughts and feelings, especially since there are so many quick fixes out there just waiting to make us feel better. The problem with quick-fixes, however, is that they’re short-lived. Attaining the kind of stronger and longer-lasting form of pleasure I talk about in this book takes time. Enjoying life raw gives you the power to change this dynamic. As you become more aware of the choices you make, you become less of a slave to your own impulsive behavior.

Back to Jackson

When Phil Jackson took over as head coach of the Chicago Bulls in 1989, his dream was to win the NBA Finals, but not at all costs. Jackson didn’t want his players to experience the same emptiness he felt back when he celebrated his own Knicks win in 1973. He wanted to combine victory with personal growth. He coached his team using a combination of Eastern philosophy and Native American teaching practices, which he believed to be the perfect compliment to the competitive and aggressive game of basketball.

Jackson wanted his team to have a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the game than “regular” players. His complex approach required players to be completely egoless and present on (and off) the court.

In practice, playing mindful basketball means not reacting to your own or other players’ mistakes, staying calm on the court, and not allowing yourself to be provoked by your opponents. When your opponent punches you in the back, you do nothing. Why? Because your mind is already back on what’s happening in the game right now, not on getting revenge.

Jackson coached his players to be one with what was happening on the court. There are no heroes. You wait for an opportunity to open up and then let things happen at their own pace. The only way this strategy can work is with full, accepting presence. You’re truly present when all your attention is focused on what’s happening right now and finding opportunities to act in the moment.   

Even the best coach on the planet would have a hard time achieving this with traditional coaching methods. Jackson’s method, on the other hand, got results season after season. His players harnessed the power of their minds and emotions to help them win championship after championship. Jackson is widely considered one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time, winning a total of 11 NBA Finals, six with the Chicago Bulls and five with the L.A. Lakers.

Marko Yrjövuori has followed Phil Jackson’s career up close as a one of the L.A. Lakers’ physical therapists. According to him, Jackson’s coaching strategy sets him apart from the coaches of all the other teams he’s worked with, including the Los Angeles Kings: “Andy Murray coached the Canadian National Team, and his coaching strategy was mainly patronizing. He did a lot of yelling in the locker room. Rudy Tomjanovitch is a great guy, but as a coach he’s all over the place. Jackson has this unique way of letting the players try to solve their own problems. He only steps in if they can’t. Jackson rarely loses his temper and barely ever raises his voice.” According to Yrjövuori, the Lakers’ locker room occasionally smelled like incense, which Jackson burned to ward off evil spirits.

Jackson used mindfulness mediation to teach his players how to become one with the game. At first glance, the concepts of presence and acceptance appear to be completely at odds with a contact sport like basketball. Upon closer inspection, however, it’s clear that this couldn’t be further from the truth. By training their minds, players become less likely to give in to their impulses and more likely to see opportunities on the court.

Anyone who has any experience at all with team sports knows that Jackson’s approach is far from the norm in a game in which money is king and the only thing bigger than the players is their egos.       

Although Jackson holds the record for the most championship wins in NBA history, he has had some disappointments too. The Lakers’ 2010-2011 season ended in the playoffs. Yrjövuori’s theory is that “the team’s key players just had too much going on in their personal lives.” You might think getting caught up in your own personal ambitions means you’ve completely failed at training your mind. The truth is, it’s par for the course and happens to the best of us.

Setbacks are a natural and inevitable part of the process of learning to be fully present in each moment of our lives. So the next time you hit one, don’t panic and keep practicing.

Flow or glow?

It’s easy to confuse Jackson’s mindfulness with another similar approach to achieving a state of concentration. Although his name is impossible to pronounce, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses a simple term to refer to this state: flow. The term is widely used in discussions about experiences of concentration.

Being in a state of flow means fully concentrating on whatever challenging task happens to be at hand. It brings immediate gratification, you feel as though you’re in complete control, time flies, and your ego slips away. Your emotions take a back seat.

We’ve all experienced a state of flow at some point in our lives. Some people also refer to it as “being in the zone”. Focusing on something you’re really good at feels good, which is why it’s so easy to become completely immersed in what you’re doing.

So if you want to get your mind off of something, even for a moment, just focus all your attention on a task you enjoy. How hard could that be, right?

It’s easy to concentrate on something when the intensity level of what you’re doing grows as you become more immersed in it. Your stressful job is the last thing on your mind when you’re sparring with your opponent at Tae Kwan Do practice. You’re so focused on the task at hand that your mind simply has no room for any other thoughts.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible go through life in a constant state of flow. Those pesky negative thoughts and feelings creep up you like the boogieman while you’re sitting at your desk at work or doing the dishes at home. Losing yourself in what you’re doing becomes impossible as the intensity level of an activity decreases. But while the flow state is important and something we should try to achieve as often as possible, it’s not all that beneficial on it’s own.

Flow and, for example, various forms of mindfulness are inherently different. Flow’s focus is external, while mindfulness begins with introspection. Flow does have the potential to lead to many good things, but it doesn’t necessarily lead us down a path of personal growth. Generally speaking, it doesn’t increase our ability to enjoy any of the other parts of our lives raw, nor does it increase our ability to achieve peace of mind whenever we want.

Some people reach a state of flow on the playing field, others when playing video games. Some people are even in the zone at work. But the problem with being in the zone is that it’s a temporary state of being, not a permanent state of mind. You should try to focus on doing things that allow your mind to be focused, even when they don’t require your full attention. Your mind can be in the moment even when you’re sitting alone in silence. (Now that’s rare.) When you reach this level of concentration and peace of mind in an intense and demanding situation like an important meeting at work, I think you’ll find the results can be pretty remarkable.

Why not start here

One of the Buddhist teachings talks about equanimity in pleasure and pain. It says that it’s impossible to achieve a permanent state of happiness by avoiding one and coveting the other. By taking a step back we’re able to see things for what they are. Only then are we truly open to them. The only way to free yourself from the pleasure trap I talk about in this book is by learning not to become overly attached in moments of pleasure or too resistant in moments of pain.      

In the second part of the book I’ll tell you more about how to free yourself from the pleasure trap, but you can start with these thee main rules of thumb:

  1. When you’re trying to achieve a goal and encounter difficulties or disappointments along the way, stop and ask yourself why. Is it because you’re actually headed down the path of self-destruction? Are the methods you’re using in contradiction with the facts? Or have you just not learned how to get past this point yet? If what’s holding you back is self-destruction or contradiction, stop. If it’s that you’re still learning, keep going. (Thanks to Seth Godin for encouraging these ideas.)
  2. Don’t avoid pleasure and high-points in your life, but remember that they’re temporary and won’t bring about long-term changes in your life.
  3. Meditation will free you from the pleasure trap. Try meditating next time you’re in an uncomfortable social situation, for example.

The principle of enjoying life raw will guide you through this process. Only when your mind is completely present in the moment will you’ll be able to resist the temptation of quick-fix pleasures and accept the difficulties, disappointments and pain that are part of life.

FREEING YOURSELF FROM THE TRAPS

Kyle Maynard approaches the caged ring. There are hundreds of people in the audience cheering him on. He steps onto the blue mat and the crowd goes wild. The announcer introduces Bryan Fry first as he warms up in his corner. Fry is wearing red trunks and small, open-fingered gloves. The announcer’s voice rises to a scream, but the audience is quiet.

The announcer looks across the ring to the other corner and announces Kyle: “This is Kyle Maynard’s first mixed martial arts fight!” Again, the crowd goes wild. Wearing white trunks and looking determined to win, Kyle waves to his fans. The referee calls the opponents to face off in the middle of the ring.

The referee goes over the rules and the opponents glare at each other. Although both men are in the same weight class, you can’t miss the difference in their height. Bryan Fry is about two feet taller than Kyle Maynard. And that’s not the only difference between them. Kyle is the sturdier of the two, but Fry has a clear advantage over him.

Bryan has arms and legs. Kyle’s arms end at the elbow. No forearms, no hands, no fingers. And both of his legs end at the knee. The referee signalsand the fight is on. Kyle rushes his opponent on all fours, trying to get the advantage. Each time he makes a move he’s stopped by Fry’s blows.

Kyle is fast, but he can’t catch Fry. And despite the clear physical advantage Fry has over Kyle, he doesn’t manage to land any blows. The same scene plays out in all three rounds. Kyle tries to pin his opponent on the mat, where he’d probably be able to beat him, but Fry plays it smart by keeping him at bay with a jab.

With 10 seconds left on the clock, Kyle, red-faced and sweating, makes one last attempt to pin Fry down, but he backs away. The bell rings and the match is over. The referee calls the match, lifting the winner’s arm up in the air.

All three referees declare Bryan Fry the winner. Sporadic applause can be heard in the crowd. Some people even boo. Kyle and Fry hug. The referee gives Kyle the microphone and he holds is between his arms. He thanks his opponent and the audience. You can tell he really means it.

When I interviewed Kyle Maynard for this book he told me he respected Bryan Fry for agreeing to fight him. “Honestly, it's a lose- lose situation.  If he wins, he beat up a guy without arms and legs.  If he loses, he lost to a guy without arms or legs.”  

For Kyle, losing the match was no big deal. “Win or lose, I was fine with the result.  Many people voiced doubt that I could overcome my obstacles and survive a single round in the sport.  I know in my heart how hard I worked and 99% of the naysayers would never have the courage to step into a ring and fight another man.”

There are no easy wins for Kyle. The disappointment and frustration he’s experienced would have driven almost anyone else to quit a long time ago. But Kyle isn’t just anyone.

Kyle isn’t any more gifted than anyone else out there. It’s been hard for him to rise to the challenges of everyday life, not to mention life as a wrestler. It took him years to learn how to eat with a knife and fork, and you’d find him at the gym practicing wrestling moves hours after everyone else had already gone home.

“I deal with frustration just like everyone else.  The important thing is to stay positive and not allow the frustration, doubt or fear get in the way of my goals.  It's not always an easy thing to do, but I know in that never trying is far worse than the pain of failure.”

Kyle Maynard’s whole life is a test.“I live to be testedunder stressful situations and to pull through in the clutch.” You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who has faced and overcome more trials and tribulations than Kyle. He’s able to eat, drink and do most of the things you and I take for granted every day with almost no help at all. And he’s made a name for himself as a wrestler, too. He’s willing to endure pain and whatever else it takes to reach his full potential as both a person and an athlete.

Not many people would have expected to see Kyle competing on the national level. In 2010 it was mixed martial arts and in 2011 he’s got his sights set on mountain climbing. Kyle is training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro on all fours. When he’s done with that he plans to take on his first triathlon.

When people first see Kyle in his wheelchair, they aren’t really seeing him. What they see is a combination of Kyle and their own imagination. They see a disabled young man and they attach all the properties they associate with a disabled young man to him. When Kyle was born, some of his doctors recommended amputating all of his limbs, because that was standard medical practice at the time. But Kyle’s parents refused.

The stumps stayed and Kyle’s parents went about raising their son just as they would have had he been born with two arms and two legs. Despite their best efforts, however, Kyle quickly became almost completely dependent on his family. Kyle’s mother, father, grandmother and other family members were still feeding, bathing, dressing and caring for him when most kids his age were learning how to do all of these things for themselves.

Kyle’s father, Scott Maynard, decided that his son had to learn how to take care of himself. That meant that if Kyle was hungry, he had to learn how to feed himself. Scott insisted that the rest of the family stop helping Kyle. Kyle was either going to learn how to feed himself or go hungry. At first he used a specially made spoon, but after a few years he was eating with a fork and knife, just like everyone else.

Kyle learned a lot of other things, too, like how to dress himself, how to write with a pen, how to play video games and even how to play football. But the most important thing he learned was how to wrestle. Wrestling became Kyle’s passion, and after getting off to a rough start, he became very successful at it. Kyle racked up 35 wins in his best year. That same year he qualified for the Georgia State tournament and competed in the nationals, where he won three out of four matches and was just one win away from placing in the top eight.

How many amazing things could we accomplish in life if , like Kyle, we all tested our potential to surpass our own limitations? In his own way, Kyle Maynard has defused all three of the traps I talk about in this book. He defused the first trap – the anticipation trap – with help from his parents. Kyle’s parents saw him for who he is, without projecting any of their own unconscious assumptions on him. Kyle has accomplished so many amazing things because he was never held back by projected conceptions of his potential or assumptions of fate.

Kyle’s story is also a perfect example of how to defuse the second trap – the pleasure trap. Instead of seeking out those quick-fix pleasures we talked about earlier, Kyle sets his sights much higher. Training hard is painful, but that pain ultimately leads to much greater pleasure.

Kyle admits that while his motto is “No excuses,” he does occasionally slip. “The excuses I give have nothing to do without having arms or legs. They are the excuses that everyone gives, but the important thing is not to let them interfere with what I want most.” Kyle’s total commitment to achieving his goals keeps his mind clear.

Kyle has avoided the third trap – the thought trap – by training his mind as hard as he trains his body. A fighter’s mind has to be completely focused on what’s happening in the ring or on the mat. Kyle meticulously prepared for his first mixed martial arts match. “I read the book Wrestle Your Perfect Match before my fight. I knew I would be nervous from hearing a big hit or having the crowd cheer. I also knew I would be anxious when I heard ‘Kyle, 5 minutes until you're on’, or ‘Kyle you're up.’  I wrote down everything I would experience.  How I felt, what I saw, what it smelled like. I relived my fight over and over in my mind.”          

When the pin was put in the cage, Kyle knew there was no turning back. According to Kyle, it was one of the most tranquil and peaceful moments of his life. “I pushed myself harder both physically and mentally, and I believe it made me a better person.”

Let the roof of your mind die off

The concept of enjoying life raw can also be found in the Buddhist analogy of standing on the ocean shore. Your feet are firmly planted in the sand (you are present). The waves (emotions and situations) come and go, but they don’t knock you down or pull you below the surface. The water (element of life) is so clear you can see right through it.

The life of a person who isn’t entirely present can be described as that of someone who either clings to the safety of the beach or is flailing in the waves to keep from drowning.

In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche talks about Dudjom Rinpoche, who describes his own experience of enjoying life raw as follows: “That moment is like taking a hood off your head. What boundless spaciousness and relief! This is the supreme seeing: seeing what was not seen before. When you see what was not seen before, everything opens, expands, and becomes crisp, clear, brimming with life, vivid with wonder and freshness. It is as if the roof of your mind were dying off, or a flock of birds suddenly took off from a dark nest. All limitations dissolve and fall away, as if, the Tibetans say, a seal were broken open.”

Dudjom’s writings do get a bit “out there” at the end, but what he, Kyle and Phil Jackson have experienced has the support of a pretty surprising source: science. Each and every one of us has the ability to see our lives in a new light and change the way we think. The key is to stop feeling sorry for yourself and stop waiting around for some superhero to swoop in and save you. Instead, start taking responsibility for yourself and the choices you make in your own life. In other words, start enjoying life raw.     

Training your mind

Acceptance

Years ago, when our oldest daughter was in preschool, mornings in our house were pure hell. She didn’t want to get out of bed, and when she did finally get up, the war of wills began. She refused to get dressed, eat her breakfast, put on her coat or walk out the door. Getting through each step in our morning routine was a battle. Or at least that’s how it felt to us as first-time parents.

Usually mornings at our house ended up with me standing in the front hallway screaming at my daughter: “Don’t you get that I have to be in a meeting at 9 a.m.?” She didn’t, but at the time I clearly wasn’t able to accept what was really happening in the moment.

After a while I decided to start practicing what I preach and accept what was happening in moments like this. The next morning I would focus on what was happening inside my body and mind. How my left pectoral muscle tensed up, how I started to gulp more and more air as I got more frustrated, and how my mind started running in circles. Once I learned how to really recognize what was happening inside my body and mind, I had regained at least some control over the situation. This is how I would stop what I like to call emotional hijacking.

Instead of focusing on my own negative thoughts and feelings, I tried to focus more and more on what was actually happening in each moment. (Yes, I’m using all of Daniel Amen’s automatic negative thought criteria here.) Although I did still have some negative thoughts and feelings, I was able to distance myself from them enough to be able to make different choices in these stressful situations.

During an emotional kidnapping you are under the complete control of your unconscious mind. Generally speaking, the unconscious mind isn’t a great source of creative solutions. Your unconscious mind is usually in control when you react exactly how you would normally react in a similar situation. In my case that meant getting frustrated and yelling at my daughter and then sitting alone in my car and feeling ashamed on the way to work. 

But when my thoughts and feelings started to take a back seat to what was actually happening in the moment, I was able to focus on recognizing and then testing the opportunities that presented themselves in the moment. Some mornings I surprised my daughter by saying I was perfectly fine with her decision to quit preschool: “Ok, just give me a second so I can call your two best friends and let them know you’ve decided you’re never going back to school.” Surprisingly enough, she picked up her clothes and put them on.

Some mornings I did still yell at her, but only enough to get my point across. After that we were able to calmly discuss whatever was happening at that moment. And some mornings I’d kneel down in front of her and give her a big hug. “Daddy loves you,” I’d say. “I’m still not going,”she’d reply. But it didn’t matter at all; moments like this are absolutely wonderful.

Acceptance means truly seeing and accepting situations for what they are. It means when someone is verbally abusive to you, you accept your own feelings of aggression or fear. You might even find them amusing. Once you’ve done that, you choose what you feel is the best possible way to react. I’m not saying this is easy, but I can tell you it’s the most effective strategy you’ll ever find.

A nice theory

Acceptance is a spiritual path that has been built over thousands of years. In Buddhism, mindfulness is considered one of the main paths to enlightenment. Mindfulness meditation is a traditional Buddhist practice in which full attention is paid to the present moment. Practicing mindfulness is a way of being completely aware of your thoughts, feelings and whatever is happening in your life in the present moment.

Mindfulness meditation and mindful living have also been successfully applied in clinical medicine. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) was developed at John Kabatt-Zinn’s Stress Reduction Clinic in Massachusetts and has been clinically proven to help reduce and prevent depression and other stress-related ailments.

According to Kabat-Zinn, MBSR is a way of learning to relate directly to yourself. The most important element is learning to fully accept everything that happens in your life. There are no labels or stigmas attached to anything, and your feelings and emotions are accepted for what they are.

In his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, Kabat-Zinn writes: “When we commit ourselves to paying attention in an open way, without falling prey to our own likes and dislikes, opinions and prejudices, projections and expectations, new possibilities open up and we have a chance to free ourselves from the straitjacket of unconsciousness.” And that’s exactly what it’s about. All of the things Kabat-Zinn lists above are predictable and preprogrammed.

When you live a present and accepting life, you see and grab opportunities instead of letting them pass you by. When you accept something, you are freeing yourself from the thoughts and feelings associated with it. This allows you to see things in a new light and make different choices than you would have made in the past.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a nice little theory that’s impossible to actually put into practice. It’s true that this isn’t the norm, but it does work. Phil Jackson managed to make acceptance work in an aggressive sport like basketball. Kyle Maynard used acceptance in his mixed martial arts fight. And countless numbers of people have learned how to successfully integrate the acceptance methods they learn in therapy into their everyday lives.

You can use the practice of acceptance whenever you’re preparing for a big match or are getting ready to go up against some stiff competition in your own life. You can even learn to play hardball with heart in today’s often cut-throat business world.

You can’t solve the problems in your mind

Within the area of consciousness with its wide and narrow frontiers, thought is ever trying to find a secure spot. So thought is creating disorder; order is not the outcome of thought. When disorder ends there is order.

J. Krishnamurti, The Only Revolution

Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.

Lily Tomlin, actor, comedian, author and producer

It used to be that when you went into therapy, the first order of business was to figure out whether to blame your mother or your father for all your problems. And if your therapist couldn’t come up with any concrete source of your anxiety and angst, you were diagnosed as having repressed the memories of all the terrible things that happened to you as a child. Today, less and less emphasis is put on the past in psychoanalysis and other forms of therapy.

The practice of acceptance has an immediate impact on our level of awareness. Acceptance is also one of the most effective ways (perhaps even the only way) to decrease the effect your past has on your present life.

No matter how difficult of a past you’ve had, the most important thing is what’s happening in your life right now. This is one of the core ideas of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is one of the third wave cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy models. Therapists who use ACT don’t go on any traditional assumptions, but rather choose treatment methods based on scientific evidence.

The basic framework of ACT goes against our instinctive way of being in the world. When we are faced with a problem our instinct is to figure out how to solve it. According to ACT founder Steven Hays, this is about as productive as trying to escape quicksand. We’re instinctual problem-solvers because our experience tells us this is an effective way of navigating the physical world. The world that exists between our ears, however, is a totally different story.

According to Hayes, the struggle to rid ourselves of psychological pain almost always ends up causing us even more intense suffering. We end up getting tangled up in our pain, which leads to even more trauma. Hayes believes that internal battles can never be won, and as such are not even worth trying to fight. He believes acceptance is a much more effective approach.

In my experience, there are about as many misunderstandings of the concept of acceptance out there as there are people. Acceptance doesn’t mean “having a cross to bear”. The idea of each of us having our own cross to bear is actually more like passive aggressive repression than acceptance. And the practice of acceptance has nothing to with justifying the actions of those bullies who made your life miserable as a kid either. Nor does acceptance mean reacting passively in a situation that actually does require action. Acceptance means accepting both  the things that happen to you as well as your reactions to them.

A few years ago our close family friends were enjoying a day at the beach when they suddenly realized their three-year-old son was nowhere to be found. Their frantic search ended with the worst possible outcome. They found their son drowned in the shallow waters off the beach by their home.

Soon after, the little boy’s distraught parents and grandparents started asking a question most people wouldn’t. Instead of asking “Why” they wanted to know “How”.

Focusing their energy on why this happened wouldn’t have helped them get past this terrible accident. But the question “How do we move forward from here?” provided them with the foundation to do just that. Life never goes back to normal after something like this happens. The scars stay with us until we die. But the way we relate to even the most traumatic of events matures over time, and our ability to accept what happens to us and how it effects us allows us to see possibilities we’d otherwise be blind to.

Now, years later, this family is stronger than ever and surrounded by a large and tight-knit group of friends.  What happened happened, and they see no reason to hide it. Their faith in life has been restored. When thoughts or feelings about what happened surface, they deal with them as they come. Life is worth living.

Accepting and letting things go isn’t easy, but the alternative is so much worse: bitterness, blame and hatred destroy who we are.