Think of a problem that has plagued you for a long time—your weight, a loved one’s bad habits, fear of terrorism, whatever. No doubt you’ve tried valiantly to control this issue, but are your efforts working? The answer has to be no; otherwise you would have solved the problem long ago. What if your real trouble isn’t the issue you brood about so compulsively, but the brooding itself?
Psychologists who subscribe to a form of therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) call “clean” pain what we feel when something hurtful happens to us. “Dirty” pain is the result of our thoughts about how wrong this is, how it proves we—and life—are bad. The two kinds of suffering occupy different sections of the brain: One part simply registers events, while another creates a continuous stream of thoughts about those events. The vast majority of our unhappiness comes from this secondary response—not from painful reality but from painful thoughts about reality. Western psychology is just accepting something saints and mystics have taught for centuries: that this suffering ends only when we learn to detach from the thinking mind.
Learning to detach starts with simply noticing our own judgmental thoughts. When we find ourselves using words like should or ought, we’re courting dirty pain. Obsessing about what should be rather than accepting what is, we may try to control other people in useless, dysfunctional ways. We may impotently rage against nature itself, even—perhaps especially—when that nature is our own.
This amounts to mental suicide. Resisting what we can’t control removes us from reality, rendering our emotions, circumstances and loved ones inaccessible. The result is a terrible emptiness, which we usually blame on our failure to get what we want. Actually, it comes from refusing to accept what we have.
Victory by Surrender
Most of us see yielding as the ultimate failure, but that’s absurd when the war is between us and reality.
Surrendering allows the truth to set us free. And how do we surrender? Two words: Observe compassionately.
I recently watched television interviews with two actresses, both in their late fifties. Each was asked if she’d found anything good about aging. Both snapped, “No. Nothing. It’s horrible.” A few days later, I saw Maya Angelou on TV. She said that aging was “great fun” and gleefully described watching her breasts in their “incredible race to see which one will touch my waist first.”
“Sure, the body is going,” she said. “But so what?”
Ms. Angelou has said many wise things, but I thought “So what?” was one of her wisest. It expressed the sweet detachment of someone who has learned how to rest in her real being and knows that it is made not of flesh or thought, but of love.
The Fruits of Acceptance
There is enormous relief in detaching from our mental stories, but in my experience, the results go well beyond mere feeling. Surrendering leads directly to our right lives, our hearts’ desires. Whenever I’ve managed to release my scary stories and accept the truth of my life, I’ve stumbled into more happiness than I ever dreamed possible.
When I stop trying to control my mind—that verbose, paranoiac old storyteller—my thoughts become clearer and more intelligent. It’s a delicious paradox: By not trying to control the uncontrollable, we get what we thought we’d get if we were in control.
This thought pleases me greatly.