One of the doctrines of modern mindfulness meditation, especially some Buddhist inspired meditation taught by teachers with only a tangential understanding of Buddhism, is radical acceptance.
Often misunderstood, at its root lies the need to experience things as they are; things not bound by judgment, opinion, or our desire to change things to better suit our expectations.
But we are always judging. We must make decisions to survive.
Also informing many people’s meditation practice is the Buddhist idea that an attachment to anger is one of the causes of suffering, again colored by judgment, opinion, and a desire to change.
Desire itself, or an attachment to desire, is cited as another cause of suffering. Not accepting things as they are, wanting them to be different, can cause us great emotional distress.
Meditation that embraces these ideas works for people with secure lives who live a comfortable existence.
But what if our experience itself is unacceptable?
I’ve taught meditation in shelters, where many of the residents are victims of abuse, suffer from serious, often untreated mental illness and are routinely robbed or beaten on the street.
Breaking the cycle of poverty becomes nearly impossible for those without the facility to work. Limited or no access to email or phone service makes job-hunting impossible. Even receiving payments from social programs becomes very challenging without a mailing address.
Is it possible, or even just, to ask these people to accept?
Anger may be a negative emotion, but anger is an energy that has been used to effect great social change. People not accepting injustice, and getting very angry about it, have led to most of the advances in human rights that we, as a society, have achieved.
I dare anyone clinging to the philosophical underpinnings of some meditation practices to tell a women who has been driven out of her home by physical abuse, left without support for herself and her children, and unable to obtain childcare or even transportation so that she can work, that the path to true freedom begins with releasing her anger and fully accepting her situation. As if she should liberate herself from the rage she feels by seeing that rage is a mere thought construct.
Another foundation of meditation practice is compassion. But asking anyone to lose the attachment to anger or practice radical acceptance while living with the challenges of poverty and abuse is an act completely devoid of compassion.
So what becomes of modern mindfulness meditation practice, what benefit can it afford, when stripped of its epistemology?
For the people I’ve sat with in shelters, the practice period is the only safe, quiet, anxiety free moments they get. A short time of freedom from what’s threatening, an opportunity to just breathe without worry. It is healing.
The anger doesn’t go away, and perhaps it shouldn’t. But an opportunity to put it down for a time and experience unchecked awareness, or the opportunity meditation presents to dive into how the anger feels and what truly causes it, is one of the great benefits meditation offers.
Better than calling it nonjudgmental awareness as many mindfulness teachers do, a more acceptable definition of mindfulness, as defined by Buddhist teacher John Peacock, is the knowledge of where one is, and where one does not have to be.
Moments of liberation can be fleeting. The grand promise of the cessation of suffering by releasing attachment to anger and desire to change is, for many, naïve in this material world.
Too many of us expect to accrue benefits from our meditation practice. Too many meditation proponents judge others who can’t release anger; people who can’t just accept their lot in life.
The irony is that in teaching people to accept things as they are, these teachers want people to be different. These well-adjusted meditators may be guilty of the most dangerous attachment of all. The attachment to the feel good myth of meditation and its expectations of baseless happiness.
For the people I practice with in shelters, the opportunity to just sit is all that is asked.
I believe this practice most pure, this sitting with things just as they are whether bad or good, not the un-nuanced philosophy that smacks of the judgment of those who can’t align with the quest for happiness or those who just can’t accept their situation at present, is the true promise of mindfulness meditation.