First Acceptance, Then Change

By Russell Collins,, Feb 25, 2009

A Zen master has this to say about hard times ahead: It is what it is

Noozhawk, CA (USA) -- Relationship wisdom can come in many forms. Not too long ago, I got a dose of it from an unlikely source: a famed Buddhist monk talking about the approaching end of times.

Around the middle of last year, my wife and I drove down to UCLA for a conference on psychotherapy and spirituality. My wife, Laura, is an attorney, not a psychotherapist, but she was interested in hearing the keynote speaker, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Nhat Hanh is deeply interested in mediation and compromise as an alternative to violence as a solution to conflict.

Nhat Hanh sat among a crowd of robed Vietnamese disciples and lectured from the stage of Royce Hall, a large auditorium filled with mental health professionals — quite a few of us from Santa Barbara — trying to understand how to apply his message to our work. For me, the most memorable moment of the day came just after the Zen master took a question from the audience about global warming. The questioner wanted to know what we, as ordinary people, can do.

Nhat Hanh is a proponent of “engaged Buddhism”; rather than live peacefully with his Buddhist community in southwestern France, he travels the world delivering his message of peace, and he’s an activist on global issues of many sorts. At the same time, he comes from a Zen tradition of compassion for all beings. So I was curious how he would straddle that line — issue a call to the barricades or preach compassion and understanding for the polluters of the world.

He went down a road I didn’t expect.

“I have prayed to my inner Buddha about this” he said, which suggested to me he had no pat answers. What his inner Buddha told him, Nhat Hanh said, was that the human race will end, and that perhaps that end is approaching fast.

This alarmed me a little, and caused a buzz in Royce Hall. Was he saying the tipping point has been reached, we’re on the downhill slide and that there is nothing we can do? This seemed a little fatalistic. I had expected something more ... actionable.

But as he talked — his quiet voice just barely audible, even with a microphone, so that we had to strain to hear — I began to see some wisdom in his words. Did I really think the human race was destined to go on forever? Not likely on a lot of counts. And is there a something so special about this moment in history — my moment — that would prevent my generation from being among the last to die? Moreover, it’s pretty clear that the news on climate change seems to be getting worse, not better.

What Thich Nhat Hanh proposed to us, as we sat noiselessly in the great hall, was that the enlightened response to the possibility of climatological Armageddon is exactly the same as that for facing any manifestation of our impermanence. It is what it is. And it’s perfect that way.

On a smaller scale, but one no less important, acceptance can be the key to relationship problems as well. In one way, I’m seeing this already during the downturn. Forced to confront difficulties on the financial front, couples — some couples anyway — are beginning to embrace the life and the relationship they have, rather than some idea of how it could be “if only.” Even among our friends and acquaintances, I see couples cutting each other more slack as partners, making an effort to be less critical and demanding. There is more interest and more focus on the relationship, and a little less fascination with acquiring the stuff we usually crave: more money, more friends, more California real estate.

Letting go of judgment and expectation this way can infuse day-to-day living with a sense of ease, humor (often of the gallows variety) and equanimity. Paradoxically, this acceptance of just who we are and just what is can set the stage for effortless change. Many years ago, renowned psychologist Carl Rogers built an entire philosophy of human potential around this single idea: “The curious paradox is,” Rogers theorized, “when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

This paradox of acceptance as the doorway to change has emerged more and more as an effective model for couples, too. Relationship pioneers Neil Jacobson and Andrew Christensen have demonstrated through years of research what Rogers and Thich Nhat Hanh seemed to know intuitively: The pressure to change or be different sends the critical message that there is something wrong with you in the first place, whether the “you” is a culture of waste, a marriage, a mate, or just ... you.

This may be why programs for change (like my exercise program) that begin with such high hopes and promise never seem to accomplish their goals: what you resist persists, as some sage once proclaimed. Jacobson and Christensen make two radical recommendations to couples struggling in their relationships: first, embrace your problems ... they are the doorway to intimacy in relationships. Rather than deny them or try to will them away, talk honestly but responsibly about what happens when your partner’s words and action seems hurtful. Second, “let go” of both your idealized notions of what your relationship should look like, and all your plans to change your mate. Accept, or at least entertain, the possibility that your mate, your relationship, and your life together are already perfect ... just the way they are.

There are exceptions to this idea, of course, most notably the acceptance of physical or emotional abuse in a relationship. Acceptance in these cases probably means acceptance of the complete unworkability of the relationship and the uncomfortable need to move on. But for many couples who have struggled — sometimes for years — to reshape their relationship according to some ideal or model of relationship perfection, it can be a great relief to step back from the struggle and look at their partner and their lives together and say — this is it! For all its quirks and idiosyncrasies, for all its failures to live up to my expectations, it is what it is, we are who we are and we can love each other just as we are — and go on supporting each other in continuing to grow in every way we can.

Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator.