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The Power of Acceptance: Pain Vs. Suffering

Updated: May 7, 2020

“For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining, is to let it rain.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863)

The other night, as I was planning my talk for an upcoming mindfulness workshop, I stumbled across that Longfellow quote in a favorite book. When I read it, I was reminded of the power of acceptance and its important role in helping to create an ideal life.

You see, most of the time, we’re working hard to exert a level of control over our lives. We want to control our behavior, others’ behavior, outside circumstances, the weather, or ___(fill in the blank). We’re always trying to figure out an angle so that we can get what we want. Well, Dear Reader, I’m here to tell you that there is another (counterintuitive) way to face challenges that can really blow the lid off of your stressed-out, control-laden life. Enter: Acceptance.

Now, I know that a high percentage of you might be eye-rolling, by now or even feeling the temptation to crumple this page up and throw it away. Perhaps you’re thinking about something in your life that isn’t going your way. Maybe you’re imagining your next dealing with a difficult co-worker or feeling that nagging pain in your knee that shows up when it’s rainy.

What would you say if I told you that by disagreeing with (not accepting) what is happening in the present moment you were actually making things harder on yourself? Now I’m really winning you over, I can tell!

Before I lose you completely, let’s backtrack a bit and talk about expectations and judgment vs. reality. Let’s use the scenario of the painful knee to demonstrate how this could be true.

Say I have a pain in my right knee. It really hurts. The physical pain that I experience could be called “clean pain”. I know it hurts and I feel it in my knee.

Now let’s say that I have an opinion about how my knee should be feeling. I believe that my knee shouldn’t hurt and that it’s not fair that I have a hurting knee. I go even one step further and get really angry that I have to be spending time taking care of my knee and feeling pain. Let’s call all of those thoughts “dirty pain”.

Dirty pain is all of the suffering that I add on when I have a problem with (am not accepting) what’s going on. In essence, I’m rejecting the truth of the moment- that I have pain in the knee- and wanting something else.

Can you see how by not accepting that there is pain in my knee I might actually be causing myself to suffer more?

Well, believe it or not, this is all good news! “Why?” you ask exasperatedly (is that even a word?) Because you have control over your thoughts about your situation. You can make a choice to accept what is happening instead of rejecting it and in doing so, prevent unnecessary suffering.

You can choose to be compassionate toward your situation (knee) and take action to alleviate the pain without adding “dirty pain” to the mix. Knee hurts. End of story.

Now, at this juncture I want to make sure no one reading this thinks that my encouragement to accept something means condoning it. This is not about passivity or being a doormat. The type of acceptance we’re talking about here develops effectiveness and self-efficacy.

Problem-solving is much easier if you have a clear picture of what is actually happening and can let go of judgments. If you drop those suffering-inducing thoughts, then you have more creative energy and mental capacity to come up with a solution for the challenge you’re facing.

So, the next time you’re fuming about something that “shouldn’t” have happened but did, take a moment to see if you’re adding any “dirty pain” to your situation and remember that “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” (Karen Casey, 1983)

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