#005 You Don't Have to Accept What You Can't Control
But you do have to accept how you feel about it
I can’t control what other people think or do. I can’t force them to recognize the inherent value of everyone, and I can’t stop them from harming others.
Not being able to control everything is tough, sometimes.
I was a serious Buddhist practitioner for years. I went to countless retreats; some of them weeks long. I habitually listened to dharma talks. I had a regular sitting group.
Acceptance is a big theme in Buddhism. For a long time, I weaponized it against myself, and I’ve seen it weaponized against others, too.
For this reason, the Buddhist parable of the second arrow has always made me uncomfortable.
It goes something like this: when something bad happens to us, we’re hit with two arrows. The first is the bad thing itself. It could be something big, like a horrific diagnosis, or it could be small, like getting cut off in traffic.
The second is our response to it, which can come in lots of forms. We might turn our bad luck into a message from the universe, compulsively over plan to try to control an outcome, catastrophize, or plot revenge. Since the second arrow happens in our minds, we have control over it.
According to the parable, it’s more enlightened to not let our minds spin in agonizing directions and save ourselves from that second arrow. Acceptance is a big part of that.
Logically, this makes sense. If you can’t control something, you may as well accept it, but there are a lot of grey areas. Some bad things are caused by people who could theoretically be stopped, we don’t know how much power we have, and the blind preaching of acceptance leaves the door open to abuse.
Anyone in a position of power can get away with mistreatment if he can convince people that it’s unenlightened to have a response. In Buddhist settings, I’ve sometimes felt that senior monks or priests had an agenda when they preached acceptance (or egolessness) to practitioners who were hesitant to acquiesce to something that seemed off.
Right now, though, I’m more interested in how we weaponize acceptance against ourselves.
To me, the two-arrow parable implies that I absolutely must find emotional equilibrium. I’ve failed if I don’t achieve it—I’m shooting myself with my own mind.
However, I’ve found that if I force myself to accept something bad (whether I can control it or not), I shut down my natural emotional responses. From the outside, I look serene, but on the inside, I feel repressed and frozen, like I’m turning into sludge. I don’t resist my external environment, but my internal environment is anxious and joyless.
If instead, I stop trying to control my mind and accept my feelings, I notice an immediate internal shift. Sometimes, that means I express those feelings, and this makes me look pretty unenlightened to an outside observer. I’m more likely to stand up to challenges and cause problems for others, but I’m more empowered.
Most of the time, though, when I accept my feelings, I just sit and quietly stare at the wall for a few minutes. I might feel like I’m engulfed in rage or awash in sadness, but then it passes. In general, I’m less anxious, more self-aware, and more joyful.
I’ve long observed this to be true, but it’s still my habitual response to try to shut down my emotions when I’m faced with a bad thing that I can’t control. I have to actively remind myself to accept my feelings instead. If I let myself sit with my feelings for long enough, that pesky second arrow that I’ve failed to deflect dissolves on its own.
Sometimes, I even accept that I’ll always swing back and forth between difficult feelings and happy feelings. I’ll always be rejecting something and desiring something else because that’s the human experience.
The problem isn’t the rollercoaster. The problem is trying to stop the rollercoaster.
How are you feeling, right now?