The practices of acceptance and non-attachment are critical to Zen and Buddhist practice, but they are easily misunderstood. It can sound like we’re being asked not to care about things, or not to try to change things for the better. Fortunately, this is not what Zen means by acceptance or non-attachment, because 1) it’s impossible (or psychologically and spiritually damaging) not to care, and 2) trying to change things for the better is the bodhisattva path itself! So what does it mean to practice acceptance and non-attachment?
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Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Letting Go of Resistance and Not Taking Everything So Personally [2:34]
Zen Is a Bodhisattva Path, so We Still Have to Care [4:54]
You’re Right to Doubt What You Think It Means [7:08]
Letting Go of Resistance and Self-Concern in Practice [9:17]
Noticing Dissatisfaction, Stress, Unease, or Suffering Within [13:10]
Shifting Your Relationship with What You Resist [16:00]
Fully Present Right Now Despite Likes and Dislikes [19:48]
Acting without Taking Everything Personally [24:00]
Acceptance Allows Skillful Action [29:07]
Letting Go of Resistance and Not Taking Everything So Personally
Essentially, it means we stop resisting the way things are, and then we act in the world without tying everything back to our sense of self.
Notice that this way of describing our practice points out what we “stop” and what we “do without.” Basically, we stop doing things that are ineffective and harmful rather than trying to do something special. It’s not that we work ourselves into some noble state where we deny our preferences and accept unacceptable things with saintly equanimity. It’s not that we float through the world, swaddled in ambivalence so we never become invested in a particular outcome, and avoid making any mistakes. If we managed to do these “special” practices, we’d be – as the ancient Zen masters would say – “living in a demon’s cave in the black mountains,” or stuck in duality.
Of course, it’s awfully tempting to adopt a special attitude in our practice so the world doesn’t hurt us so much. There is a measure of cold comfort to be found in washing our hands of the whole worldly affair. If we can manage to create a point of view where nothing really matters to us, we’ll experience a whole lot less disappointment and worry.
You can tell someone is stuck in dualistic, “special” practice when they counsel you to feel better after a loss because “everything is impermanent anyway,” or when they claim to be resigned to our society’s destruction through global warming because “everything is empty and all is illusion.”
Zen Is a Bodhisattva Path, so We Still Have to Care
Does this sound like the path of someone who doesn’t care? Does it sound like the path of someone who isn’t going to try to change things? Quite the opposite. Ultimately our path invites us to care so much we are happy to sacrifice our own lives in order to benefit others, and to tirelessly keep trying to change things for the better as long as we’re alive – and, if it turns out we exist for multiple lifetimes, we keep trying to change things in every lifetime until the end of time itself.
How does this bodhisattva aspiration line up with acceptance and non-attachment? I admit, the whole question can make you crazy. Intellectually, it just doesn’t make any sense at all. I resisted really practicing acceptance and non-attachment for many years because, even though I wanted to be free of my suffering, I sure as hell wasn’t going to do it by abandoning my concern for the world.
You’re Right to Doubt What You Think It Means
Here’s the key: you are right to doubt what you think it means. This is a phrase my Dharma grandmother, Roshi Jiyu Kennett, used to use. For the word “it” you can substitute any Zen teaching or practice that doesn’t sit right with you. When your mind, intuition, or moral sense rebels against a teaching (or if it just leaves you profoundly confused), trust yourself! But then, rather than rejecting or avoiding the teaching, open your mind back up and ask, “What am I missing? What assumptions am I making? What else might this teaching be about?”
This isn’t to say that every single Zen teaching and practice is Ultimately True and Right, and that you only have your own ignorance to blame if you don’t get it. That’s dogmatism. Rather, the phrase “you are right to doubt what you think it means” is an open invitation to expand your mind and experience. You never have to swallow anything just because it’s Zen or Buddhist, but I’m a pretty skeptical person and over 20 years of practice I’ve yet to encounter a teaching in this tradition from which I couldn’t learn something.
So… go ahead and trust your misgivings. The Zen instruction to cultivate acceptance and non-attachment can’t be about not caring, or not trying to change things. So what does this practice actually involve, and how does it help us walk the bodhisattva path without getting overwhelmed psychologically and emotionally by suffering and impermanence?
Letting Go of Resistance and Self-Concern in Practice
Let’s return the language I prefer: we stop resisting the way things are and then we act in the world without tying everything back to our sense of self. Both of these phrases describe how we engage the present moment with our whole body, mind, and heart. They describe our subjective experience as a human being. They are not moral principles. They don’t work that way.
If “stop resisting the way things are” and “act in the world without tying everything back to our sense of self” were moral principles, our practice would look like this: We would encounter some difficulty. We would remind ourselves of the first principle, “stop resisting the way things are,” and do our very best to follow it. We would do this because we want to overcome our difficulty, and the powers-that-be have told us the best way to do this is to “stop resisting the way things are.” Once we have stopped resisting things as they are, we would know we were “in good” with God, or the Divine, or whatever forces are governing the universe, and things would start to go our way. Then we would try to act in the world without tying everything back to our sense of self – doing our best not to personally care too much about any particular outcome – because caring too much would jinx our winning streak.
When we practice in order to control the world, our feelings, or the good will of forces greater than us, the results are usually dissatisfying. Even though we’ve stopped resisting the way things are, they often still suck, and we still feel that they suck. Even though we’ve tried to act without self-concern, things don’t change the way we’d like them to. The worst thing about practicing this way, however, is that it distracts us from the real practice – the practice that is actually liberating.
Here’s an example of what it feels like to engage the present moment and stop resisting the way things are:
I take a moment to be still, putting aside all activities in order to be aware of my own experience. I turn my attention toward my pervasive (or sometimes acute) feeling of dukkha – that is, the feeling of being dissatisfied with my existence, or the way the world is. If the dukkha is acute, I feel a nauseating tightness in my gut and chest as I strenuously object to whatever frustration, pain, misfortune, loss, or injustice I am facing. If the dukkha is subtle, I feel a pervasive sense of unease, as if something’s not quite right. I may also feel a sense of waiting, as if my life isn’t really happening yet, or now’s not quite the time to fully embrace it.
Noticing Dissatisfaction, Stress, Unease, or Suffering Within
The etymology of the term “dukkha” may give some insight into the subtle nature of this experience. In the notes to his translation of The Bhagavad Gita, Winthrop Sargeant explains the historical roots of duḥkha and its antonym sukha:
“It is perhaps amusing to note the etymology of the words sukha (pleasure, comfort, bliss) and duḥkha (misery, unhappiness, pain). The ancient Aryans who brought the Sanskrit language to India were a nomadic, horse- and cattle-breeding people who travelled in horse- or ox-drawn vehicles. Su and dus are prefixes indicating good or bad. The word kha, in later Sanskrit meaning ‘sky,’ ‘ether,’ or ‘space,’ was originally the word for ‘hole,’ particularly an axle hole of one of the Aryan’s vehicles. Thus sukha … meant, originally, ‘having a good axle hole,’ while duhkha meant ‘having a poor axle hole,’ leading to discomfort.” (SUNY Press, 2009, p. 303)
As I check in with myself, then, I recognize the sense of discomfort and unease I feel about my life. It is this dukkha that keeps me from feeling fully alive and authentic. It causes me to hold everything at arm’s length while I figure out what’s going on, or leads me to struggle to put everything right so the discomfort will go away.
The thing is, I never manage to figure everything out with my mind, let alone get everything permanently fixed so my ride is perfectly smooth. Ever. In the back of my mind, however, I hold on to the hope that relief is right around the corner as long as I keep busy. (Maybe you react differently, and feel despair or become depressed, but the core of your problem is still dukkha.)
In the moment, I allow myself to fully recognize and feel my dukkha. It is an experience of my body, mind, and heart – not just an idea.
Shifting Your Relationship with What You Resist
Then I invite myself to give it up. After all, dukkha is just an attitude I’m taking toward my experience. In terms of how I feel about myself, I notice how limited, unmindful, selfish, silly, hopeless, irresponsible, unlikeable, predictable, etc. I think I am, and then I invite myself to say, “You’re okay.” I say this to myself like a kind parent would say it to a child, making it a comment on my fundamental worthiness as a human being, not an evaluation of where I rank on the human scale of success. I refuse to postpone taking my place in the world because I’m not perfect. I am just the way I am, fundamentally no better or worse than anyone else. To my long list of proposed self-improvements I say, “Who really cares?” I dare to commit the sin of fully accepting my lame-ass self even though I’m nowhere near meeting my own ideals.
Then, in terms of how I feel about life “outside” of myself, I notice the ways in which my life feels unacceptable, and resign myself to being fully present for life in spite of the pervasive inadequacy of my situation. This includes all of my feelings and thoughts of resistance to discomfort, loss, pain, shame, dullness, stress, or whatever is bothering me. “So, here we are,” I say to myself. “Surrounded by a mess. Forgot again. Stuck your foot in it again. You’ll never get it all done. This is incredibly unfair. Life can be so painful. Or horrifying. Or boring. Or lonely.” I don’t have to like it. I don’t have to approve of my own reactions to the crappiness. All I have to do is be with it all. All I have to do is not turn away from my life.
This practice is so subtle it’s almost impossible to describe in words, but I’ve still got to try. As I stop resisting the way things are, I refuse to postpone appreciation for my life until everything is perfect. I throw out the strident disapproval I’ve been carrying around in my heart as if it would shame everyone into changing. I loosen my grip on my almighty list of the way things should be, and experience the bittersweet intimacy of the way things actually are. I wake up in the driver’s seat. I come home to my life, like Dorothy waking up in Kansas and being so delighted to be back in the situation she had so recently run away from.
Fully Present Right Now Despite Likes and Dislikes
Do you see how this has nothing to do with liking or not liking what’s going on? Do you see how this has nothing to do with twisting your experience around and pretending you think all the misery in the world is actually beautiful? It doesn’t deny or sanitize or reinterpret your experience. It doesn’t say anything about what you’re going to do next. It’s entirely about being fully present right now.
Right now is where you have freedom of choice. Right now is where the beauty and wonder of your life can be appreciated. Right now is where you can leap free of the stories and see clearly. Nothing in the universe obstructs us from experiencing our lives this way – no matter how inadequate we are, no matter how many regrets we have, no matter how much misery we’re experiencing, no matter if the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket. In this moment you don’t have to make any excuses at all. You can show up with utter earnestness and dignity. The only thing that gets in the way is your own mind – which means all you have to do is learn to get out of your own way.
At the beginning of practice, most of us are pretty skeptical that you can just “let go” of dukkha. It’s been with us all of our lives, and it’s clearly a direct result of the fact that our conditions are dissatisfactory, imperfect, and sometimes downright awful. We think dukkha is inevitable, like the sensation of burning if we put our hand too close to a flame. Fortunately, this isn’t true. This is the amazing thing that Shakyamuni Buddha discovered 2,500 years ago. Dukkha is all in your mind. Or, to use more classic language, the arising of dukkha is inevitable, but as long as you can let go of desire (particularly, the desire for anything to be other than how they are), you can be free of it. Of course, the dissatisfactory world is not all in your mind. The suffering of sentient beings is not all in your mind. Fortunately, although there’s always a limit to what you can do about the state of the world, dukkha you can release like a helium balloon – and you don’t have to wait until you or your conditions get better. You can release it right now.
You may find it works for you to think of this practice as “acceptance.” If so, that’s fine! For me, “acceptance” tends to imply an active embrace that feels disingenuous (that is, dishonest or inauthentic). I prefer to recognize how I’m resisting the way things are and then cut it out. I can show up to the present moment along with my conviction that the emperor has no clothes and my refusal to pretend he does. As long as I don’t resist even my own attitude, it can just be part of my larger experience.
Acting without Taking Everything Personally
Now, what does it feel like to engage the present moment and act in the world without tying everything back to our sense of self?
Once I’ve woken up in the driver’s seat of my life, I take a look around. Without the filter of dukkha over my experience, I am naturally informed by things. Responses arise. Things need to be taken care of. I have interests and skills that influence the kind of course I choose to take. I can only do one thing at a time. I can’t do everything. I’ll never finish it all. I can’t do any better than my best. Everything flows along pretty naturally, with a minimum of second-guessing and worry, as long as I don’t start tying everything back to my sense of self.
By “tying everything back to my sense of self” I mean interpreting all results – at least in part – in terms of their effect on my inherently existing, independent, enduring self. This self doesn’t actually exist, but it’s a profoundly convincing narrative we impose on our moment-by-moment experience. We’re actually just a flow of causes and conditions. We exist in a very real way, but without fixed boundaries, and we’re interdependent with everything else in the universe. I am only “me” because of the big bang, fundamental elements like carbon and oxygen, the earth, evolution, my ancestors, our country, and the people who grow my food. I am only “me” relative to “you” and all other beings. But I assume, as do all human beings, that there is fundamental core within me that never changes.
Again, this pretty subtle stuff, so an example might help. Let’s say I decide to become politically active in order to fight global warming. Objectively, this is good thing. I’m trying to be a bodhisattva, create positive change in the world, and enact my sense of interconnection with the planet and all beings.
I start creating suffering – at least for myself – when I tie my sense of self to my efforts. My sense that I am substantial, worthy, effectual, safe, and/or connected with other beings becomes tangled up with the situation I am trying to address, with my opinions, intentions, and ideals, and with the resistance I face in my efforts to change what’s happening. In my internal narrative about myself and the world, I have to succeed, or else. The alternative, not succeeding, is completely unacceptable. I get discouraged or angry unless the changes I’m working for come fast enough to meet my standards. The possibility of a disastrous outcome casts a pall over my whole life.
Now, you might say, “Shouldn’t the possibility of a disastrous outcome cast a pall over your whole life?” Maybe the disastrous outcome is an uninhabitable planet, or abject poverty, or the loss of a loved one! Incredibly, even when circumstances are dire, we don’t have to operate under a pall, or full of worry. In fact, if we do, our ability to help improve things will be seriously compromised.
Acceptance Allows Skillful Action
It’s possible to act energetically and wholeheartedly without it having anything to do with my narrative about my inherently existing, independent, enduring self. Right now, in this moment, I respond as best I can. My response arises out of the flow of causes and conditions that is my life. When I get caught up in a narrative about the possibility or acceptability of certain outcomes, or obsess about how to spend my energy in order to maximize positive benefit (so I can be sure I’m a good person, or I’m not wasting my life), I return to stillness and remember to stop resisting the way things are. It’s not that I don’t care, it just means I’m not going to make my wholehearted living contingent on a particular outcome. Until the end comes, I’ll show up. In this moment.
To use the more traditional term “non-attachment,” I like to think of non-attachment as meaning “not attaching stuff to your sense of self.” It doesn’t mean not investing yourself in things, and doesn’t mean you don’t do everything in your power to bring about the outcome you hope for. It just means not getting too caught up in your stories. It means allowing your best response to come forward, and then enacting it with a sense of generosity – your action is your gift to the world, the best one you can think of to give, and you offer it wholeheartedly without skulking about waiting to be thanked, or regretting your generosity because you didn’t get the result you wanted.
It can take many years of practice before we get a sense, for ourselves, what the practices of acceptance and non-attachment really are – before we find relief from our dissatisfaction and suffering while at the same caring deeply about the world and doing our best to help all beings, including ourselves. The process of discovery is gradual and full of trial and error, and you are right to doubt what you think things mean.