It’s the famous “serenity prayer” from Alcoholics Anonymous. Minus the prayer part, of course. And it’s a theme I keep coming back to in my secular meditation/ mindfulness practice.
A big part of this practice — both in my formal meditation sessions, and in my work to become more mindful in my everyday life — has to do with acceptance. It revolves around noticing experiences, and having them, without judging them, without trying to fix them or change them, just letting them be until they pass. If I’m meditating or working on being mindful, and I start feeling anxious, tired, jangled, bored, restless, guilty, fearful, impatient, moody for no reason, desperately overwhelmed with grief, itchy… I notice it, I let myself experience it, I return my focus to whatever I’m focusing on. (Ditto with pleasant experiences, of course… but that’s easier, I don’t have an overwhelming urge to constantly fix pleasant experiences. Although… well, I’ll get to that in a moment.)
This doesn’t mean being a doormat, or a passive sponge. In fact, since starting this practice, I’ve found that when I am working to change something, I’ve become more focused, better at prioritizing, less easily distracted, better at noticing when I have become distracted, better at drawing my attention away from whatever’s distracting me and bringing it back to my work. (More on that in a later piece I’m working on in my head, about mindfulness and anger.) Acceptance of the things I can’t change is actually fairly helpful in finding the courage to change the things I can.
The “wisdom to know the difference” part, of course, is where things get tricky. Among other things: How do you know what can’t be changed if you don’t try to change it? The world has been made immeasurably better, in countless ways, by people who looked at things that everyone else thought were immutable — lynching, legalized spousal rape, smallpox — and said, “Nope. Not accepting this. Not acceptable.” So how do you know? How do you know when you’re being a visionary, when you’re dreaming things that never were and asking “Why not?” — and when you’re just beating your head against a wall? How do you know when to stick with your dream against all odds, and when to cut your losses? It’s the “wisdom to know the difference” part that takes this relatively simple, almost ham-handedly obvious little aphorism, and turns it into a large, deep question that you ask yourself dozens of times a day, and never stop asking for as long as you’re alive.
So, yeah. Serenity to accept what I can’t change; courage to change what I can; wisdom to know the difference. Awesome. But there’s a fourth thing I’ve been getting and learning from this practice, something they don’t mention in the serenity
prayer saying, and it’s something I’m finding to be hugely important and even transformative:
The serenity to accept things that I could change, but that don’t actually need to be changed.
The serenity to accept minor annoyances. The serenity to notice that I’m bored, and to simply sit with my boredom, instead of immediately looking for something to do; to notice that I’m anxious, and to simply sit with my anxiety, instead of immediately looking for something to soothe it; to notice that I’m sad, and to simply sit with my sadness, instead of immediately looking for something to relieve it or distract me from it. The serenity to simply experience my life, instead of constantly tinkering with it to try to make it just a little bit better. The serenity — and the wisdom too, I guess — to realize that even if this tinkering does slightly improve my momentary condition or mood, being in a constant state of tinkering has a significant detrimental affect on my quality of life: it adds to my restlessness, my anxiety, my feeling of being jangled and overwhelmed.
Here’s the thing. Or here’s a thing, anyway. If the focus of my life is less on pleasure or achievement, and more on simply being present in it… than just about any experience is an opportunity for that. I can be present, aware, in the moment, no matter where I am or what I’m doing or how I’m feeling. I’m not going to say that any experience is as good as any other — I don’t think that. Some experiences are more deeply satisfying than others, and they’re worth seeking out and creating, for myself and for others. And, of course, some experiences are worth avoiding, and working to eliminate, for myself and for others. You know — lynching, legalized spousal rape, smallpox, that sort of thing. But just about any experience is an opportunity for… well, for experience. Waiting in line; having a headache; missing my father; feeling tired and discouraged; sitting on a bus staring out the window at an ugly industrial landscape… I can be present with all of this. All of it is an opportunity to fully experience the un-fucking-believably lucky accident of having been born, and getting to be alive and conscious.
And what I’m finding is that, when I’m not constantly tinkering with every little piece of anxiety or tiredness or jangled nerves or boredom or restlessness or guilt or fear or impatience or moodiness or grief or itchiness, I have more energy for the “courage to change the things I can” stuff. The constant tinkering isn’t just emotionally exhausting — it’s literally exhausting. It takes time and energy.
Not sure where I’m going with this, so I think I’m just going to let it peter out. Accepting things that I could change, but that don’t actually need to be changed. A cool thing. Thumbs up.