And as we grieve for the loss of all those things that seemed to give our life purpose and hope, our ego-mind grasps and fights, sending us through stages much like the five stages of grief identified by Kübler-Ross. The stages of acceptance are: bargaining, anger, resignation/depression, and relief/acceptance.
Bargaining: Despite our realization that acceptance is necessary, we still push back against it and try to bargain for something that is more acceptable to us. Whether it’s just wanting to keep a few key desires, or saying, “ok, I accept the way things are but can’t I still have my desires if I accept,” we try to bargain our way out of true and total acceptance.
But with this as with other things, half-measures don’t work. One craving or strongly-held opinion is enough to disturb your equanimity and rent your peace and contentment to shreds. While, as I have written, one can have skillful desires when you have achieved a base of equanimity, that requires true acceptance, not just mouthing the words. And because our cravings are really addictions, we have to deal with them the same way one would in a 12-step program. They must be put aside until such time as we can truly say that we accept ourselves and the world around us. Acceptance needs to be given the space the take root.
Anger: When we realize that the bargains we try and strike don’t work, in that we continue to suffer greatly from the frustration that comes from our desires not being fulfilled or from the opinions we hold dear, we are filled with anger. “Why can’t I have desires like everyone else?” “What have I done to deserve this?” “If I have no reason to hope, I may as well die.”
Because the habit-energies of our cravings and opinions have determined the course of much of our lives, and because we feel that how we act is no different from others in our peer group and indeed is often supported and even promoted by our mass culture, we experience great anger at having to relinquish what we hold so dear and what we feel is so central to our potential happiness, even as it causes us unending frustration and pain. This anger can often be an erupting fury, causing us to say things which are cruel to ourselves and others.
Resignation/Depression: One can spend quite an extended time going back and forth between the bargaining and anger stages of acceptance. But eventually, the mounting evidence of the effect of our cravings and opinions becomes inescapable, even to us, and we see no other option if we truly want peace and contentment. This leads to the next stage, which is resignation and often depression.
When we become resigned to the idea that we must let go of most of what has driven us, rather than immediately experiencing the relief that comes from being free of our cravings and opinions, our ego-mind pouts and the result is often a mild form of depression. This is the ego’s last ditch effort to keep us tethered to our old ways. This can be a terrible period of time, as depression or lethargy, while quiet, is in its own way just as destructive as anger.
Relief/Acceptance: At some point during the quiet of the resignation phase, you begin to see clearly during your meditations that you actually feel relief at not being driven by your desires, that you haven’t felt as content and at peace since you can remember. It’s like being on vacation. Your ego-mind, however, argues that it’s a bummer, not being able to do what you want to do.
But then you finally realize that it’s not “you” who wants to do these things; you want peace and contentment, and you have finally achieved that by accepting yourself and the world around you. At this point you throw off the feelings of resignation or depression caused by your ego and embrace your new freedom from cravings and opinions. You are at peace with yourself and the world around you.
Once you have arrived at this stage, it is important to deepen the roots of your acceptance. That means not entertaining any desires, even those that are in keeping with the Five Precepts, because your ego will grab ahold of them and throw you off your equanimity. Give it time. When you feel secure in your acceptance, that you are able to practice non-attachment, then you can entertain some skillful desires. But be aware; at the first sign of frustration, it means your ego has breached your equanimity. You must either stop and let your ego subside and your non-attachment return or if that does not work you must let your desires go again.
If you truly want peace and contentment there is a price attached to it ... and that price is accepting yourself, your life, and the world around you as being exactly the way it is. There is no other way.
Another lesson in practical Buddhism.