One of the doctrines of meditation — especially Buddhist-inspired meditation — is radical acceptance. Often misunderstood, at its root lies the need to experience things as they are — not bound by judgment, opinion, or our desire to change things to better suit our expectations.
Also informing many people’s meditation practice is the Buddhist idea that an attachment to anger is one of the causes of suffering, again colored by judgment, opinion, and a desire to change. Desire itself, or an attachment to desire, is cited as another cause of suffering. Not accepting things as they are, wanting them to be different, can cause us great emotional distress.
But what if our experience itself is unacceptable?
I teach meditation in shelters, where many of the residents are victims of abuse, suffer from serious, often untreated mental illness, and are routinely robbed or beaten on the street. Breaking the cycle of poverty becomes near-impossible for those without the faculty to work. Limited or no access to email or phone service makes job-hunting near-impossible. Even receiving payment from social programs becomes very challenging without a mailing address.
Is it possible, or even just, to ask these people to accept?
Anger may be a negative emotion, but anger is an energy that has been used to effect great social change. People not accepting injustice, and getting very angry about it, have led to most of the advances in human rights that we, as a society, have achieved.
I dare anyone clinging to the philosophical underpinnings of meditation practice to tell a women who has been driven out of her home by physical abuse, left without support for herself or her children, and unable to obtain child care or even transportation so that she can work, that the path to true freedom begins with releasing her anger and fully accepting her situation, thus liberating herself from the rage she feels by seeing that rage as a mere thought construct.
Another foundation of meditation practice is compassion. Asking anyone to lose the attachment to anger or practice radical acceptance while living with such challenges is an act devoid of compassion.
So what becomes of meditation practice, what benefit can it afford, when stripped of its epistemology?
For the people I sit with in shelters, the practice period is the only safe, quiet, anxiety-free moment they get. A short time of freedom from what’s threatening, an opportunity to just breathe without worry, is healing. The anger doesn’t go away, and perhaps it shouldn’t. But an opportunity to put it down for a time and experience unchecked awareness is one of the great benefits meditation offers.
Moments of liberation can be fleeting. The grand promise of the cessation of suffering by releasing attachment to anger and desire to change is, for many, naïve in this material world. Too many of us expect to accrue benefits from our meditation practice. That may be the most dangerous attachment of all.
For the people I practice with in shelters, the opportunity to sit is all that is asked. I believe this practice most pure, not the nuanced philosophy underpinning it, is the true promise of meditation.