The renowned psychologist Carl Rogers famously said, “The curious paradox is that when I can accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
This statement is as simple as it is profound — and yet not easy to implement. Yet it embodies a principle that is a key to both psychological health and spiritual growth.
Mindfulness practice is a well-researched method that derives from Buddhism; it is now used widely in hospitals and secular settings to reduce stress and improve immune functioning. The essence of mindfulness is to be present to our experience just as it is without judging ourselves. This echoes Rogers’s wisdom that we need to accept ourselves as we are rather than try to fix and change ourselves.
Our conditioning prompts the struggle to eliminate our flaws, jettison uncomfortable feelings, and muscle our way into a place we deem more pleasant and less disruptive to our flattering self-image or where we’d like to be. Our instinctual fight, flight, freeze response orients us to avoid real or imagined threats to our safety and well-being. This neurological wiring has ensured mammalian survival — and eventually us — over millions of years. It operates on autopilot in ways that propel us toward safety, but left unchecked it may undermine the more soulful aspects of our humanity.
Mindfulness offers a specific and helpful way to accept, know, and value ourselves by inviting us to pause, go inside, and notice what we’re experiencing from moment to moment. As I explain in Dancing with Fire:
Mindfulness practice means gently attending to our experience and inquiring deeply into ourselves. We meet life as it presents itself from moment to moment. We vividly experience what is alive now — the play of breath as it enters the nostrils, the melodic chorus of birds in the distance, a tightness in our stomach as we remember an awkward moment, a shudder of apprehension regarding a health issue. We make space for the full range of what is, rather than how we’d like things to be. We bring a gentle presence to the ever-changing stream of sensations, feelings, thoughts, sounds, sights, or whatever happens to present itself. In short, we become intimate with this ever-changing precious moment.
Rather than conclude that something is wrong with us for having troubling thoughts or feelings, we simply acknowledge and attend to whatever we happen to notice. Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach calls this attitude, radical acceptance. This attitude is enormously freeing. We pause long enough to meet and greet our experience as it is.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) similarly invites us to be mindful of our experience as it is. As psychologist John Grohol describes it, this approach invites us to “accept, in a non-evaluative and nonjudgmental fashion, both oneself and the current situation.“
Accepting ourselves includes accepting and embracing our experience as it is. Expanding our tolerance for our experience just as it is, we may observe how things come and go. Whatever we happen to be experiencing, including unpleasant feelings, tend to pass as we relate to them in an accepting, friendly way. We may then notice a settling of our experience.
Things calm down inside as we no longer succumb to the reactive mode of fighting or fleeing from our experience — that is, from ourselves. The path forward is awakening to ourselves as we are. This includes opening to both and unpleasant feelings and sensations that are a part of being human.
As such experiences arise and pass away, we may tap into a deep pool of stillness that has been long neglected. Some spiritual teachers call this our “true nature” — a deeper and truer sense of who we really are, which exists below the daily dramas and trials of our lives.
Being with the full range of ourselves experience without clinging to anything or pushing anything away is a path toward loving ourselves. Also, as we awaken to ourselves as we are, we then have a more true and authentic self to show others, which creates a foundation for love and intimacy in our lives.
Flickr image by Hans-Peter