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guest post by Logan Thompson, from his book Beyond the Content: Mindfulness as a Test Prep Advantage
Acceptance is an essential ingredient of mindfulness. The present moment is happening. Wishing that it weren't, or denying it, is nonsensical. It's like wishing that it weren't raining while it's raining. Or worse, denying that it's raining while it's raining. When we fight with reality, we lose.
The most common pushback I hear from students is, "How will I ever improve if I just stay complacent with the way things are?" They think that acceptance equates to future resignation. But accepting that this moment is happening doesn't preclude us from trying to shape the next moment. If you want to change a habit or a behavior or a situation, it's even more important to accept the way it is at the moment. We always have to start from where we are.
Another reason to cultivate acceptance is that, paradoxically, it makes unpleasant situations more bearable. One study done at Leeds Beckett University in the UK lends support to this. Two groups were instructed to place their hands in buckets of ice water. One group was given mindfulness instructions, and the other wasn't. The group that heard mindfulness instructions reported less pain and less anxiety than did the control group.
It's an understandable response to try to make an unpleasant situation go away, but sometimes we have to be in unpleasant situations. And resisting them only amplifies the unpleasantness.
Acceptance makes us stronger. Most of us habitually try to avoid pain — emotional, physical, any kind. That's healthy in extreme circumstances. It keeps us alive. It keeps us away from danger. But many of us spend a disproportionate amount of our lives avoiding pain — shifting our posture when we feel the slightest discomfort, or engaging in coping mechanisms or distractions when we think or feel something uncomfortable. Every moment and ounce of energy we spend on avoidance, we drain from engaging in anything that could help us reach our goal. There's an opportunity cost to avoidance.
Let's take a very simple example. You're studying, and you feel slightly hungry, slightly bored, and slightly discouraged. It would be so easy to want to protect yourself from those feelings and go get something to eat, watch TV, anything to not feel those things. This process often happens below your level of consciousness. You may just find yourself walking to the kitchen or turning on the TV, without remembering getting up.
Or let's say that after spending a couple of minutes on an algebra problem for homework, you start to get frustrated because you don't think you can figure out the answer.
You know you should stay with it to try to discover the answer on your own for another minute or so. But you know that the answers in the back of the book are a few pages away, offering you some respite from the uncomfortable feeling of not knowing. At the same time, this respite will also rob you of a deeper learning experience — discovering the answer on your own. This is just one of many situations that would benefit from your acceptance.
If you're mindful of the unpleasantness, it's possible to just feel and notice and accept it. Oh, this is boredom and hunger and discouragement. It feels unpleasant. And that's it! Sometimes there's nothing else you have to do. Accept it as it is. Then continue your studying. You can begin to treat unpleasant emotions and sensations as the bucket of ice water.
Excerpt from Beyond the Content: Mindfulness as a Test Prep Advantage, by Logan Thompson. (2019) Kaplan Publishing