No Mud, No Lotus: Why Growth Can’t Happen Without Self-Acceptance First
Without the murky depths of dark, sticky mud where the lotus flower puts down its roots, the beautiful and delicate lotus blossom could never emerge.
How can my body be smaller?
How can my salary be higher?
How can my house be larger?
There’s literally no end to the possible variations. So much of our culture is steeped in this mindset that it’s almost impossible to see outside of it. Like a fish swimming in green water, we simply see the world with a minty tinge. In our case, that minty tinge is the perpetual question, “How can I be better than what I am right now?”
But what if instead of being better than we are, we simply focused on accepting ourselves as we are—right here, right now, in this present moment? In many ways, this is a radical idea, yet it’s been a part of wisdom traditions the world over for centuries, and it’s an essential part of real growth.
The Argument for Acceptance
For some, it may sound like blasphemy to simply accept things as they are. Shouldn’t we strive to change our circumstances? Shouldn’t we aim to be the best version of ourselves that we can? If we simply accept life as it is, what will there be to work toward? What will we even do with ourselves? The reality is that acceptance is actually the first step in any real growth. This is because growth can’t happen unless we first acknowledge where we’re at.
Sidestepping the hard stuff
Otherwise, we may be engaging in spiritual bypassing, a form of avoiding, denying, or repressing difficulty as a way to cope. Unfortunately, this is a band-aid approach that doesn’t lead to real healing.
Getting real with our actual situation, whether it’s the too-small apartment, the dead-end job, or the undesirable character trait, is essential before any kind of sustainable change can take place.
Being with what is
As the adage goes in many recovery programs, admitting you have a problem is the first step. For those of us who aren’t in recovery, we might say that “admitting you are you is the first step.”
In her book, “The Wisdom of No Escape,” Buddhist master Pema Chödrön writes that meditation is the art and practice of being “with oneself without embarrassment or harshness.”
This means that rather than immediately reacting to our perceived shortcomings, flaws, or idiosyncrasies, we can simply learn to be with them.
“If we see our so-called limitations with clarity, precision, gentleness, goodheartedness, and kindness and, having seen them fully, then let go, open further, we begin to find that our world is more vast and more refreshing and fascinating than we had realized before,” Chödrön writes.
By stopping and accepting instead of rushing to change, fix, achieve, or accumulate, acceptance opens us up to a whole new way of seeing the world.
In many cases, we may realize the richness of experience we felt we were lacking is right in front of our eyes. There’s actually nothing to strive for at all.
“In other words, the key to feeling more whole and less shut off and shut down is to be able to see clearly who we are and what we’re doing,” says Chödrön.
Unearthing What Hides in the Shadow
Shame and self-loathing is what prevents most of us from taking good care of ourselves. At the same time, it isn’t always obvious, because shame likes to hide in the shadows.
We go to great lengths to stuff down and hide our self-loathing, including food, sex, drugs, TV, or any number of numbing and distracting agents that help us not feel those uncomfortable, painful feelings.
But the strange and counterintuitive thing is those feelings are a gold mine of self-knowledge, self-understanding, and freedom.
“The problem is that the desire to change is fundamentally a form of aggression toward yourself,” writes Chödrön. “The other problem is that our hangups, unfortunately or fortunately, contain our wealth.”
This is echoed in the famous Buddhist saying, “No mud, no lotus.”
The lotus blossom is a symbol of enlightenment, but the lotus flower makes its home in wet, swampy environments. Without the murky depths of dark, sticky mud where the lotus flower puts down its roots, the beautiful and delicate lotus blossom could never emerge.
“Our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material,” Chödrön goes on. “If you throw out your neurosis, you also throw out your wisdom.”
Self-acceptance, then, is the practice of sitting with ourselves long enough to hear the inner voice that we’re constantly running from, including the pain, the heartbreak, the self-derision, and the fear.
In her book, “Women, Food, and God,” Geneen Roth writes of the wisdom and insight that came out of her experience of years of disordered eating.
“Diets are the outpicturing of your belief that you have to atone for being yourself to be worthy of existing,” she writes. “Until the belief is understood and questioned, no amount of weight loss will touch the part of you that is convinced it is damaged.”
Instead, Roth argues that we must come to know ourselves intimately before the pain of our relationship with food, or any kind of suffering, can be unraveled.
“We feel the feelings not so that we can blame our parents…and express our anger to everyone we’ve never confronted, but because unmet feelings obscure our ability to know ourselves,” she writes.
Once we meet those feelings, acknowledge them, and accept them, they have no reason to stick around anymore.
Chödrön calls this “making friends with yourself,” a process that takes the precision of self-reflection as well as abundant kindness.
“As you work with being…as precise as you can and simultaneously as kind as you can, the ability to let go seems to happen to you,” she writes. “The discovery of your ability to let go spontaneously arises; you don’t force it.”
This letting go is ultimately a passive act. It happens when we get so honest with ourselves, so real with our situation, that whatever “skeletons” we were hiding from no longer have a hold on us. Then we’re free.
“We are not trying to put ourselves together,” writes Roth. “We are taking who we think we are apart.”
Practical Steps to Self-Acceptance
I won’t sit here and tell you there are three easy steps to find self-acceptance. For many of us, it’s a long, sometimes painful, sometimes sublime journey that twists and turns its way through life. However, there are real steps you can take to cultivate self-acceptance.
According to Roth, it takes awareness and presence. “With awareness (the ability to know what you are feeling) and presence (the ability to inhabit a feeling while sensing that which is bigger than the feeling), it is possible to be with what you believe will destroy you without being destroyed,” she writes.
Meditation, in all its forms
For Roth, this is the practice of meditation.
“Meditation helps you discover what you love that you didn’t know you loved because you were so caught up in your mind that you didn’t realize there was anything else there,” says Roth.
Meditation can come in many forms, from formal seated meditation to any number of variations. These can include:
- walking meditation
- qi gong
- working out
- cooking with mindfulness
- body-based practices
- playing with children
- doing the laundry
The real key is that whatever activity you choose, you engage with awareness, always returning your mind to the present moment when it wanders.
“After a while, the stillness feels more like you than the top ten medleys [of your inner critic],” writes Roth. “You begin to love that which is not caught up in the hysteria. Love the stillness. Love the spaciousness. Love the peace.”
Rescripting the mind
Another exercise I’ve used extensively myself and that I share with course members and clients is rewriting negative thoughts. Essentially, this practice involves identifying your distorted, negative, or untrue thoughts, also known as Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS), and responding to them from a more realistic, objective place.
For instance, you might think, “I didn’t graduate from college. I’ll never amount to anything.”
The first step is having the awareness to identify the thought in the first place. The next step is to rescript it. That might sound like, “I don’t have a college degree, but I have tons of skills and talents. People like working with me, and I know how to get things done.” While it might seem a little silly, talking back to your thoughts has actually been shown to be effective.
For instance, a 2019 study found that reframing negative thoughts associated with exercise was shown to reduce biased thoughts about exercise, decrease indecision about exercising, and increase exercise intentions. One month later, the group who practices reframing was more active than the control group. The practice of reframing can also increase your ability to identify negative thinking in others. For instance, a 2011 study found that students who were assigned a practice of evaluating and challenging negative self-talk were more likely to advise others to challenge their negative thoughts and beliefs compared with a group who was only given a lecture on the topic.
Reframing cognitive distortions
If you want to dig into the practice of identifying and reframing cognitive distortions, it’s helpful to know the cognitive distortion categories from the psychology world.
- All or nothing thinking: No middle ground to the thought. It’s either one extreme or the other.
- Overgeneralization: Generalizing from one experience, expecting it to hold true forever.
- The mental filter: Focusing on negatives while filtering out positives.
- Diminishing the positive: Not accepting or identifying with the positive when it happens.
- Jumping to conclusions: Making negative interpretations without actual evidence.
- Catastrophizing: Expecting the worst to happen.
- Emotional reasoning: Believing the way you feel reflects reality.
- Shoulds and should nots: Holding yourself to a standard and beating yourself up if you don’t live up to it.
- Labeling: Labeling yourself based on mistakes and perceived shortcomings.
- Personalization: Assuming responsibility for things that are outside your control.
To go even deeper, you can use a tracking spreadsheet to identify, record, and respond to your thoughts. This is a powerful way to begin an active practice of self-acceptance. Another practice I give to clients is to write themselves a love letter as if they were an idealized benevolent parent. This might be The Universal Mother, God, or any concept that works for them. The letter helps clients see themselves through the eyes of this benevolent parent or divinity figure, in all their messy, joyful, imperfect beauty. So often, we’re simply too caught up in the drama of life to notice it.
The Freedom of Acceptance
Many of us are bound by our deference to a critical inner voice. It may come from a cruel or distant parent, a personal fixation on perfectionism, or any number of places. When we access the freedom of acceptance, says Chödrön, “we see how beautiful and wonderful and amazing things are, and we see how caught up we are.”
By pausing, noticing, and accepting, we can finally see the beauty underneath the mud of life.
“It isn’t that one is the bad part and one is the good part, but that it’s a kind of interesting, smelly, rich, fertile mess of stuff,” writes Chödrön. “When it’s all mixed up together, it’s us: humanness.”
To drive this home, I begin each course by introducing this quote from Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
Meeting ourselves and one another in this place of loving acceptance is the fertile soil for true transformation, of both ourselves and the world.