Today’s article is a guest post from Dr. Larry Berkelhammer, who has learned the power of mindfulness and self-acceptance, even through his own diagnoses of several chronic illnesses. Dr. Berkelhammer has spent 19 years teaching clients how to manage their pain with mind training techniques. His background is in psychotherapy, applied psychophysiology, and applied psychoneuroimmunology.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson once complained to his physician that he felt depressed. The doctor recommended a long sea voyage. Emerson took his advice and at the end of the journey wrote in his diary: “It didn’t work; when I got off the ship in Naples, the first person I met was myself!”
Resistance Breeds Persistence
The uncomfortable or frightening thoughts, mental images, sensations, or emotions that arise naturally within all of us have the potential to do tremendous harm, but only if we try to resist or reject them. When we resist or defend against them, and employ strategies to avoid the discomfort they generate, instead of feeling relief, we feel more stressed out.
Giving up the struggle to resist or avoid unpleasant thoughts, sensations, and emotions is not a nihilistic acceptance of suffering. In fact, acceptance of what we don’t want serves to reduce the suffering that results from the fear of experiencing those unpleasant thoughts, sensations, and emotions.
Brain Droppings was the name of a book by George Carlin, one of the most intelligent comedians in the last hundred years. Our painful thoughts are nothing but “brain droppings.”
We can think of these thoughts as simple secretions of the brain; like the secretion of hormones, enzymes, and other information molecules, they are natural physiological processes.
Once we recognize that uncomfortable thoughts, images, sensations, and emotions are harmless secretions of the brain, we can begin to allow ourselves to fully experience them. The more we do so and accept the experience, the stronger we become psychologically and physiologically. Self-acceptance can only be found when we are willing to live in full contact with our inner subjective experiences.
Mindfulness practice is inherently conducive to self-acceptance because self-acceptance is a byproduct of the mindfulness skill of recognizing thoughts as transient mental events or constructs.
Applying recognition and acceptance skills, in turn, leads to mastery & wellbeing, and we become more willing to fully experience our inner subjective events. It is a self-reinforcing system. When we allow ourselves to accept our inner experiences, we gain confidence that we can handle them. This, too, leads to increased self-acceptance, mastery, and wellbeing.
Living Our Personal Values
If we’re involved in activities that aren’t in harmony with our personal life values or that seem meaningless, we become self-critical instead of self-accepting. But if we live each day so that at the end of it we feel good about how we lived it—if we have a sense of satisfaction that we made someone else’s life better, for example—it’s only natural to believe that our life has meaning. Self-acceptance, mastery, and wellbeing are products of such a way of life.
The Usefulness of Fears and Aversions
Approached mindfully, our fears and aversions serve a purpose that deepens self-acceptance practice. The key is to view them as interesting growth opportunities rather than as things to reject and avoid.
Over time, we become less likely to attempt to reject those parts of ourselves—and this, too, contributes to self-acceptance. When we increase our awareness through increased perception, we find fewer things about ourselves that engender aversion and fear in the first place.
A corollary to this is that when we engage in mindfulness practice over time, we generate fewer of the negative attributions that create aversion and fears.
Chronic Illness and Acceptance
Because fears and aversions naturally arise when we live with chronic medical challenges, these conditions can offer opportunities to learn how to live with greater acceptance of our experiences and of ourselves. Cancer survivor, psychotherapist, and mindfulness teacher Elana Rosenbaum put it this way: “It became clear that the more I could let go and accept these limitations the better I felt and the freer I became. The more I lived in the present moment as it was, rather than what I wished it would be, the happier I felt.”
Unpleasant Emotions Can Guide Us
The greatest value of unpleasant states is that they help us identify our values and needs. For example, anger can serve to inform us that we are fused with the belief that the situation or other person should be different in some way. Sadness can let us know that something we value was lost, or not achieved or acquired. Shame tells us that we are self-judging ourselves as flawed.
If we fail to accept all these rich inner-life experiences, we are practicing self-rejection rather than acceptance.
by Larry Berkelhammer
To read more from Dr. Berkelhammer, visit http://www.larryberkelhammer.com.