Secular Meditation: The Serenity to Accept What Could Be Changed, But Doesn't Actually Need to Be

serenity rock
“The serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

It’s the famous “serenity prayer” from Alcoholics Anonymous. Minus the prayer part, of course. And it’s a theme I keep coming back to in my secular meditation/ mindfulness practice.

A big part of this practice — both in my formal meditation sessions, and in my work to become more mindful in my everyday life — has to do with acceptance. It revolves around noticing experiences, and having them, without judging them, without trying to fix them or change them, just letting them be until they pass. If I’m meditating or working on being mindful, and I start feeling anxious, tired, jangled, bored, restless, guilty, fearful, impatient, moody for no reason, desperately overwhelmed with grief, itchy… I notice it, I let myself experience it, I return my focus to whatever I’m focusing on. (Ditto with pleasant experiences, of course… but that’s easier, I don’t have an overwhelming urge to constantly fix pleasant experiences. Although… well, I’ll get to that in a moment.)

This doesn’t mean being a doormat, or a passive sponge. In fact, since starting this practice, I’ve found that when I am working to change something, I’ve become more focused, better at prioritizing, less easily distracted, better at noticing when I have become distracted, better at drawing my attention away from whatever’s distracting me and bringing it back to my work. (More on that in a later piece I’m working on in my head, about mindfulness and anger.) Acceptance of the things I can’t change is actually fairly helpful in finding the courage to change the things I can.

The “wisdom to know the difference” part, of course, is where things get tricky. Among other things: How do you know what can’t be changed if you don’t try to change it? The world has been made immeasurably better, in countless ways, by people who looked at things that everyone else thought were immutable — lynching, legalized spousal rape, smallpox — and said, “Nope. Not accepting this. Not acceptable.” So how do you know? How do you know when you’re being a visionary, when you’re dreaming things that never were and asking “Why not?” — and when you’re just beating your head against a wall? How do you know when to stick with your dream against all odds, and when to cut your losses? It’s the “wisdom to know the difference” part that takes this relatively simple, almost ham-handedly obvious little aphorism, and turns it into a large, deep question that you ask yourself dozens of times a day, and never stop asking for as long as you’re alive.

So, yeah. Serenity to accept what I can’t change; courage to change what I can; wisdom to know the difference. Awesome. But there’s a fourth thing I’ve been getting and learning from this practice, something they don’t mention in the serenity prayer saying, and it’s something I’m finding to be hugely important and even transformative:

The serenity to accept things that I could change, but that don’t actually need to be changed.

The serenity to accept minor annoyances. The serenity to notice that I’m bored, and to simply sit with my boredom, instead of immediately looking for something to do; to notice that I’m anxious, and to simply sit with my anxiety, instead of immediately looking for something to soothe it; to notice that I’m sad, and to simply sit with my sadness, instead of immediately looking for something to relieve it or distract me from it. The serenity to simply experience my life, instead of constantly tinkering with it to try to make it just a little bit better. The serenity — and the wisdom too, I guess — to realize that even if this tinkering does slightly improve my momentary condition or mood, being in a constant state of tinkering has a significant detrimental affect on my quality of life: it adds to my restlessness, my anxiety, my feeling of being jangled and overwhelmed.

Here’s the thing. Or here’s a thing, anyway. If the focus of my life is less on pleasure or achievement, and more on simply being present in it… than just about any experience is an opportunity for that. I can be present, aware, in the moment, no matter where I am or what I’m doing or how I’m feeling. I’m not going to say that any experience is as good as any other — I don’t think that. Some experiences are more deeply satisfying than others, and they’re worth seeking out and creating, for myself and for others. And, of course, some experiences are worth avoiding, and working to eliminate, for myself and for others. You know — lynching, legalized spousal rape, smallpox, that sort of thing. But just about any experience is an opportunity for… well, for experience. Waiting in line; having a headache; missing my father; feeling tired and discouraged; sitting on a bus staring out the window at an ugly industrial landscape… I can be present with all of this. All of it is an opportunity to fully experience the un-fucking-believably lucky accident of having been born, and getting to be alive and conscious.

And what I’m finding is that, when I’m not constantly tinkering with every little piece of anxiety or tiredness or jangled nerves or boredom or restlessness or guilt or fear or impatience or moodiness or grief or itchiness, I have more energy for the “courage to change the things I can” stuff. The constant tinkering isn’t just emotionally exhausting — it’s literally exhausting. It takes time and energy.

Not sure where I’m going with this, so I think I’m just going to let it peter out. Accepting things that I could change, but that don’t actually need to be changed. A cool thing. Thumbs up.

Secular Meditation: The Serenity to Accept What Could Be Changed, But Doesn't Actually Need to Be
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10 thoughts on “Secular Meditation: The Serenity to Accept What Could Be Changed, But Doesn't Actually Need to Be

  1. 1

    Interesting post! I’m trying to work on mindfulness at the moment and your reports are always worth reading.

    In this one we seem to have reached a rather more useful version of “not sweating the small stuff”.

  2. 3

    I first thought you were writing about external events – I could fix this doorknob, but it’s not really my problem – which I’m getting better at.
    For the emotional states I think the problem is that we don’t actually change the emotions, but distract ourselves from them. At least anxiety, despair etc stay with us, even if we try to ignore them.
    I’ll catch up on your mindfulness tag, and look forward to any good advice on how-to, as I find this very challenging. Thanks for sharing.

  3. 4

    Great post. I have been experimenting with mindfulness. It is difficult and takes a lot of discipline to just be with your emotions instead of letting them take you for a ride, especially when you have an anxiety disorder like me! But, I am progressing. Thank you for this post. It’s very enlightening. I especially like what you say at the end:

    when I’m not constantly tinkering with every little piece of anxiety or tiredness or jangled nerves or boredom or restlessness or guilt or fear or impatience or moodiness or grief or itchiness, I have more energy for the “courage to change the things I can’ stuff.”

    So very true! When I get caught in my worry, it absolutely drains me and then I don’t have the energy to focus on solving the problems I’m worrying about (or the problems I’m not paying attention to because I’m too busy worrying about things that aren’t really problems). Anyway, thanks!

  4. 5

    I agree 100%, and would add a thing: you gesture toward the wisdom available when taking the opportunity not to change one of those things that doesn’t actually need to be changed. But I think it worth more than a gesture. When I sit, cross-legged, and notice the pain in my knees, or in my back, or the itch on my face, or the desire to pause and jot down that brilliant thought that just crossed through my mind – when I notice the impulse to act – to move, to scratch, to jot – but I don’t act on it? Right there is wisdom that has served me so well in other moments in life where discomfort was inevitable. I’ve learned deeply, in a felt way, that itches pass, that aches pass. That they’re endurable, and what’s more, interesting. (Who knew, for example, just how different the pain in my right knee is from that in my left? That there are dozens of types of itches, some of which consist of vibrating sensations of temperature, and others of which feel like little tickles, or insects? That some are hot, some are sharp, and some are painful?

    All this knowledge brings with it wisdom that makes life both more bearable and richer for me.

    Thanks for this!

  5. 7

    You are becoming more Buddhist every day 🙂

    …and I have stopped arguing with you in my head about this — especially while I am trying myself to meditate — because you seem to be doing very well as it is; in other words, you don’t seem to be missing out hugely by not using explicitly Buddhist concepts.

    I remain somewhat uneasy about this movement to do mindfulness meditation etc. without acknowledging that it is entirely based on a tradition that was developed and preserved for a couple of thousand years by assorted Asians in an essentially religious context — but if that is what it takes for some more people to benefit from it, hey, Buddhism does have an esplicit concept of “skilful means” that I’m sure encompasses this as well!

    Signed, a Buddhist atheist, or atheist Buddhist, who is working on what exactly that means 🙂

  6. 9

    sciamannata @ #6: Um…. thanks?

    A couple of things, though. First, it’s just flatly untrue that MBSR and other secular forms of meditation/ mindfulness are, quote, “entirely” based on Asian religion traditions. For one thing, some form of meditation seems to have been developed independently by several different cultures, and is practiced in several religious traditions. Also, and rather more importantly: In addition to the Asian (and other) religious traditions it’s based on, MBSR is largely based on something very different and very important — namely, medical science. It’s based on double-blinded, placebo-controlled, peer-reviewed, replicated research, examining which of these many millenia-old techniques actually accomplish something, and which are about as useful as bloodletting or exorcism. That’s a a pretty significant departure from the religious tradition.

    And that’s exactly the reason I’m talking about this in a secular framework. I’m sure there are a lot of people who would be interested in meditation/ mindfulness, and who might benefit from it, but who are put off by the religious trappings that are so often attached to it, which makes them hostile to it or suspicious of it or both. I was one of those people, for years. So I’m deliberately writing about my experiences from a purely secular angle.

    It’s a funny thing. One of the most common criticisms aimed at atheists is, “Look at all the wonderful things religion gives people! Community, social support, comfort in hard times, ritual and tradition, music, art, meditation! People need that!” Then, when we point out that you can have every one of these things without religion, people holler, “Wait! You can’t take the religion out of these traditions and practices! You’re trying to take Christ out of Christmas!” (Or religion out of meditation, or whatever.) We can’t win.

    Oh, and one more thing that I feel compelled to say here. From “Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless”:

    80. I’m angry that, in many Buddhist monasteries, children as young as ten years old are inducted as novice monks. I’m angry that children who can’t possibly understand the tenets and demands of the religion are recruited into devoting their lives to it. And I’m especially angry because the children who become novice monks are typically among the most impoverished — and they’re drawn into abandoning secular life and devoting their lives to the monastery, not out of a sincere religious calling, but out of a need for food and shelter.
    81. I’m angry that the current Dalai Lama said that sex can only provide short-term pleasure and is inherently destructive in the long term, even leading to suicide and murder; that all forms of sexuality other than penis-in-vagina intercourse are banned by Buddhist teachings; and that, although he supports the tolerance of gay people, he sees homosexual sex as “wrong,” “unwholesome,” a “bad action,” “vices,” “not acceptable from a Buddhist point of view,” and “contrary to Buddhist ethics.”
    82. I’m angry that, in Sri Lanka, the Buddhist majority has perpetrated intimidation, vandalism, violence against Christians and Christian churches.
    83. And I’m angry that, when criticisms of religion are leveled, Buddhism all too often gets a free pass. I’m angry that the Westernized version of Buddhism typically ignores or dismisses these abuses. I’m angry that the versions of Buddhism practiced in Nepal or Thailand or Sri Lanka get treated as marginal or trivial, while the version of Buddhism practiced in California is somehow seen as the true faith.

    So… yeah. “Becoming more Buddhist”? Not so much. If you want to be an atheist Buddhist, go right ahead. I have no more objections to that than I do to secular Judaism or cultural Catholicism. But as for me… nope. Fuck that noise. Fuck it right in the arse.

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