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"Accepting-What-Is" vs. "Striving-for-Change"

Sometimes the most mundane examples are the best for illustrating bigger concepts, so bear with me as explore this idea of acceptance and appreciation verses seeking change.

As I was sitting on the couch in my living room last Sunday afternoon, my eyes wandered from one thing to the next, looking to see what else could be done to make our home feel even cozier and nicer. My husband and I had spent the afternoon doing a bit of rearranging and adding more houseplants to the mix, so my eye for “What-could-be-even-better?” was particularly sharp.

“Were there too many pictures on the wall?” I wondered. “If the cart stacked up w paperwork was better organized, would it look a lot better? Did the musical instrument bin next to the kid’s “play piano” look too cluttered?”

For whatever reason, I suddenly stopped myself in my tracks of “what-could-be-better” and wondered what it would feel like to look around our house with a different lens---one that simply noticed everything beautiful about it and noted the improvements we had already made.

As my eyes jumped from a lush houseplant, to a beautiful new print on the wall, to the old casement windows, it felt so wonderful to take in all the eclectic things I love about our home. Even the semi-cluttered cart in the corner I started to see as a something that made the place feel homey instead of sterile.

Of course this accepting and appreciative way of looking around the room created much greater pleasure and peace within myself. Wouldn’t it then be best to reside in this state as much as possible when it comes to pretty much everything in life? To let that warm-Thanksgiving-gratitude feeling melt into every waking moment?

However, there’s also another inner voice that I can’t ignore---the one that knows that making those improvements, either in the form of a complete overhaul or a series of tweaks---can make all the difference (and I’m not just talking about houseplants here).

Often, these periods of asking, “what could be better,” bring about changes that we can later appreciate that much more than if we had never made them.

I’ve always felt a rub between this idea of self-development verses acceptance, between the modern self-help movement, relentlessly striving for self-improvement and traditional Buddhist philosophies that teach us to “be present with what is”.

I help clients fine-tune various aspects of their lives, change habits and learn skills and techniques to make those improvements easier. Yet, I also guide them in visualizations to deepen their sense of appreciation for what is. And I’ve sometimes wondered, are these two approaches at odds?

I’m sure many of you have heard Reinhold Niebuhr’s quote: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I’ve always loved this quote, but now more than ever it felt so fitting.

What suddenly dawned on me as I sat on that Sunday afternoon couch was that there didn’t need to be a rub between acceptance and change, that actually the dance between the two is what it’s all about!

For me, the problem occurs when I get too locked into one way of seeing it, when I get so focused on how I or whatever else could be better that I forget to take the time to really let appreciation sink in.

Conversely, when I get stuck in “accept-and-appreciate” mode, I sometimes catch myself not striving for the changes that are worth making.

A lot of the work I do with my coaching clients is helping figure out which situations call for which approach (or some combination of both). I’ll ask questions like. “Is there something that you’ve just been tolerating?” “Is there anything you’d wish were different but you thought it wasn’t possible or figured it’d be too much work and energy to change?”

If the answer is yes, then it might be time for that more discerning lens---the one that helps to fine-tune and level-up, in order to create change beyond what you thought was possible.

Alternatively, I’ll ask, “Are you almost obsessively looking for the things that aren’t right about your life, that could use improvement? Are you giving yourself any time to enjoy the progress you’ve already made, or to simply rest in the peace of acceptance and appreciation?”

If that’s the case, it might be time to shift lenses. It’s important for our nervous system and hearts to put on those “rose-colored glasses” from time to time, to highlight all the things in your life that you feel appreciative for, even the things that aren’t “perfect” or exactly as we want them.

The added benefit is that when we get used to seeing the world more often through this lens, it becomes easier to then see the benefits in even life’s challenges.

For me the take-away from our afternoon of home improvements was that both are helpful---to seek to tweak and improve AND to enjoy active appreciation. That actually there wasn’t necessarily a rub between the two---that they both serve a very important purpose, and that the wisdom is in being able to shift back and forth between the two.

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