Acceptance: An Unconditional Yes
David Richo, Ph.D.
The word yes sums up spirituality and sanity. An unconditional yes to what is frees us from the self-imposed suffering that results when we fear facing the givens of life. Yes is born of trust and heals fear. This
is because we are acknowledging that whatever happens to us is part of our story and useful on our path. Our yes to the conditions of existence means getting on with life rather than being caught up in dispute and in attempts to gain control of how things play out.
When things change and end, we become trusting of the cycles of life as steps to evolutionary growth. Yes alleviates our suffering by freeing us
from clinging to anything at all. When things do not go according to our plans, we stretch our potential for trusting a power beyond our ego. Our ego’s futile and ferocious attempts to make everything come out its own way give way to letting the chips fall where they may. Yes
frees us from the suffering caused by the compulsion to be in charge.
When things are not fair, we evoke our potential to act fairly no matter what. This means trusting a power beyond our ego, with all its
insistence on retaliation and its petulant demands for equity. A yes to this third given frees us from the suffering that happens when we are caught up in getting back at people and when we hold grudges. When pain enters our life, we activate our potential for facing it
without complaint, and we gain compassion for others who also suffer. A yes to this fourth given frees us from the suffering that comes from useless protest. When people are not loyal or loving toward us, we enliven our potential for unconditional love. A yes frees us from
the suffering caused by our need to hurt or reject those who have disappointed us.
Fear is a no to what is. To fear the givens is to be afraid of life, since they are its components. Fear prevents us from experiencing life
fully and living in the moment by creating avoidance and attraction. We avoid what is unpleasant and we grasp at whatever makes us feel good. The Buddhist tradition encourages us to take a middle path. The chart below shows the work that installs us in this “golden mean,” as
the ancient Romans called it.
Things change and end.
Things don’t always go according to plan.
Things are not always fair.
Pain is part of life.
People are not loving and loyal all the time.
Each of these conditions of existence equips us with a handy skill. Since it is a given that people leave us, it becomes a given that we will be
alone, so it is wise to plan for that by becoming comfortable being by ourselves right now. Since it is a given that things do not always go according to plan, it is a given that we will be disappointed, so it is wise to become comfortable with fewer expectations. Since it is
a given that things are not always fair, it is a given that we will occasionally feel cheated, so it is wise to become comfortable with grieving losses, with working for justice, and with letting go of the urge to retaliate. Since it is a given that pain is part of life, it
is a given that we will do best to become comfortable with bearing it and growing because of it. Since it is a given that people are not always loyal and loving, it is wise to let go of censure and become committed to loving-kindness no matter how others may treat us.
Yes to life’s givens thus combines defenselessness with resourcefulness. Yes means we are open to the events that befall us, defenseless in the
face of them. At the same time, we are not bowled over by what happens to us. We are resourceful in dealing with them; we do all we can to handle the givens we face. Then we let the chips fall where they may. Soon we pick them up one by one and place our bets again.
There is a vitality in us, a sparkle—a bonfire, actually—that cannot be extinguished by any tragedy. Something in us, an urge toward wholeness,
a passion for evolving, makes us go on, start over, not give up, not give in. To accept the things we cannot change does not mean that we roll over but that we roll on. Openness and creative resourcefulness happen synchronously each time we are confronted with one of the
givens. Some people write their best poems when they suffer.
The practice of an unconditional yes is the heart of the ancient spiritual tradition of Taoism. Wu wei is a Taoist term meaning to go with the
flow of things as they are. This reduces the friction and stress that arise when we resist reality as it wants to happen. In my view, the ancient spiritual teachings and practices of Taoism form a technology of cultivating an unconditional yes to life’s givens.
The Taoist teacher Han Hung wrote, “The biggest risk is to trust that these conditions are all that we need to be ourselves.” This is a profound
realization of the connection between our unconditional yes and our trust that the conditions of existence are precisely what we need for personal growth and fulfillment. The givens of life show us who we really are and help us be the best we can be:
• Only in changes and endings do we find out how we hold on or let go.
• Only in failed plans do we find out about a larger plan afoot that has our best interests at heart, trusting the heartfulness of the universe and discovering
our spiritual potential.
• Only when things are not fair do we find our dark side, which seeks retaliation, or our kindly side, which looks for restoration and lets go if it cannot
• Only when we suffer do we find our courage and our depth and learn compassion for others’ suffering.
• Only when others are disloyal and unloving do we find out if we can really love unconditionally.
An unconditional yes is a spiritual victory. There are spiritual practices that help us reach it. These practices make it easier to live with
our givens instead of against them.
A useful practice is to see all the events of our lives and all the conditions we meet up with as dharmas, doors into enlightenment, lessons in
humanity, paths to virtue. Each of the givens offers a spiritual challenge. When things change or end, we can grieve and let go rather than shake our fist at heaven. When things do not go according to plan, we can open to new possibilities, some from destiny, some from karma.
When things prove unfair, we can work for justice and not retaliate against others but focus on their transformation. When suffering comes our way, we can experience it without protest or blame or the demand that we be exempted. When others are not loving or loyal, we can
practice loving-kindness. In the face of any given we say yes mindfully, that is, without the mind-sets of ego: fear, judgment, control, and attachment to an outcome.
Loving-kindness is the widest unconditional yes because it is a love that includes the whole universe. Then unconditional love as a remedy for
fear of others and all the mindsets of ego. The practice of loving-kindness presupposes that we are all interconnected and helps make that fact conscious and real in the moment. This is the culmination of acceptance: love that is unbounded and abounding.
Copyright © David
Richo, Ph.D. This article is excerpted from The Five Things We Cannot Change (Shambhala, 2005).
David Richo, Ph.D., M.F.T., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and writer in
Santa Barbara and San Francisco California who emphasizes Jungian,
transpersonal, and spiritual perspectives in his work. He is the author of:
The Five Things We Cannot Change (Shambhala, 2005), How To Be An Adult (Paulist, 1991), When Love Meets Fear (Paulist, 1997),
Unexpected Miracles: The Gift of Synchronicity and How to Open It
(Crossroad,1998) , Shadow Dance: Liberating the Power and Creativity of Your
Dark Side (Shambhala, 1999) and Catholic Means Universal: Integrating
Spirituality and Religion (Crossroad, 2000). For
a catalog of David Richo’s tapes and events, please