Living Mindfully: The Serenity Prayer

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

 —  Reinhold Niebuhr

Probably the best single piece of advice on how to escape a neurotic trap is the Serenity Prayer: 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.

Here is the wisdom:

  • You do control, or at least can have an intentional influence on, your behaviors and attitudes.
  • You do not control most everything else, including the past, what other people think and do, and the outcomes of your efforts.

This Stoic Wisdom that will help you know whether to accept the things that happen or to invest your energies to bring about change. The Serenity Prayer is a great tool to promote the passage from the mentality of childhood [characterized by strong emotional reactions to the things that happen] to more advanced cognitive strategies such as described by the Serenity Prayer.

Remember: Your primary loyalty is to your core motivation. It is important to free up as much energy for that as possible. Allowing your emotions to depend on things you do not control drains you of power.

Acceptance & Being Mode

When something happens that you do not like but have no power to change, what is the alternative to acceptance? Bad and good things will happen to you over which you will have no control. You will not even be able to control your initial reaction to those events. So what choice do you have other than to develop the skill to accept the things that happen — without trying to fix it, evaluate it, or work on it in any way.

The Buddhist path is to practice non-reactive acceptance. This mode of relating to subjective phenomena — "awareness of present experience with acceptance." In Buddhist terminology, we are usually in problem-solving mode, so if we experience any discomfort we automatically try to evaluate the problem and solve it. An alternative way of relating to subjective experience is Being Mode and simply notice whatever experience that comes to awareness and be here now.

Training the puppy to accept the things it cannot change

There is nothing sinful, defective, or wrong about craving pleasure or relief, especially when stressed. That is what living creatures do. Nor is there anything wrong with being vulnerable to the PIG, or perverse motivation, or the Karma of your past behaviors. Rather than be taken in by these traps, you can change your perspective and observe your subjective experiences with non-reactive acceptance and be open to what nature is trying to teach you about cause-and-effect.

Needless to say, non-reactive acceptance is not the typical way of reacting to the things that happen — especially when they are painful or frustrating. Discomfort automatically elicits the motivation to seek relief. In fact, we have done so much problem solving that Doing is the default mode. So getting yourself to respond to discomfort with non-reactive acceptance requires some doing.

The Being Mode exercises described in Awakening will help you develop the serenity to accept the things you cannot change without judgment or compulsion to fix it. Developing the capability to shift from Doing Mode to Being Mode can awaken you from self-sabotaging, autonomous sequences of external events and internal states.

The Courage to Bring About Change

The goal is not to be passive, but to spare yourself the wasted effort and emotionality of trying to change the things you cannot change. Doing Mode has its place. While you may not be able to control the things to happen to you and the initial emotional reaction these events elicit, you can change your perspective and thinking patterns.

Paradoxically, self-sabotage is motivated by the desire to fix the problem. Ruminations tend to focus on the problem and what caused it and how it will be in the future, etc. While this kind of thinking appears to be problem solving it never reaches a solution. Instead of trying to fix the problem, or blaming self or others for its cause, the mindfulness solution is to dispassionately observe the ongoing cognitive events and accept that it is your current experience. Non-reactive acceptance of the experience disables the neurotic trap.

The creature you inhabit is facing an important and demanding challenge. Your job as the caretaker of this creature is to do everything you can to help it become as strong and resourceful as possible. Experienced puppy trainers know that puppies are predisposed to strong emotional reactions to the things that happen, even when they had no control over them. As a kind and competent caretaker, you want the creature to suffer as little unnecessary pain as possible, so you will gently help it practice acceptance.

You will always have problems. This course is successful if it allows you to trade one set of problems for a more interesting set. The next section focuses on one of the most interesting of problems: Deciding what is important to you. To act in accord with your interests and principles, you have to know what they are. Most people don't.


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