Living Mindfully: The Serenity Prayer

Life's tough. It's even tougher if you're stupid.

 —  John Wayne

Probably the best single piece of advice on how to escape an addictive 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 your behaviors and attitudes, but you need the motivation, courage, and skill to exercise this control.
  • You do not control most everything else, including the past, what other people think and do, and the outcomes of your efforts. Allowing your emotions to depend on things you do not control drains you of power.

This Stoic Wisdom that will help you know whether to accept the things that happen or to invest your energies to bring about change. Remember: The things you can change include your thoughts and actions; the things you cannot change include the past, what other people think and do, and pretty much everything else. For more on this see: Attachment

Acceptance & Being Mode

Since you cannot control the events that happen nor your initial reaction to those events it is important to develop the skill to accept what you do not like but have no power to change. The Buddhist solution is to practice non-reactive acceptance. This mode of relating to subjective phenomena  — "awareness of present experience with acceptance" — is called, Mindfulness.

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. Mindfulness involves switching to Being Mode and simply notice whatever experience that comes to awareness and accept that that is the case. No cognitive resources are spent evaluating the experience or figuring out how to achieve a particular outcome.

Training the puppy to accept the things it cannot change

You inhabit a creature that has been dealt a particular genetic makeup, conditioning history, and current social circumstance. You do not control the events that happen or your initial emotional reactions to those events. Have some humility; accept the fact that you are just a biological creature driven by instinctual and conditioned fears and desires.

There is nothing sinful, defective, or wrong about craving pleasure or relief 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.

The Paradox of Doing Mode: Paradoxically, wanting good outcome [attachment to outcomes] produces emotionality and thereby state-dependent distortions, and the more you want it the greater are the state-dependent distortions. The stoics would advise you to forget about the outcome and focus on good performance.

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 motivation to fix it. Developing the capability to shift from Doing Mode to Being Mode can awaken you from the autonomous behavioral sequence in which you are driven to use the incentive as a coping strategy.

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.

You are facing a great challenge and it is important that the creature you inhabit be as strong and resourceful as possible. Your job as the caretaker and trainer of this creature is to do everything you can to help it become strong and skillful.

To cope with the reality that this creature is predisposed to attempt to change the things it cannot change, you can practice changing your perspective from that of the creature to that of the creature's caretaker — aka, the puppy trainer.



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