That ‘Old Philosopher’ and poet of Ancient China, Lao Tzu said, “The acceptable and the unacceptable are both acceptable.”
This means to take life as it is. Sounds simple. Well, it is easy to accept the acceptable, but to accept what is unacceptable seems counter-intuitive to normal way of thinking. What is unacceptable is undesirable, unsatisfactory, intolerable, unreasonable – why would we want to embrace that?
If we look at it from a psychological point of view, it is important to be in touch with our negativity. We cannot overcome anger, sadness or other bad feelings unless we deal with them. Buddhism teaches that suffering comes from our thoughts and feelings, so it seems rather obvious that denial is not a strategy we want to employ. We can expand this to cover just about everything else in life.
Early Buddhists developed a meditation practice designed to help us accept the unacceptable. It is called Kammatthana, a Pali word that means “basis of meditation” or “place of work”. These are meditation subjects suited to individual temperaments and inclinations.
Buddhaghosa, in his epic meditation text Visuddhi-magga (“Path of Purification”) listed 40 kammatthanas, and they range from subjects such as the non-existence of a permanent self and the idea of friendliness to some really unacceptable ones like the impurity and wretchedness of life and a the idea of a corpse in a state of decomposition.
Buddhaghosa wrote, “When the mind is familiar with the perception of foulness, then even divine objects do not tempt a person to greed.”
I have never meditated on the idea of a rotting corpse, and I don’t I ever shall. But I do get the intention behind it.
The first step in accepting the unacceptable is recognizing that to divide things into acceptable and unacceptable, good and bad, and so on, is dualistic thinking. That is not as simple as it sounds, either. It is difficult to undo thought patterns that are nearly habitual. A way to break down this wall of duality that might be more helpful than corpse contemplation might be to just do away with the idea of unacceptable, tear down the concept of foulness.
To give you an example, one of the most unacceptable things in life is illness. Definitely one of the worst problems we can have. In his book, Ultimate Healing, Lama Zopa Rinpoche advises us that “To transform our problems into happiness, we have to learn to see them as pleasant.”
He goes on to say that to see problems as problems, illness as illness, unacceptable as unacceptable has many disadvantages and that we can turn it around if we meditate on the benefits of problems, which is probably a more difficult notion to hold in the mind than the idea of a corpse.
I don’t think I need to discuss the various ways in which embracing the unacceptable is beneficial. If you open your mind, they will come to you. When it comes to thoughts and emotions, we must be willing to experience even our negative thoughts and emotions fully. We can’t allow ourselves to reject them as invalid. Everything is valid. Whatever arises in our life is acceptable. Take life as it is.