For all the astonishing spread of Buddhism in the West in the last 40 years, Western misunderstanding of Buddhist concepts like 'non attachment' and 'acceptance' persists. This is not really surprising, so drastic is their difference from the notions many of us grew up with (I don't mean to imply that Judeo-Christian beliefs can really be reduced to this, or that Buddhism is any less subject, perhaps, to distortions in countries where it has been institutionalised): that life was mostly unacceptably vile, we did well to reject it and aspire to more, and if we aspired hard enough there might be something better - after death.
Acceptance doesn't mean having no problem with violence, pain, cruelty or injustice, not doing anything to oppose or alleviate them. It means accepting that they're already here, right now, in this moment, and there's nothing we can do to change that; that denial achieves nothing, so we'd better practice facing up to what is and doing the best we can with it. Facing up: the hardest lesson, especially if you're, like me, a classic example of what psychologists would call an 'avoidant' personality (my very earliest memories are of shutting down, pretending: I'm not here, this isn't happening).
Learning, through Buddhist practice, that bad feelings aren't going to kill me, they only feel as if they are, that the only way out is through them, has been a deeper lesson than I've culled from any intellectual learning or from psychotherapy, a slow lesson, and one I've only learned... oh, perhaps one percent of. But still, astonishingly deep. For one reason and another, I haven't done much formal sitting meditation or hung out much with Buddhists recently. But the lesson, this deep change in one percent of me, feels irreversible.
I was thinking about this yesterday. I woke up feeling dreadful, so full of fear and despair it took me two hours to get out of bed (I'm mostly just very tired, really - horribly, horribly tired). I felt so awful, got up and went to work thinking, can I cope with this and carry on? And, as the day went on, to my surprise, I felt better... much better... maybe turned a corner - felt this, I realised, not because anything had changed, but because I'd held the bad feelings, faced them, not shut down to them. I'd felt awful, awful, breathed into awful, still awful, more awful... and come out the other side, found some better energy, renewed resilience.
In all the years that I didn't do this, just shut down - I'm not here, not feeling this - there was no end, no other side to come out of fear, despair or anger. For this tiny bit of ability to feel the worst and not flinch, for the incredible perception that my mind has learned to occasionally do what it couldn't do before, I'm so enormously grateful.