Editor's note: The following was adapted from the edited volume, Mindfulness and Acceptance in Social Work, edited by Matthew S. Boone.
The word “acceptance” usually shows up in definitions of mindfulness. Despite its greater presence in everyday speech, acceptance, like mindfulness, can be quite tricky to describe or put into practice through words. If I say that I must accept myself as I am, does this actually change me in any meaningful way? If I tell a child to accept that life is not always fair, does she suddenly let go of sadness in the face of disappointment? Maybe. Mindfulness, however, is acceptance in practice. Rather than simply saying “You’ve got to accept,” mindfulness, model what acceptance looks like on the ground. Whether it is imagining holding a painful feeling delicately like a dried flower in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), dispassionately observing thoughts that usually lead to depressive relapse in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), or bravely exposing oneself to shame without escaping through self-injury in (DBT), clients in these treatments learn to practice acceptance rather than just talk about it. Psychological acceptance involves adopting a posture that is “intentionally open, receptive, flexible, and nonjudgmental” (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2012) to experience as it occurs from moment to moment. In conjunction with psychological acceptance, willingness is not a teeth-gritting, “no-pain, no-gain” choice, but rather something softer, more connected. Acceptance, like mindfulness, is not a thing. It is fluid, active, and embodied.
People practicing mindfulness for the first time will often complain that it does not “work” for them because they cannot maintain their focus. They notice that trying to corral their concentration is a bit like trying to get a group of cats to pose for a picture: their minds will just as likely end up chasing an imagined mouse or taking a nap as sitting still. When they are supposed to be observing their breath or something else, they find that they are instead making grocery lists, rehashing old arguments with significant others, or worrying about what their bosses think of them. They believe this is evidence that they are doing it wrong. But this is exactly what mindfulness practice is like. It is certainly not a constant stream of serenity.
So why practice mindfulness and acceptance, and, more importantly, why incorporate them into the practice of social work? One answer could be that by slowing down and simply noticing, if only for a moment, we begin to experience the world, both inside and outside of us, in a more viable way. Troublesome thoughts become just thoughts. Physical discomfort becomes just discomfort. Painful emotions still sting but come and go without overwhelming us. And from this place, new possibilities can emerge. Maybe we pause for a moment before saying the first thing that comes to our minds. Maybe we finally acknowledge the pain we run away from by working all the time. Maybe we begin to notice what actually matters to us rather than what we have been taught to care about. And especially for those who seek the help of social workers, maybe the depression, marital conflict, poverty, cancer, or drinking (or whatever else) begins to look like something we can move toward—not necessarily in order to overpower or combat it, but to embrace it in a way that diffuses its power over our lives. This is where the “possibilities for growth and transformation” that Kabat-Zinn (1994) describes lie: right here, right now, in the present.
Boone, M. S. (2014). Mindfulness and Acceptance in Social Work: Evidence-Based Interventions and Emerging Applications. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. G. (2012). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.