Drawing the circle ever bigger: Accepting the unacceptable

Well, I was hoping not to have to write yet about shenpa arising when we get triggered by a political or social issue or a tragic event because I really don’t know for sure how Buddhism treats our reactions to things of this magnitude. Today’s mass murders in a Colorado movie theater ending with at least 12 dead cry out for attention, though, because “guns and violence” is a serious and highly provocative issue in our country.

I suppose this kind of shenpa hook is like anything else: instead of getting swept away by the storyline, we need to become aware of how we are reacting so that we can insert a breath, a pause, into our usual dynamic. Even doing something that small can create helpful space in our minds and conversations with others.

When a gunman mows down folks in a public place, for example, it provokes my habitual knee-jerk reaction around gun control/availability. For the sake of the present discussion, I will say that I support strong gun-control measures and think that something is very wrong in our culture where we continue to tolerate “the routine massacre of our children [as] the price we must pay for our freedom to have guns,” as Adam Gopnick wrote in his New Yorker article today. Personal opinions on guns aside, though, we all know this feeling of being hugely hooked by an event or issue about which we have strong emotions and beliefs.

One thing Zen teacher Cheri Huber suggests is imagining drawing a circle around yourself. Now, it’s easy to draw a circle big enough to include the people and things you like and agree with. But what about someone we dislike? Or a deeply troubling event? Or someone with a diametrically opposed view on, say, ease of gun availability or some other hot-button social issue? Can we draw the circle big enough to include them as well? Our egos will strongly resist doing so. No, I can’t possibly include Uncle Norman who carries a concealed weapon everywhere he goes in case he gets mugged. No, it’s not right that the Boy Scouts don’t permit boys identifying as gay to become or stay members. No, that political candidate has Neanderthal views on women’s access to contraception. There is no end to the things, people, and groups we fear, don’t like, or even hate. However, it takes an enormous amount of physical and emotional energy to resist and hate anything.

“Love anything. Hate anything. The effect you have on the thing you hate might be negligible, the effect on you, monumental,” Huber says. “When we learn to accept everything that comes into our lives, we are free from the pain and suffering of resistance.”

Can I draw a circle of acceptance around the NRA and Uncle Norman? Oh, god, please don’t make me do that. I can’t, I just can’t. But I expend an enormous amount of energy in resisting and hating the reality of the NRA and Uncle Norman’s guns. “Resistance does not work,” says Huber. “We have two choices: #1. We can accept what is. #2. We can resist what is. Results of our choice: #1. None. #2. None, except suffering.”

“If you find something unacceptable, draw a bigger circle of acceptance. Just keep drawing a bigger circle until nothing is excluded,” she says. Well, notice that she didn’t say it would be easy. Sometimes it takes a long time to include something “unacceptable” in our circle. Months. Years, maybe. What we want to do is to watch how things move into or remain outside of our circle of acceptance over time.

I hasten to say that acceptance of the unacceptable does not mean that we become passive, resigned, uncaring, wishy-washy people. Far from it. When we release the resistance to what is — I mean, the NRA exists and operates, whether I like it or not! — we free up the energy it takes to hate or push against, to do something (or not) about the issue. We stop fighting our resistance so that we are more free to work on behalf of peace, LGBTQ rights, and women’s health care with much less draining, emotional reactivity. And if we do not choose to put energy into doing something about an issue, then our acceptance of, rather than resistance to, the current reality of the situation brings us greater peace.

That said, the grief we feel around the loss of life in this gun-related massacre should not be repressed or skipped over. We need to experience and honor the grief in our hearts while withdrawing our attention from the tired old story of how much we hate guns and violence in the US. Unfortunately, we know the story so very well. Maybe this time, though, we could do a new thing: drop the resistance to reality and see how much energy and peace are released for deeper thinking, calmer conversation, and more effective work. May it be so.

PS – I will be pondering and reading about how to deal with shenpa in reaction to social and political issues and writing about it in the future. Drawing a bigger circle is only one thing we can do. There is more.

(Quotes by Cheri Huber are taken from her 1984/1998 book “The Key and the Name of the Key is Willingness.” It is not her best book by a long shot, but I appreciate her take on acceptance, resistance, and change.)

Photo credit: http://www.wma.com/jim_denevan/summary/

3 thoughts on “Drawing the circle ever bigger: Accepting the unacceptable

  1. This is a very honest and thoughtful response to what happened. The idea of drawing a bigger circle is very much like “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, I always thought of Jesus as a buddha and not a god. My limited understanding of Buddhism is that attachment is what causes human suffering, and detachment is the way to enlightenment. The idea of drawing a circle big enough to include everything is a way of detaching the hook, just letting it all go… at least it seems that way. We can suffer torment about what happened, or we can accept it as part of life.

  2. I’m doing some very early studies in Buddhism and am feeling as if I’ve personally discovered the answers to all that ails the world. You take on Shenpa is a lovely way to visualize what I’ve been learning from listening to Pema Chodron’s instruction on the subject. I’m sad to see that you last post was in 2012, but will hold on to this site to reread and refresh what I’m learning. Thank you.

    • I apologize for the ‘you’s that should have been ‘your’s…the keys on my keyboard stick badly…but I’m trying not to let it hook me!

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