Tolerance and Acceptance: What is The Difference?

By Lisa Ernst

Tolerance – the willingness to endure, to put up with
Acceptance – the action of consenting to receive something offered

What is the difference between acceptance and tolerance? Sometimes the line is blurred. We may think we’re accepting an experience, a feeling, a pattern or cluster of persistent thoughts when we’re actually only tolerating them. Knowing the difference is essential in our practice if we want to reduce our suffering.

In his beautiful poem “The Guest House,” Rumi encourages us to welcome and entertain all of the visitors that come our way. The visitors are metaphors for what arises in our experience: joy, depression, meanness, even a crowd of sorrows. At times we will struggle to welcome them all with open arms and that’s ok. Sometimes we can only muster tolerance. When we know the difference, we can navigate our challenges more skillfully.

Staying with the guest analogy, imagine a relative is visiting over the holidays. Someone you tolerate yet you always feel relieved when they leave. Let’s say this year your relative is in the midst of a messy divorce and asks to extend their stay. Compelled by compassion, you agree. But accommodating this guest is challenging and after several weeks your tolerance is stretched thin. You do your best to extend patience and conceal your internal strain. But gradually this arrangement presses you down, it has weight. This “pressing down” is the entomology of depression. Tolerance of the unpleasant, when extended for long periods and not met with awareness, often leads to depression.

I suffered with untreated clinical depression for many years. Unconsciously, I developed tolerance for grief and loneliness while my truest, most intimate experience of depression went unexamined. I lived with it like a guest who overstays their welcome. I mistook this tolerant attitude for acceptance rather than recognizing my resistance. Like the guest overstaying their welcome, I said, “I will tolerate you for a while because I expect you to leave.” But when the guest didn’t leave the depression grew deeper along with hopelessness and uncertainly.

Gradually, though my dharma practice I came to know the depression experientially, how it showed up in my body and thoughts. I also learned how to hold it in loving, compassionate awareness. Though this intimacy, space opened that allowed me to find my way through depression’s dark tunnel.

Intimacy is quite difference from tolerance. When people say to me that they are “with” their suffering, often they are just tolerating it. Yes, they definitely feel it, but still kept it at arms length, held only in truce. When they practice tolerance only in order to feel better, the visitor won’t budge. Prolonged tolerance leads to inaction, resentment or abrupt anger. True acceptance, on the other hand, paves the way for skillful action. This is what many people overlook – they believe acceptance is resignation or passivity. But authentic acceptance opens our heart to what is true and this clarity reveals a wise path.

Engaging your visitors with awareness, knowing them intimately is the acceptance that brings peace. You may need time and patience but gradually the sense of self entangled in the depression begins to lighten up and even dissolve.

The Guest House by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

 

Concentration and The Jhanas Half Day Retreat 11/23/19

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Perception, Compassion and The Other

Sometimes during meditation I reflect on those I have put out of my heart. Not necessarily specific people at first: rather opening the doors where my heart feels closed. Whenever I do this I feel the underlying energy of what I’ve locked away. It isn’t pleasant but its totally ok. This practice shows me how “self and other” forms around subtle ideas of who I am and how I perceive others.

Buddha taught that there are three distortions of view – seeing what is impermanent as permanent, what is unsatisfying as satisfying and what is non-self as self.

Let’s look at the third one, seeing no self as self in terms of how we identify with and relate to others. Inadvertently we may use the idea of self to create views about others based on our own karma and conditioning. We make very complex decisions about other people in mere moments. Sometimes our perceptions are clear and intuitive, but often they are distorted simply because of our own conditioning. If we don’t bring awareness to this, we will then concretize those mistaken perceptions into reality. In many cases, the actual person is entirely different from the one in our head.

This hit home several years ago when I attended a celebration of life for a friend who died of cancer at an early age. As people enumerated the ways she touched their lives, I was shocked that the woman they described only vaguely resembled the one I knew, or thought I knew. This taught me a great lesson in letting go of fixed perceptions.

In the course of a day, week or month, how often do we create unexamined value judgments about others? This is far more pervasive than we might want to believe unless we examine it. Often we unconsciously favor those who help us uphold and solidify our sense of self over those who don’t. This can lead to loss of connection, it can also of course lead to prejudice and hatred.

Compassion practice can help us open our hearts to those we ignore or shut out; when practiced deeply, compassion shows us where our hearts are closed. When we are meditating we can examine our perceptions within a more spacious medium that includes our wise heart.

Take a moment to gently identify who you angry or frustrated with, who you have closed from your heart. Who do you ignore or attribute characteristics that you know in your heart may not be true? Sometimes the first step is simply to identify and acknowledge these beings. You don’t need to force people into your heart if you’re not ready. As you investigate, allow any sadness, anger or other emotions to be as they are. What thoughts are associated with these feelings? As you sit with it, does an action present itself, one you already identified but haven’t yet acted on, or an unexpected prompt to take your insight and compassion into the world? If not, that’s fine too.

More than once during challenging times I have discovered that the person who most needs including in my heart is me. First the “self” of my imagining, which allows me to see the ways I distort and cling to identity. Then I see the “imperfect self,” the one who will never live up to my ideals. Awareness dissolves this illusion of self into the open heart of kindness and wisdom.

This practice allows me to let go of self-identity and realize emptiness. As my false ideas of who I am fade away into silence, any rigid perceptions I hold about others also melt away. Interconnection is fully evident here. I’m left with a kinder, more open heart and a way forward that is far more inclusive than when I began.

For more on compassion practices for people we ignore or keep out of our hearts: Invisible People: Why They’re Important in Lovingkindss Practice.