Abandoning the Struggle

September 3, 2023

I’m not religious. I’m a man of science and reason and I’m happy to be that way. But religious figures past and present have shared a lot of wisdom, which I try to absorb and apply.

For example, the Buddha taught that the cause of our suffering is attachment.

Consider your most recent small irritation or frustration. What were you annoyed at? Mine is that a fast train home got canceled. It took me a few minutes to accept this. I was hoping to get home sooner, but now—as I’m writing this—I’m on the slow train. If I could have more quickly let go of my desire to always take a fast train, I wouldn’t have been as bothered. I’d have felt more at peace. Instead, I suffered needlessly. It’s the most minor instance of “suffering”, of course, but it’s illustrative.

Think about your own most recent annoyance. What was it? Examine it for a minute. If you look closely, you’ll find that it bothered you because you wanted something to be different than it is. You didn’t accept reality—at least not instantly. You were attached to the world being a certain way.

Next consider your most recent big frustration. Not necessarily something that happened today, but something that happened recently. Something that really, really bugged you. Perhaps even something you got you angry. What comes to mind?

For me, it’s that I met a remarkable person, but wasn’t able to spend as much time with her as I would have liked. She was just visiting Amsterdam, where I live. She normally lives 5,000 kilometers away. And, for personal reasons, I won’t be able to travel very far for a while. I badly wanted to spend more time with her, but that’s not practical right now. And I had a hell of a time accepting that.

When I looked closely at why I was frustrated, I realized it’s because I was holding onto something: I met a great person, I really enjoyed spending time with her, and I wanted more. When more didn’t come, I suffered. In fact, I didn’t just suffer after spending time together; I already suffered while spending time with her, worrying about how our time together would run out soon!

See how foolish this is?

Accepting reality near-instantaneously is not easy. In fact, it’s really damn hard. We take all sorts of things for granted, from the weather to our financial situation to our loved ones being around tomorrow, next week, or next year. On an intellectual level we know that what we have now won’t stick around forever. But intellectual knowledge isn’t sufficient. If, on an emotional level, we are still attached to things staying the same or to events happening just so, we’re doomed to suffer.

Turn to that recent big frustration of yours. Investigate what you’re holding on to. See how you’ve been suffering because you wanted things to be a certain way—or not be a certain way? Seeing it is the beginning of feeling at peace.

Now, don’t mistake accepting reality for fatalism, indifference, or apathy. You can accept reality while striving to get better, while pursuing your goals, and while working to improve your and others’ circumstances. Does the verb “accept” bother you because it sounds like you’re resigning yourself to an unhappy state of affairs? Then replace it with “acknowledge”: you acknowledge reality as it is right now, with the understanding that you’re striving to improve your circumstances.

It’s a knife’s-edge balance, to be sure. I find myself out of balance more often than not, pointlessly struggling against reality until I realize what I’m doing. Until I let go. Detach. When I finally stop wanting things to be different, peace of mind settles in. I feel grateful for what I do have and I become more present in the moment.

If all this sounds hopelessly abstract, let me give you some practical examples of how accepting reality can make your life easier:

If you’ve tried out a certain productivity technique that the gurus advocate—say, time blocking—and it hasn’t worked for you, stop trying. Stop wishing you had “more discipline”. Accept yourself the way you are, right now, and find a different technique that does work for you. The same goes for apps. If an app isn’t doing it for you, move on.

If you run a business and a certain type of marketing just isn’t getting you results—even though your competitors are seemingly making it work—let it go. Don’t keep trying in vain. Accept that the fit isn’t there, then experiment with a different marketing format or channel. Try other methods until you find one that works, all the while keeping an open mind and staying ready to discard what isn’t effective. Business doesn’t have to be a struggle, if only you can detach from wanting results to appear in a particular way.

And if you want to connect with someone—as friends, as business acquaintances, as lovers—but they’re not keen to connect with you, stop pushing. Strop struggling. Let go and the pain will go. As a bonus, your lack of trying might make them more interested. But don’t let that be your primary motivation. Stop pushing, for your own sake. For your peace of mind.

We all want things to be different. That’s why I’m a big fan of setting clear goals and acting on them. But it’s a heck of a lot easier to make progress when we come from a place of acceptance, of gratitude, and peace.

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