Radical acceptance is a way to find peace of mind, when everything seems to be falling apart. Discover what our struggles with the corona virus have in common with trying to cross the border to Pakistan or coping in India without money. Enjoy the first episode of my new podcast!
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— Transcript of the podcast —
Hi, my name is Anne Westwards and I would like to introduce this new podcast to you. I spent a year and a half cycling along the ancient Silk Roads, all over Asia and the Middle East with my beloved bicycle Emily here. In these days, I’ve been asked repeatedly, if I would like to share my stories of solitude and coping with social isolation with you – so the strategies I used and what I learned during these long, long periods of time when I simply didn’t meet another human being. What I would like to talk about today is radical acceptance. What do I mean by that?
What is radical acceptance?
We all know these situations when things don’t go as planned because something unexpected happens that is way outside of our control: the kayaking trip, which needs to get cancelled, because a thunderstorm is coming up and you are not supposed to be on water during a thunderstorm. You don’t want to, either. Or a major sporting event that you planned for, trained for and worked really hard to participate in, which then gets cancelled. This just happened to a friend of mine, who was planning to attend a marathon, which got canceled due to the corona virus. For me personally: if you are watching this as a video, you can see that I just was diagnosed with a broken elbow, which came really untimely. Because this was at a time, when I realized that it didn’t have any supplies here in my apartment in Berlin and I couldn’t actually carry lots of things. It was a pain in the first place to carry anything in this situation.
The ongoing fight in your mind
So what is the normal reaction? It is that we want – in the situation – we want to suppress reality, repress reality. So literally you would like to close your eyes, stick your fingers in your ears and to say: ‘No, no, no, this can’t be happening! This can’t be true!’ And that’s a normal reaction. That’s fine. If you look at children, they then just throw a temper tantrum if things don’t go their way. They are trying to change things. And adults sometimes have the same pattern, where our inner child is just throwing a tantrum. Now, with those major things that are way out of our control – the weather, a virus, just pure bad luck in an accident – things are not going to change. The situation in your head is then: part of you knows: ‘So this is reality.’, Because you perceive it with your senses – you read about it, you hear about it, you feel that your elbow is broken. But there’s another part, which just tries to fight reality. It has this different conception of what should be versus what is. Now, this doesn’t only sound exhausting, it is exhausting. Fighting reality is exhausting. It’s exhausting for you, it’s also exhausting for others in your vicinity – your friends, your family.
Use your energy wisely
Radical acceptance is about finding your peace with what is. It doesn’t mean not doing anything about it. You can make other plans, for example. You can use the downtime that you have now due to the virus to maybe start learning this language that you always wanted to learn. Or use this extraordinary time to spend more time of your children, because schools are closed. There are a lot of different ways of how we can use this energy, which you’re basically just burning for nothing, if you’re just fighting reality in your head and channel this into something creative, productive. Or even just use it for having an inner peace of mind. That is also an option. News have never gotten older faster. At least in my personal experience, I don’t remember a time when news were as old as quickly these days. Yesterday’s news seem really old. The situation is changing rapidly and changing all the time. And it costs energy to adapt to that, even if you’re in radical acceptance. You just breathe in and say ‘Okay, well, this is how things are. What can I do about this? How can I change my plans? How can I make things work? How can I find a babysitter when I have to go away to work?’ You need energy for this. But it’s also just about adapting to the new situation every single day – this costs energy as well. And we’re in for this for a bit longer. So you don’t want to run out of steam after a week or so.
When the Chinese-Pakistani border was closed…
To share an example from my cycling trip: I guess nowadays, we learn that borders can and will be closed. Back in the day, a few years back when I cycled, this wasn’t the normal situation. So normally you would expect borders to be open. I was cycling along the Karakoram Highway, coming from the Chinese side and I was planning to go to the Pakistani side by bike. And then I learned that the border between China and Pakistan was going to be closed for two weeks. This messed up my entire schedule because I had visa running. Essentially, I wouldn’t even have been able to enter Pakistan two weeks later, because then I wouldn’t have been able to spend more than a few days there before my visa I was already running out. I would have loved to cycle all the way to Pakistan, but given the situation… Believe me my inner self did throw a temper tantrum for about I think it was 10 minutes or so and then afterwards I was like ‘Okay, alright, this is how it is.’ Believe me you don’t… – it’s not a corona virus, but if you’re at the border and there are people with guns… there’s no arguing with people with guns – or with the authorities, in that case. So I accepted the situation and accepted that I wouldn’t be able to cycle all the way. I organized and asked around the merchants. I found a truck that was going this way and just threw my bicycle at the back of the truck and hitchhiked to the border.
… there were different ways of dealing with it
Another way of dealing with this would be – and I realized this a few days later in Pakistan, where I met an American cyclist who was going the other way, who was coming from Pakistan wanted to cycle to China along the Karakoram highway. Which, by the way, is stunningly beautiful. If you ever get to go, it’s one of my favorite places on earth. I met this cyclist and I warned him: ‘Ah, well, sorry, I have really bad news for you: The border is closed already. It’s closed for two weeks.’ And he just straight went into the temper tantrum phase of things. He was fighting reality, saying: ‘No, this can’t be! This is messing up all of my plans! My flight is leaving from China… blah blah blah’. You know how it goes, we all know it, because we we’ve listened to it in our heads before. And then he turned on me. He took his rage and directed it towards me saying: ‘You’re a liar! You’re just trying to sabotage my trip!’ And I was like: ‘No no no, please don’t kill the messenger. I’m just trying to warn you, so you can still adapt.’ We met a day or two worth of riding from the border, so he could still have turned around and actually used this time: to maybe go mountaineering, there are just fantastic hiking opportunities in the Karakoram. Or yeah, maybe just do something completely different.
He was venting his rage and frustration at me and this is also what you see happening these days. People who are just plain flat refusing the situation as it is, saying: ‘Oh, people are just panicking, this can’t be true, These are all lies, it was all invented!’ Whatever you hear people say, this is their fighting of reality. This is hard and they’re wasting energy. Maybe they’re also wasting your energy. So try to distance yourself from them. That’s not only the meter and a half or two meters that you’re supposed to keep. But take some mental distance. This is also something that you can accept: ‘Well, some people will take a bit longer for accepting what is.’ Yet, they’re still wasting a lot of energy on the way to acceptance – their energy and your energy as well. Personally, I never found out what became of this American cyclist that I met. He did carry on very stubbornly. In fact, he said: ‘No I don’t believe you – you’re lying. I’m going to the border.’ I said: ‘Okay, well, your choice. Good luck!’ Obviously, I was very certain the border guards wouldn’t open this border for him, just because he wanted to cross. So his acceptance probably came one day or two later when he actually reached the border. But obviously, he could have spent this time in much, much nicer ways instead of being full of rage and frustration and just wasting energy, trying to change things that he couldn’t change.
India: How people reacted when their money became worthless
Another example from my cycling expedition that I would like to share with you is the money devaluation in India that happened in November 2016. I had just reached Delhi – I had just come down from the Himalayas, in fact – when all of a sudden, I read in the news that any bill wasn’t worth anything anymore overnight. The decision was literally announced overnight the day Trump was elected – I guess, in order to keep this a little bit from the international media. And in this situation I was the one who just couldn’t believe it. I remember talking about this. This was Delhi, so I had phone reception and internet connectivity. So I was venting my rage at a lot of people saying: ‘This can’t be! What do I do? This is just messing up my entire plan!’ It took a couple of days before you even knew what you could do in this situation. But in these days, I looked around and I saw how the Indian population was taking it. And it was amazing to see just how calm people were. In a way, I wanted to shake them also, saying like: ‘Listen, you can stand up! This is not a virus, it’s not a pandemia. It’s your government acting. You could protest.’
They didn’t. When finally, the banks opened again, when you could exchange the old devalued money against new bills which you could actually use for transacting, buying things – this was a time when literally you couldn’t buy anything, because there was no money worth anything. Even US Dollars weren’t accepted anywhere, not even the black market. So then finally the banks opened again and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw people queuing for hours and hours and hours in the burning sun. And they started queuing before the sun rose, something around 4:00, no, 5:00 in the morning and they queued for 10 to 12 hours – just to be able to exchange the equivalent of about 20 US dollars. That was all you were allowed to exchange per day. And even though, as I said, part of me still tried to change things (it was really hard to resist the urge to shake people, saying: ‘you can do something about this!’). I still very deeply admired just this calm radical acceptance, that I saw in these people, for the situation. You see this often in developing countries, where people accept that this is how it is: ‘I have queue now. I don’t know how long it’s going to take. Maybe I’m going to queue for the entire day. And at the end of the day, the bank might be closing again and I wasn’t able to exchange any money. But what’s the alternative to accepting what is? It would just be wasting your energy fighting it.
How radical acceptance can help you now
At least, in the case of the corona virus, it certainly is wasting your energy trying to delude yourself that this was not happening. This is happening. Once you accept this, you can actually channel this energy in many different ways. Be it that you start a new creative endeavor, that you use this downtime in whichever way shape or form you want, realize that you want to, I don’t know, learn new things, a new instrument maybe. Whatever you do, it’s completely up to you. Just don’t waste energy fighting reality. Radical acceptance is really something that I carry deep in my heart now and which I realize is also helping me right now to accept the situation. That being said, I hope I could share something which is valuable for you.
If you would like I would love to hear in the comments how you are coping with the situation. If radical acceptance is something that you already practice or if you’re still fighting the situation, which is fine as well – it just takes some people longer than others to get to the stage of accepting. But it’s a good state to be in. Stay healthy and I’ll see you again soon. Bye!