My mother, who is currently a Buddhist nun in a monastery, talked with me the other day (yes, nun can still talk via FB messenger)
The master of the monastery was selecting people to join him on a Trip to bless different mountainous regions in Vietnam. My mom wasn’t chosen, which was surprising. She thought that she dedicated a lot in helping out with various work at the temple, so this trip would have been a nice recognition. There was also an a tinge of unfairness where a newer nun got selected rather than her. Most importantly, she really wanted to go on the trip to visit these mountains.
With all that, you’d imagine how disappointed, sad and even upset she might have been. Me too.
Yet, she told me she was fine.
Someone said to her “The master didn’t choose you perhaps for a special reason that you might not have known.” That seems to soothe her a lot.
“I don’t need to go. It’s much nicer to stay in the monastery, cheaper and also less exhausting!” She continued.
The problem with “Fine”
My hunch is that there might be some hidden pain or fear behind her “anything is fine” mentality.
As such, I wanted to probe her further this time, not as a skeptic who is jealous of how accepting my mom is but as someone who cares about the growth of another person who happens to be very close to me.
Sensing resignation in her voice, I asked: “Mom, how did you feel not being able to go?”
“I’m fine. It’s nicer to stay anyway. I’d be too tired going on the trip”, she responded.
Mind you, my mom is not a gungho FOMO-driven young adult like me who needs to have all sorts of experiences in the world.
That still seemed avoiding to me, so I insisted: “Mom, if it’s truly fine, you wouldn’t have told me about this at all. It’s ok not to feel ok.”
Silence. Maybe I hit a nerve.
“I’m not talking about the questions of fairness or who gets chosen and why, which I imagine can cause some bitterness and sadness.” I continued, preambling myself for the coming big message.
“You can believe in what people speculates — that your current karma asks you to stay — if that makes you feel better. I’m telling you though that you must honor your wishes too. I don’t think you have been doing that for most your life, and now is the time. You do want to go visit those places, and you can.”
Longer silence. It’s shocking how assertive and even arrogant I am sometimes to presume how someone must be feeling.
“Yes, I’m sad.” My mom finally said. “You are right. I’m sad. I wanted to go, and I was disappointed to hear that I wasn’t chosen. It felt very unfair.”
She continued to tell me about several other incidents that led to her pent-up emotions. In a way, I just opened the Pandora’s Box that has been holding all of those unprocessed feelings behind the seemingly calm acceptance. It was messy, but at least it felt real. Something seemed to be unstuck in her.
What is happening?
Sometimes, our deeper need is ignored because it just seems too hard. I saw this in my mom, someones who values harmony and getting along.
Too often, it means “everything is fine”, and it comes at the suppression of other need. It’s certainly nice for her to travel and see new places. Yet I see behind that a need for deeper change, perhaps an experiment to adopt a different attitude. What if everything is fine AND there is a lot more that she could strive towards?
As such, I took the risk to impose my agenda. What I told her has introduced the tension between the okay “here” and the potential, desired “there”. I’ve done the blasphemous act of disturbing her apparent peace of mind.
It started with me pointing to the not-so-positive emotion, which made her quite uncomfortable at first. Yet, we’ve got to own it.
What is this that you are accepting?
“Accepting what is”, a common teaching in Buddhist circles, is often taken out of context and interpreted as “everything is fine” and then “no need to do anything”.
This can create some confusion. What is “improvement” then, and how is it even possible? What if my life is quite boring and I need to spice it up? What if my mom is really keen on going the trip but cannot go?
The common confusion happens when this teaching is misapplied to “accept the situation” rather than “accepting our responses to it”.
On the outside, my mom may seem like she has accepted the situation, but I don’t think she has got to know clearly and accept how she feels about it. It doesn’t mean that she has to express everything all over the place with tissue paper to tears and bags to punch though.
In fact, there is another way than the common dichotomy between “repress” and “express” as most Western psychology highlights. Instead of these two, you can choose to process them, first by “accepting what is”.
“What if it’s okay that I’m so mad right now?” “What if it’s okay that I’m just too fed up and just want to burn everything down?”
Then, you can become clear about where these feelings are in the body, what texture they have and only optionally then, what they may mean.
Alas, most of us tend to do the reverse, quickly interpreting in our head with stories like “The world is so damn unfair”, “You always drive me crazy!!!” or my personal devil “This whole thing is so pointless and I’m an absolutely useless loser”.
A personal note
Writing this post was surprisingly difficult for two reasons.
First is how patronizing it sounds. The experience could seem like a non-consensual application of coaching skill, which my friend J Li has insightfully written about in this post, Coaching and Consent.
You can see this as how much I’ve been Westernized by the propensity for “expressing your emotions” or “honoring your desires” In contrast, think of the connotation of acceptance and sacrifice that these identities “Asian”, “woman” and “mother” convey. If I ask my mom directly “What do you want?”, the answer is likely a confused look. As such, I took the risk to impose myself a bit.
Second, writing this is also like holding up a mirror for myself.
I’ve also seen this tendency to use the excuse of “It’s fine” to withhold myself and my needs for intimacy, learning and exploration. What stops them from being met are my fears of disappointment and rejection, of appearing needy and mostly of wasted effort. “Why bother trying if I believe it’s not likely going to work?”
Such “no expectation, everything is fine” attitude inherited from my mom has blessed me with a simple life, less fighting and thus relatively lesser stress. Nevertheless, it seems antithetical to the growth attitude among my youthful circles of friends, which often presumes that things could be a lot better, that each of us can achieve more.
These two attitudes are like two intertwining strands of DNAs of the human psyche. Together, they form a central tension that can only be danced with rather than eliminated.
So the next time you find yourself struggling to accept an Unwanted Situation, breathe and remind yourself of this quintessential human dilemma. It’s okay to feel so let down, torn and confused by the unwanted situation. It’s okay to be not okay at all.
With that permission, turn your attention to what is here in you, be it disappointment, anger or pain. When life gives you lemon, feel its sourness. Stay with it, pray for its acceptance rather than for a better situation, and and you will know what you need to do.
p/s: My mom ended up going on her own trip to the mountain — not with the entourage — and had a great time. Yay!
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When life gives you lemon, feel its sourness was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.