Acceptance, Non-Attachment & Surrender: How Buddhist Principles Decrease Stress

woman relaxing with tea and a book

I recently watched an episode of “Portlandia” in which Fred and Carrie, discussing all of the political/environmental/social justice issues one can be concerned about, decide to just “give up”. While the video is obviously a spoof and meant to be tongue-in-cheek, as a Buddhist psychotherapist, I couldn’t agree more with their plea to unburden their minds and let it all go!

Since Trump became President, I have had numerous clients come to see me for psychological distress (anxiety, rage, etc.) caused by our current political reality. And while I would never tell any of them to just “give up” caring about the topics and issues that interest them, I do offer advice that is rooted in Buddhist principles of acceptance, non-attachment and surrender.

Clients often seem confused about these principles, particularly in regard to conflating acceptance, non-attachment and surrender with a sort of defeatist attitude, or a passive condoning. Clients struggle to reconcile these Buddhist notions with ambition or any type of goal-oriented action.

So what do these ideas really mean? And how do they relate to mental health and well-being? Read on to find out!

  • Acceptance: Acceptance, in Buddhist terms, refers to our ability to stay present. When life presents us with something the ego finds painful and not pleasurable, the mind’s tendency is to resist, avoid, change or generally push against. If we don’t like feeling depressed (and who does?), rather than accepting that this is what’s here, we engage in various strategies to try and change our feelings. Ironically, resisting a thought or feeling only makes it worse. So in order to experience (and potentially change) anything, we are instructed to first “say yes”, lean in and simply let go of the effort and energy we invest in resisting reality.

  • Non-attachment: The Buddha said that attachment (and its opposite, aversion) is the root of all suffering. We attach to things, to people, even to ideas and desired outcomes, resting our happiness on external factors that we ultimately can’t control. As such, the practice of non-attachment – of letting go of our ego’s constant grasping and clinging – helps alleviate our suffering and increase peace of mind. Non-attachment doesn’t imply that we let go of our plans, pursuits or goals; rather, we practice changing the energy or tone of our pursuits, focusing on the journey rather than the destination.

  • Surrender: Closely related to acceptance is the notion of surrender. While this principle, like acceptance, encourages letting things be, surrender takes it one step further. When we surrender, we admit defeat – meaning we believe in something other than our egos. This could be faith, god, the universe, or simply life – no matter what we surrender to, the key is that we no longer take ourselves to be supreme and in control. While surrender is often one of the scarier concepts for clients, it ultimately feels like relief (or what I often refer to as grace).

So today, help yourself out and practice letting go – soon enough you’ll know exactly what the Buddha meant when he said “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”