by Joel Orenstein
Over the last couple of weeks, I, along with approximately 200 other legal practitioners, sat exams as part of the Law Institute of Victoria accredited specialization program. Having not sat an exam in more than ten years, along with the added pressures of running a business and 2 young children to negotiate, the stress was extreme. Not to say that I was in a different position to any of the other candidates – far from it. In some ways being self-employed meant that at least I had some control over my work hours and could manage enough time to dedicate towards study (others were not so lucky).
Yet here I was, a so-called expert on mindfulness and stress management, going completely crazy with stress. I was a nervous wreck, unable to sleep, disconnected from others and in bare survival mode for the period leading up to and during the exams.
What was going wrong? I kept wondering why I wasn’t feeling more relaxed considering all the strategies that I had in place to ensure a balanced equilibrium that would see me cruising through. Surely I should be an example of calm and peace. After all, wasn’t I the meditating lawyer, the one that no matter what life threw at me, nothing phased?
Now, having come through the other side, I look back curiously at how crazy I was. I wanted my experience of exams to be different – for them to be stress-free. After all, what was the big deal? I had time to study. Having 10 years of practice under my belt I knew a few things about the law. I have done exams before. Why was I so stressed?
What I failed to grasp at the time is that as much as I desired the experience to be stress-free, it just wasn’t. Exams are stressful, and no amount of wanting it to be different was going to change that. In fact, my wanting it to be different and my resistance to the reality of the experience simply amplified my anxiety and deepened my suffering.
Accepting things as they are, particularly if they are something we would rather not experience, like the stress of exams, is oftentimes the greatest challenge. We want things to be a certain way, and when they are not, we suffer. And this is a great paradox – that in order to relieve ourselves from suffering, we need to accept the suffering that comes our way.
As my experience of my exams shows, this is easier said than done. Resisting pain and suffering is something that we have been practicing for a long time. It is at the core of our survival instinct as human beings. We have a natural aversion to uncomfortable experiences. We don’t like feeling stressed or anxious, so we do all we can to avoid it.
This would be a perfectly sensible approach – only that we all know that the unpredictability of life means that it simply doesn’t work. No matter how much we wish to avoid it, we will all experience suffering.
Although it is true that suffering is unavoidable, what we can change is our approach towards it. Instead of rallying against it, we can understand suffering to be as much a part of us as is joy and peace, and in this way practice real acceptance.
Acceptance does not mean going to war with the part of us that is resisting suffering, which was the trap that I fell into during my exams. Knowing that the problem was my reaction to the stress, I quickly judged myself for having such feelings, and set about trying to change them. This made my suffering exponentially worse as I became caught up wanting things to be a certain way as opposed to accepting the reality of how they were.
True acceptance therefore is an exercise in heart-felt surrender to the reality of what is. It is self-compassion in its most essential expression that does not require doing or changing anything. The irony is however, that it is truly transformative.