A key tenet of zen philosophy is acceptance, which includes acceptance of life as it is at the moment as well as acceptance of the inevitability of change. In the general western paradigm, this view contradicts both our wish for situations to meet our expectations and our wish for a happily-ever-after.
We collect a massive set of justifications for our expectations based on what friends and society in general believe is “fair.” These ideas might be loosely based on western authors,’ songwriters,’ and screenwriters’ conceptions of relationships and are culture-based. The zen perspective is that paradoxically, though these expectations give us a temporary comfort, these also limit us in that they prevent us from noticing and valuing what could be enjoyable in the moment if we allowed it to be what it is rather than trying to rearrange it to conform to these expectations. Knowing that there can be no perfect compliance with our expectations, ultimately the only way to accept and enjoy life is to let go of expectations and requirements. If we find a person almost, but not quite, acceptable as he or she is currently, it’s probably better to move on than try to coerce another to change. As much as we might think our motivations are lofty, there is no real justification to try to change another person who doesn’t want to change and doesn’t want our assistance. This acceptance is what the master teacher Jesus pointed to as requiring forgiveness and unconditional love. It isn’t only for the benefit of the other; it is equally for our own peace of mind. A focus on what doesn’t meet our expectations prevents humor about our own and others’ human nature and what we might otherwise see as delightful quirks.
Whether we are idealizing, frustrated with, or accepting of the present state of a relationship, we still might find ourselves preoccupied with the future prospects of it. The zen perspective is that as this focus on the future becomes habitual, we miss the beauty of the present. We become unable to enjoy life as it is at the moment, to enjoy others as they are at the moment. On a related note, from a psychological perspective, it seems we are capable of genuine acceptance of another only to the degree that we are able to genuinely accept ourselves as we are. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of accepting the inevitability of change is to accept the ending of a relationship, and to emotionally as well as logically “see the glass as already broken.” As painful as it is to do this letting go of comforting illusions, it has considerable benefits. First it is sobering. It prevents us from some of the teen-like giddiness of a relationship, allowing for a more mature approach that does not involve seeking reassurance from the other. Second, it is joyous. Paradoxically, it helps us approach the other from a fresh perspective each time we meet. Instead of taking for granted that the relationship will and should remain the way we might wish, we approach another with openness that allows us clearer perception of subtle changes as well as gratitude when finding a connection still intact.