Acceptance, then, is only another word for our alignment with reality, which, in turn, is simply another word for God.
There are two inter-related obstacles to our practice of full acceptance: (1) lack of vigilance or present moment attentiveness, and (2) confusing reality with our judgments about it. The first is the result of being caught up in our mental and emotional reactions, i.e., judgments, which becomes a veritable prison separating us from what’s really going on. This state of being lost, distracted, or spiritually “absent” then reinforces the tendency to take our own opinions and evaluations too seriously . . . sometimes even mistaking them for absolute truths. Often, our judgments about reality acquire more “reality” for us than even reality as such.
The solution to both obstacles is to culvate vigilance, i.e., a sharpening and deepening of present moment attentiveness, directed both inwards and outwards. Such alert attentiveness is the only practical antidote to what the Qur’an calls forgetfulness (or nisiyan) and heedlessness (or ghafla).
Most people experience an extremely short interval between their perception of a given configuration of reality and their own interpretation or judgment. If they fail to notice any gap whatsoever, they are completely unable to distinguish what is from what they think it is. They will then confuse facts and opinions as if they were one and the same. The purpose of exercising vigilance or present moment attentiveness is precisely to notice this gap or interval–the space between perception and judgment–and to experience the freedom that comes with such a realization.
Imagine if you could slow down the passage of time, as if watching a video of yourself in slow motion. This will help you notice what is too fast to be observed when it happens at normal speed. If you could slow down your life like this, you are going to notice that an event does not coincide with your judgment about it; the two are distinctly separated in time. Nor does the judgment emerge from the event itself. What this means is that the “good” or “bad” that you attribute to an event is never intrinsic to that event but is always superimposed on to it by your mind, based on its own past conditioning, its present needs, and its anticipations for the future.
Since we cannot slow down time to notice the gap between perception and judgment, we must exercise great vigilance, or alert attentiveness, in relation to what is happening now both inwardly and outwardly. This has the same effect of slowing down time, for vigilance allows us to notice what is otherwise too fast or too subtle to be noticed. The greater the alertness, the larger will be the gap that we will notice. Soon, we are going to realize that there is no need for us to give the same judgment whenever a particular kind of event arises; there is nothing forcing us to always describe an illness as “bad,” for example. Instead, we are free to give any event whatever interpretation we may choose in any given moment, or to give it no label or judgment at all but to simply accept it in its pristine state.
The real achievement is not in the kind of judgments we make about any given shape of reality; the real achievement is to realize that events do not come to us prepackaged with significance, either positive or negative, that we simply read out passively. Instead, our minds play a crucial role in making the judgments that we project on to what we experience; this role is so important that it wouldn’t be wrong to say that it is we who make these judgments.
This does not mean that all judgments are equal, or that judgments are always empty of factual content.
Judgments are mental projections, but they are still very much part of reality. For this reason, it is important to note that there is nothing “wrong” with judgments as such. They are merely statements of significance or value that express our sense of how we are related to particular facets of reality in a particular moment. As such, judgments become problematic only when we take them to be as real as the reality they are supposed to describe. This usually happens when we forget our own role in making those judgments in the first place, and when we begin to believe, instead, that they are independently or objectively true. Thus, a judgment turns into a problem, a source of unnecessary pain, only when it is made and/or maintained in a state of spiritual unconsciousness.
To avoid mixing a given perception of reality with our judgment thereof, it may be instructive to remember that a judgment typically has the following characteristics: (1) it is relatively true, (2) it is based on a particular, and therefore limited, perspective, and (3) it contains an element of factuality, while also being distinct from fact.
If someone says “the temperature in the room is 66 degrees,” this may be a statement of fact; but when someone says “the room is too cold,” then this clearly is a judgment. The latter statement may be true, but only in relation to the speaker; a polar bear, for example, would find the same statement false. Similarly, the same person on a different day or at another occasion may declare the same temperature to be just right, or even as hot. The factuality of a judgment is not always obvious, but it may be brought out by making certain appropriate qualifications, such as by saying “at this moment I find the room to be colder than what I would like in order to enjoy optimal well being.” We do not speak like this, obviously, but it is important to know what we are really expressing whenever we make a judgment, regardless of the words we use. A crucial part of self-knowledge is knowing clearly and distinctly whether we are making a statement of fact or a statement of judgment.
All this points toward a simple reality: Judgments are relative to persons and their circumstances. As such, they are neither absolute, objective truths nor inherent in the events or facts that they purport to describe. Not knowing this distinction is often what makes us hold on to our own interpretations too rigidly, making us much less tolerant of alternative interpretations and therefore of people who don’t agree with us. Not knowing this distinction also makes us captives of our own beliefs and projections, limiting us in serious ways and exposing us to more suffering than is absolutely necessary for discovering ourselves.
Distinguishing reality from our judgments about reality is of immediate practical relevance too. We must accept whatever is real, but our attitude in relation to judgments can be much more flexible. Reality has to be embraced just as it is, but given judgments about reality we are free to accept, reject, or modify according to our needs . . . or, should we find them to be a hindrance, we may even create entirely new ones.
This realization is called freedom. It may also be called salvation.