Do you notice, as I do, that rarely are we the same person in the same condition in today’s practice that we were the day before? Every day presents the likely possibility that something is different in our bodies, in our minds, in our personal conditions, which make us ready to perform a little better or a little worse than we did yesterday. It could be something we notice after a day, or after a week or longer, but change is always happening, somewhere in the system, in big or little ways.

While much of our activity in training is driven by a desire to reach some new experience, capability or achievement, in order to take the necessary steps in that direction we need to know exactly where we are today and orient our actions from that current reality.

In survival situations, like when a person has become terribly lost in the deep wilderness, one of the (sometimes fatal) mistakes novices make is to look at the map and refuse to accept that they are not where they think they are. There is no question about where they want to be, the problem is that they cannot accept where they are (or are not) at this moment in time. And without accepting the fact that their expectation is not matching reality, and replacing their outdated view of the situation, they are going to remain lost, and possibly worse. When one becomes lost, he needs to let go of what he wants the situation to be, then review it with a fresh mind and accept the facts that presents themselves, begin re-orienting from there and start moving again in the desired direction. (For some great insight on this topic check out Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzalez).

Photo by Milk-Tea on Unsplash

As a mindful athlete, acceptance isn’t about giving up motivation or movement toward a goal. It’s about assessing our personal situation in a factual, and still non-judgmental way, so that we can make better decisions about taking care of ourselves and staying on the better path toward that goal. 

“Acceptance as we are speaking of it simply means that you have come around to a willingness to see things as they are. This attitude sets the stage for acting appropriately in your life, no matter what is happening”  (Kabat-Zinn, 2009, p.39).

We might notice we are feeling or performing better – going a little faster, the work feels a little easier, the sense of control is more precise or consistent. We might notice we are feeling or performing a little worse. We might be experiencing the effects of yesterday’s stress, or poor sleep, the earliest sign of illness, or experiencing some accumulated fatigue. We simply note the factual feeling or performance, whether positive or negative. We may speculate as to the cause. But we don’t judge ourselves good or bad, we don’t judge this as a pattern of our awesomeness or unworthiness. We take an objective yet self-compassionate view of the athlete that is here today and work with what is given to us today to work with – not what we were yesterday, and not what we had scheduled ourselves to be today.  

Indeed, there are times (in life as often as in athletics) when we simply have to perform as well or better than we did the day before despite the fact that we have less to work with this day. This is the most important time to take careful, factual stock of what is different, what is lacking, so that we can compensate in a productive rather than destructive way. Denial of the facts might be expedient, but it is ultimately costly. Kabat-Zinn counsels us further, “…in the course of our daily lives we often waste a lot of energy denying and resisting what is already fact. When we do that, we are basically trying to force situations to be the way we would like them to be, which only makes for more tension… By intentionally cultivating acceptance, you are creating the preconditions for [change]” (2009, p.38). 

Acceptance does not mean contentment with how things are. We can still be highly motivated to move, to change, to grow beyond what we are today. But to act appropriately, we need to make our moves from the factual position we are at today, not from where we were at some other time. Going back to that picture of the person lost in the woods, acceptance is like releasing the needle on the compass so that it is free to point toward north again, no matter where the hiker is located at that moment in time. It’s allowing the full array of facts to inform a more appropriate plan of action. 

We’re going to face changes, particularly negative changes, that set us back on some of the goals we have held. Though we can delay and lessen the rate, aging is still going to force upon us a loss in some of our capabilities. We must have in place a way to manage our mental experience of this, to maintain a positive approach, to value what we still have, to keep mastering what we can control, while we let go of what we cannot keep. Acceptance is not the surrender to but a transcendence of this reality. 

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Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. (Rev. and updated edition). New York: Bantam Books.

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View the whole series on the Attitudes of Mindfulness for Swimming:

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