The Serenity Prayer

Posted By William Dubin, Ph.D. on February 2, 2018 at 2:08pm | Excessive Appetites, General
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God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference

—  Reinhold Niebuhr

Probably the best single piece of advice on how to escape a recurrent pattern of self-sabotage is the Serenity Prayer: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Here is the wisdom:

  • You can change your behaviors and attitudes.
  • You do not have control over most everything else, including the past, what other people think and do, and the outcomes of your efforts.

This Stoic Wisdom that will help you know whether to accept the things that happen or to invest your energies to change them. The Serenity Prayer is a great tool to promote the passage from the mentality of childhood [characterized by strong emotional reactions to the things that happen] to more advanced cognitive strategies.

Remember: You are responsible to act in accord with your interests and principles. Allowing your emotions to depend on things you do not control drains you of power.

Acceptance & Being Mode

Bad and good things will happen. Most are outside of your control; you will not even be able to control your initial reaction to those events. So, realistically, what do you have other than to develop the skill to accept the things that happen — without squandering your dear resources trying to fix it or evaluate it.

The Buddhist path is to practice non-reactive acceptance to the things you do not control. This mode of relating to subjective phenomena — “awareness of present experience with acceptance” is called Being Mode. The alternative problem-solving orientation in which we react to discomforts and difficulties by trying to evaluate the problem and solve it is called Doing Mode .

Training the puppy to accept the things it cannot change

There is nothing sinful, defective, or wrong about wanting to understand and fix problems, or about craving pleasure or relief. Those motivations are intrinsic to our species. However, when a particular mode of reacting repeatedly produces bad outcomes, you would do well to try a different mode of reacting and then pay attention to how things play out. Through this kind of personal research you will learn about yourself and how cause-and-effect plays out in your subjective universe.

It is difficult to do this kind of research because dispassionate acceptance and observation is not the typical mode of reacting when painful or frustrating things happen. Discomfort automatically elicits the motivation to solve the problem or seek relief. In fact, we have reacted this way so often that Doing is the default mode. So getting yourself to respond to discomfort with non-reactive acceptance and observation requires some doing.

The Being Mode exercises described in Awakening will help you learn to accept the things you cannot change without judgment or compulsion to fix it. This is the essential first step to escaping automatic self-sabotaging sequences of external events and internal states.

The Courage to Bring About Change

The objective of this course is to strengthen your will, not to make you passive. Sparing the effort and emotionality of trying to change the things you cannot change enhances the courage and strength required to exercise your will. The Serenity Prayer can also help you avoid the self-sabotaging frustrations that result from trying to fix thing that you do not have the power to fix.

The creature you inhabit is facing an important and demanding challenge. Your job as the caretaker of this creature is to do everything you can to help it become as strong and resourceful as possible. Experienced puppy trainers know that puppies are predisposed to intense emotional reactions to the things that happen, even when they had no control over them. As a kind and competent caretaker, you will gently help it practice acceptance of the things it cannot change.

You will always have problems. This course is successful if it allows you to trade one set of problems for a more interesting set. The next section focuses on one of the most interesting of problems: Deciding what is important to you. To act in accord with your interests and principles, you have to know what they are. Most people don’t.

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Posted by William Dubin, Ph.D.

Bill received his doctoral degree in Psychology from the University of Iowa. He has dedicated his career to the study of mood and addictive disorders and how to escape them.

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